Last weekend, I went for a whirlwind visit to the refugee camp in Calais to document the first games on a sandy football pitch that my pals Sammy and Tommy at PLAY 4 CALAIS had created. The day was great fun, many people - mostly teenagers - played football and had a smile on their faces. I met so many interesting people my head is spinning...
I met young people around 15 years of age who had walked for 5 months to get to the camp. Most of them have no family left.
I met a 17 year old from Ethiopia who took great interest in my camera and told me about the films him and his friends used to make. Now he’s in a refugee camp in Calais with no idea what to do.
I met a guy who told me that he was in the under 17s football team back home. They were doing very well in the league, he says they were the best team… But he had to leave. He was glad to play some football again.
I met a professional cricket player from Afghanistan who was hopeful they’d build a cricket pitch too.
There were engineers, restaurant owners, hairdressers, journalists, midwives, lawyers, economists.
I heard of people who had worked in government jobs and had to flee because the Taliban are capturing all people with ties to the government.
I met a guy from Iran who was a freelance journalist. He was writing an expose on prostitution within the Islamic Church, and had started talking with newspapers about publishing the article. One night he was going to interview prostitutes on the streets of Iran when he got arrested and put in jail. The police did not have enough evidence to detain him, but he knew he was a marked man and would surely lose his freedom or his life should he remain in Iran. He has been in the Jungle for several months.
I was taken into the shack of a bunch of teenage boys who were drinking beer and singing songs. They sang with gusto and joy, loudly clapping and cheering. At the end, two members of the group pleaded with us for more alcohol. These bright, welcoming, friendly kids are already gripped by alcoholism due to the desperation of their situation and the trauma of whatever happened to them that led to them being at the camp. They need safety, stability, security.
The thing I’m most shocked about is the fact that there are around 400 unaccompanied minors in the camp. 150 of them have a legal right to be in the UK as they have family already residing there. It is international law to help minors in this situation, but the French and UK governments are taking their sweet time about it, while these kids live in desperate and unsafe conditions, and are increasingly going missing. Toddlers and primary school aged kids. Citizens UK recently managed to get 15 of these kids reunited with their families, but there are so many more.
I saw a boy half heartedly kicking a football around on a mound of dirt, surrounded by remnants of destroyed shacks. All of his friends had made it across to the UK the previous week and he was alone again.
Every night the kids and teenagers walk to the port to “try”. This is what they call trying to get across to the UK. You can’t claim for asylum in the UK unless you are in the UK. So they have to get there illegally, dangerously first, in order to live there legally. Many of these kids speak English, or at least a bit. They all want to learn. They all want to be safe. They want to build a life and a future. So every night they go and try to find a way to get across. I heard a story that just the night before one of the kids had paid a smuggler (he’d saved up money) to take him to the UK. The smuggler drove him out to the middle of nowhere, held him up at gunpoint, took his money, and left him. He walked back to camp and told his friends the story while laughing. They’re used to it now. Used to that or getting caught by the police, knocked around, and sent back to camp.
These are kids, teenagers, adults, who were happily living in a situation like mine or yours. Getting on with school, or their jobs, or whatever. And their lives have been taken away by war, oppression, fear, violence. Some of them have seen their family killed in front of them. And they find themselves at the camp, desperate, hopeful of a chance to have a normal life again, to contribute to society, to have purpose, to have stability and safety and build a future.
Everywhere I walked in the camp, or while I was just watching the football, people approached me and said hello, asked how I was, openly and warmly. I was bowled over by how welcoming and friendly everyone was.
We were given a tour of the camps by a guy called Abdul - a very gentle man - who had recently applied for asylum in France. It would be around two months before he would hear whether he was successful or not. Two more months living in the camp, with a chance he’d be denied asylum. And then what? Where? His 16 year old friend was wearing a blue football scarf and clutching his “My First French Book” - desperate to learn in case that’s where he’d end up.
These people just want to get on with their lives but they are stuck in a weird limbo. Many of them have been there for several long months, in some cases over a year.
It’s a half society: they’ve built shacks which house restaurants and schools and bars and hairdressers and a library, to try and continue with a sense of normality. As the French government proved by brutally ripping down and bulldozing the south part of the camp just a few weeks ago, this could be taken away at any moment. I can’t imagine how it must feel to find yourself at your last resort - not knowing whether that last resort will be taken from you as well. What comes after the last resort?
I want more decisive and determined action to be taken by both the UK and the French government in getting these people housed and safe, able to start contributing to society and building lives for themselves and their families. I want this action to be taken immediately, especially for the children and young people in the camp who are needlessly, pointlessly, shamefully at risk. I want people in the UK to see these people as human beings who have had their lives taken from them. I want us to act with compassion and generosity.
The charities I came into contact there are as follows, if you’d like to investigate ways to contribute: