The forgotten faces of the Calais migrant crisis

By Nazek Ramadan

Entering the Calais migrant camp is like stepping out of Europe and into another time and space. I spent the day there earlier this month and at times it felt more like some of the poorest parts of the world rather than France.

I was lucky to travel on a warm dry day, but I could easily imagine the state of the camp and the tents in the heavy rain, cold and mud. As we head towards winter the conditions there are only going to get worse.

There are around 3000 people at the camp divided into clusters of different nationalities.

A Syrian group told me there are around 250 Syrians in Calais. They were disappointed at the way France is treating them and at the UK’s lack of willingness to help. I asked why they hadn't applied for asylum in France and some said they had but were waiting for a decision or the first interview. Others mentioned having family members in the UK or their knowledge of the English language.

It was very clear to me after my long conversation with them that they were not aware of the benefit system and that many lacked knowledge of the asylum processes in Europe and needed a lot of information and advice.

I was told there are more than 60 women and children at the camp and was surprised to see how many young children there are there, including a baby and one woman who was heavily pregnant.

I met three-year-old Maria inside the camp’s makeshift wooden church where a religious ceremony to celebrate the Ethiopian New Year was taking place. She had been there for a month and was unwell and had a high temperature. Her mother from Eritrea told me they wanted to to join her husband in the UK.

The miserable look on Maria's face said it all. Whatever the reasons for her current situation, now she is in the heart of Europe I believe we are all responsible for her welfare. The fact that a little child has to endure such appalling conditions should shame us all.

All the Syrians I spoke to were shocked by the conditions and how refugees are treated. There are three French charities in Calais providing lifesaving support to the unfortunate residents of the camp. However, only one meal a day is provided. Some of them were reluctant to queue for food as they didn't want to be seen as begging. For those who want to take a shower, they need to get a ticket and queue for a chance to spend six minutes under running water. A number of toilets and cold shower cubicles have been built but these are not in any way sufficient. Many of the tents are surrounded by piles of rubbish.

One of the French charity workers said: “We (the French) are not a welcoming country, and this is the message our government wants to get out there if you are seeking asylum in our country."

Petros (not his real name) from Eritrea, accompanied me the whole day and has been at the camp for a year. He has made numerous attempts to cross over to the UK. A few times he was caught on board freight trains by the French police and was sent back to the camp.

One of Petros' friends, a man called David, explained to me that security is much stricter now with the new company in charge of the security at Calais. As he showed me the new tall fence to stop people getting on to lorries, he remarked that surely it would've been better to spend money on helping the migrants rather than upping security.

Petros left his country to escape military service. He told me he had served in the military for 15 years and the only way out was to leave the country. Like many of the people I spoke to at the camp, he made the perilous journey across Sudan, Libya, the Mediterranean and through the rest of Europe.

Everyone was still traumatised by their experience of crossing the Mediterranean, and many spoke of the hours and sometimes days lost at sea. Petros looked tired, lost and it was clear he had almost given up. He is stuck in Limbo: he cannot and will not go back to Eritrea, and he is unable to move on and make any progress with his life. He has a sister who lives in London which has influenced his destination.

A Yemeni man I met outside the makeshift language school told me he has applied for asylum in France and had no intention to go to the UK. He was in Calais because he is not entitled to any support and is not allowed to work. He is waiting for his first interview, which could take a few months. He was clearly anxious about the length of the asylum process while trying to survive in these conditions. The French authorities have given him a key to a small letter box in town for him to check for letters from them about his application.

I was struck by the number of volunteers who were helping at the camp. They came from different parts of France, Belgium, Germany and the UK and they're helping to create a different welcoming environment in this difficult situation. There were many vans from a number of countries and a good number of them from the UK. I approached some of them and found out that they are not charity workers, but groups of friends who saw the situation in Calais on the news and wanted to do something to help.

Although the help, food and goods donated are hugely valuable and needed, they do create some chaos at the camp. The French charity workers request that people wishing to help should contact them and coordinate the distribution in a more organised manner.

I have returned from Calais with mixed feelings. Seeing all the volunteers from many countries, restored my trust in humanity. It is a clear indication that many citizens do not agree with their politicians and are able to see the situation as a humanitarian one.

Compared to the scale of the current crisis in Europe and the surrounding countries, Calais is not a big challenge and it is manageable. What is lacking is the will to resolve the situation from both the French and the British politicians. Focusing on security measures is never the answer when dealing with people like those living in the camp.

The asylum system in France is partly to blame. The French cannot blame the UK for a situation on its own sovereign territory. Many of the migrants in Calais would have applied and stayed in France if they were given basic support. Many of the people I spoke to have indeed applied in France. A tent and a meal a day is not considered a basic support.

Equally, the UK cannot leave other Europeans to deal with migrants in Europe and close its borders through different measures. Europe needs to have a unified asylum reception and a common asylum process. Most importantly it must have humanity at the heart of it.

My big fear is that as the news cycle changes those people camping out in Calais and across Europe will be forgotten. As the weather worsens and the conditions become even more desperate we must make sure this doesn't happen.

Nazek Ramadan is the director of Migrant Voice. You can follow Migrant Voice on Twitter

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.