Surviving in the shadows in Calais

October 16, 2018

Through his work with the aid organization Refugee Lifeboat, Mitch Mitchell is a regular visitor to Calais, France, where a number of migrants and refugees live. In an article published at revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, he recounts some of his encounters with refugees living under a brutal immigration regime.

MY LATEST trip to Calais was rather harrowing. Not because of anything that happened to me, but because of stories that I was told by two of the refugees I met and chatted to and which I feel need to be made known. I should add that for various reasons, I will not disclose their names and I obviously did not photograph them.

The day had started rather well in that after I took the donations I was carrying to the warehouse operated jointly by Help Refugees, Refugee Community Kitchen and L’Auberge des Migrants, I went into Calais center to get a coffee and something to eat.

Here, I was met by Yazid Said, a Moroccan guy who works as receptionist at the Hotel Bel Azure which is where many of us stayed in the early days of visiting the camp. We became friends some time ago, but I hadn’t seen him for a while as the place had been closed down by the authorities for a period and has only recently reopened.

Supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi rally in Cairo
Supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi rally in Cairo (Gregg Carlstrom)

We chatted and he told me that the local Prefecture (essentially the local council) hated the place because of him being Moroccan and the owner Algerian and the fact that they had allowed refugees to stay there, paid for by volunteers to give them a break from the awful conditions in the camp known as “The Jungle.” I also discovered that every time I go to Calais now, I can get a free coffee there!

After seeing him, I went to the Family Pub for some food and to use their free WiFi. Having eaten, I strolled up to the park nearer the railway station. In the past, I have seen and spoken with people there who were usually from Afghanistan, but on this day there was just one man there who looked tired and dejected.

It turned out he was from Syria, and this is his story.

THE MAN, who I shall call Mr. Aleppo (the town he hailed from), was in his mid- to late twenties and had left his country some two years ago. His first attempt to leave was by trying to cross the Turkish border with a group of friends. The border guards had spotted them and began shooting, killing two of his companions.

His next, successful sortie was again with friends and by sea. They had built a makeshift boat and were crossing the Mediterranean when the ramshackle craft sank in a storm which had blown up suddenly. He managed to grab some of the wood which was floating around after the wreck, but a few of his friends drowned.

He was spotted along with other survivors, also clinging to wreckage, by a fishing boat and they took him and his group to the Greek Island of Chios where he was met by volunteers.

The camp at Chios was a pretty rum place but he managed somehow to get to Athens. He wasn’t very clear about how he did this, but when in Athens, he was beaten up by fascists from Golden Dawn and left for dead by them. A Greek woman found him in the street and took him to her apartment, where she treated his wounds which, luckily, were mainly superficial, although he showed me a scar on his cheek which had been a result of the beating and looked like it had come from a blade.

Because he had lost his papers when the boat sank, the woman was scared that she would be in trouble if the authorities caught him. She let him stay the night on her couch and in the morning gave him food and telephoned someone she knew who was in touch with smugglers. She told him that they wanted $5,800 to get him all the way to France. He borrowed her phone and called a relative back in Syria. This relative spoke to the woman and they worked out a way of transferring money to her account for her to give to Mr. Aleppo.

This took a few days, but eventually, she got the cash and paid her contact for him. She was an older lady, about 60 or so, and it turned out that her father had been in the resistance during the war and had fought the Nazis, who she hated with a passion.

AT THIS point he broke off from his story and said he was very hungry and could we go and eat. I guessed he didn’t have much money, so I walked him back to the Family Pub and bought him a pizza and a coffee.

After he had eaten, he seemed a little brighter but his tale became sketchy. All I discovered was that he had been transported in the back of a lorry carrying pigs and he had on various border crossings to lay underneath the animals who weren’t very particular about where they urinated or worse.

Bear in mind that the only clothes he had were those he wore so when he arrived in France, he stank and felt very miserable. The lorry stopped near Paris and he had to walk the 155 miles to Calais, ducking out of sight whenever a vehicle approached for fear of being caught and returned to either Greece or even Syria. He survived by eating fruit which he found growing on the way and drinking from puddles.

Eventually he arrived in Calais and headed with a group of Sudanese boys towards the camp. There, the volunteers at the “welcome caravan” gave him a change of clothes, some blankets and a sleeping bag, and some food. They introduced him to some of the other Syrians in the camp and one took him in to his tent and let him sleep there.

There were several small businesses in the camp, cafes and shops, and one of the Syrian men gave him a job in his shop, which meant he was able to get a small amount of money as wages.

