There are three French charities that provide meals for the destitute migrants in Calais: Salam, Belle Etoile, and since the beginning of 2009, l’Auberge des Migrants. They work in rotation and today the lunch is being provided by my new friends from l’Auberge des Migrants. The venue for
food distribution has changed since my last visit. It’s now at a bigger site, again near the port, but more hidden from view and surrounded by railings and a gate that is locked outside the designated mealtimes.
The site has been provided by the Mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, member of President Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party. Ironic? Yes, considering her hostile rhetoric towards the migrants. But it means that when the elections come, she can still be all things to all people. To some constituencies she can point to what she said, and to others she can point to what she did. The migrants continue to be political pawns in a merciless European game.
Gradually the queue starts to grow, all young men, some teenagers, mostly from Afghanistan, though with a few pockets of Africans. I approach some young Afghans sitting on a damp concrete ledge, eating their lunch. Their stories are by now sadly familiar to me: they all came overland via Turkey and Greece, paid money to smugglers, had a perilous journey, and have no desire to stay in France, where they are forced to sleep rough in the increasingly cold autumn temperatures, are nightly harassed by the police, continuously arrested, fingerprinted then released kilometres away from their starting point in Calais, to which they then trek back on foot. One of them is 15.
I hear a chilling story from an Iraqi Kurd deported back from the UK to Kurdistan earlier this year, after seven years trying for political asylum in Britain. Back home he is reunited with his sweetheart of ten years ago, whose family constantly refused to allow him to marry her. Nine years later, despite frequent entreaties from his family, they still refuse him. Finally, very much in love, the couple decide to run away and live together clandestinely. They know they are taking a risk. Three months later the girl’s family tracks them down. They kill his girlfriend. He escapes. Now they are seeking to kill him. “They are like a Talebani family,” he tells me, “And very powerful.” Forced to flee his country for a second time, he finds himself back in Calais trying to get to the UK , where his prospcts of getting asylum are bleak. But he speaks English and not French and has contacts from his time in England where he worked as a panel beater.France holds out no prospects for him.
I wish him luck and move over to the small group of Africans squatting on the ground at the far end of the site. The youngest is a boy of 15 from Al Jeneina in Darfur, Mohammed. His father was killed by the Janjaweed and he doesn’t know where his mother or siblings are. I ask him to speak into my microphone and tell me his story in Arabic, so that I can have it translated back home. His long, thin face is framed by a halo of tight curls. The luxuriant, orange scarf he has picked out for himself from the nearby clothing distribution centre, seems like a gestures of hope towards a brighter
future. It is in striking contrast to his large mournful eyes.
Sitting next to Mohamed are two brothers from Cote d’Ivoire, aged 17 and 18. They fled the civil war in their country in 2002, having seen their mother and sisters murdered. Aged only 11 and 12 they escaped to Italy where they lived for three years. Twice refused asylum they moved on to France. They arrived in Calais three years ago aged 14 and 15 in the hope of getting to England. They say they have no chance of getting asylum in France, despite the fact they are French speakers, because they have applied in Italy. They have no money. They sleep rough. Their only hope – to get to England illegally to rejoin their older brother, who is himself without papers.
What kind of Europe is this , that can allow children to wander from country to country, unprotected, and with no prospect of finding asylum and rebuilding their lives. It was the older boy Ahmad who told me this story in heavily accented, Ivorian French. The jauntiness of the brothers’ demeanour when I first met them has now disappeared. Their
faces, old beyond their years, their eyes haunted, they look at me as though I can provide some sort of answer. I struggle to find words of response to their tragic story. My offer to introduce them to the UNHCR representative standing nearby to help them stay in France is turned down. “No point,’ they say, “Our objective is to get to England.”
By Sonja Linden, Founder and Associate Writer