Things took a turn for the worse when the French authorities decided to raze the camp in October 2016. Many of the camp residents who were displaced by this took the coaches which were on offer taking them to “reception centers” around France and he decided to do this.

Some of these centers were reasonable and some were appalling. Unfortunately, he was allocated one of the more disgusting and dilapidated places. There they were given the barest minimum to eat and had only water to drink, no hot drinks were made available to them.

Another problem for him and several others was that the French required them to seek asylum in France and he and many others did not want that for various reasons. Firstly, the language. A lot of refugees speak reasonable English, but have little or no French. Quite a few, including Mr. Aleppo, have relatives in Britain and would like to join them. Finally, many still cling to the image, which really is something of a myth, that Britain is a welcoming and liberal country.

Because of all this, he left Paris and returned to Calais. Most of the money he earned while working in the camp had now gone, but he had been able to contact family still in Syria for small loans. He was at pains to mention that his family is not rich and they are struggling to hold on to life back in his home.

After he had eaten and we had drunk more coffee, I took him to an ATM and gave him some euros, for which he was very grateful. He then said he had to go to meet somebody and left me in what seemed a more cheerful mood than when I met him. The medicinal powers of pizza and coffee can be amazing!

THE NEXT story concerns an Eritrean woman who had heard me speaking English when I was in the Carrefour supermarket and approached me.

She was a woman aged about 22 or 23 and she asked if I could help her. I said for her to tell me what’s wrong and this is her story, which is brief because I had to get to the docks to get the ferry back to Britain.

She said her family had been tortured and killed in Eritrea. She had been out of the house when the security forces who carried out the raid burst in and so she was spared. However, it was fairly certain they would come after her and so she grabbed a few possessions and fled to her cousin’s house.

He was a lorry driver and was able to take her to the border where she slipped across. After joining with others, she made it to Libya. There, she found work as a maid, but left when the man she worked for started to sexually assault her, even when his wife was in the vicinity.

Because she had no work and was sleeping rough in Tripoli, she was taken by the police to a “camp” for refugees with no papers. She had some money on her, some brought from Eritrea and a little saved from the pittance she received working for the sexual abuser.

She then decided to try and leave the camp. These camps, which receive lots of money from the European Union as a way of stemming the flow of people trying to make it to Europe, was little more than a prison — even down to having guards at the gate.

She told me that black people are treated very badly in Libya and are often attacked on the street, while police turn a blind eye.

A man in the camp knew some smugglers who were demanding $11,600 to make the sea crossing. She had about $5,800 and said her cousin still in Eritrea would pay the rest.

The men took her to the coast, and, along with about 60 other people, she was herded onto a dinghy with a small outboard motor which should have held no more than 20 people at most. After a couple of hours sailing, the engine was out of fuel and the dinghy began taking in water. She thought she was going to die and began saying prayers (she being a devout Christian).

Luckily for all concerned, an Italian naval boat spotted them and they were rescued and taken to Italy. Unluckily for her they were fingerprinted which means that under the Dublin regulations, she had to apply for asylum there and, if her claim was rejected, she would be returned to Eritrea or Libya. Also, if she was arrested in other countries, she would be returned to Italy in the first instance.

The refugees had been met off the boat by Italian volunteers and one woman had a car and suggested she drive her to the French border, to try and cross into France. Somehow, she made it over and eventually got to Calais, although I didn’t have time to hear the details of how she did this.

She was staying in Calais at the apartment of an Eritrean who had been living, legally, in France for about 10 years. I had other Eritrean friends, a small family where the woman was pregnant, who also stayed at this woman’s flat a couple of years ago, just after the camp was closed.

I told her that because of her friend giving her a flat to stay in, she was better off than many in the area, but she explained that she slept on the floor as it was only a tiny apartment and the owner also lived there.

She told me that while in Calais, she had been assaulted on a few occasions, and, after a long pause, she said that she had been raped. I said how sorry I was to hear all this, but how could I help her? She was trying to sell some jewelry which she had brought from home. I said for her to keep it, as I thought it meant a lot to her, but had some euros which I gave her. At that point, I had to rush off to get the ferry back to England.

Finally I should mention that on many trips to Calais I see no refugees at all — such is their level of invisibility — so seeing two in one day like this was unusual.

I can recommend Daniel Trilling’s new book Lights In the Distance in which he reproduces interviews made at length with refugees over a long period. It’s a fascinating, if upsetting, read but it’s important to these hear these personal stories.

First published at

Further Reading

From the archives