|Written by Thomas Baltes|
|19 Sep 2009|
It was announced yesterday by the French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, that what is currently refered to as the "migrant jungle" – an area of Calais inhabited by immigrants and asylum seekers hoping to enter the UK – will be officially cleared out by the end of next week. Besson insisted that none of the migrants would be forcibly returned but rather offered the chance to apply for asylum or return to their home countries.
Thomas Baltes recently travelled to Calais to document the story of the hundreds living their, in waiting. Calais, northern France, is a gathering point of migrants from all around the world. They can number up to 1500 at one time and most have walked for miles before reaching the harbour. Calais is the last stop before they realise their goal: England. The UK used to be a rather comfortable place for immigrants, but the migrants’ knowledge is most usually restricted to what the smugglers tell them. Most of the migrants are boys,18 years old or younger. Afghan, Eritrean, Pakistani, Palestinian… the whole world’s misery agrounds in the harbour of Calais. The final struggle is crossing the channel. 21 miles of water separate them from England. The harbour is like a fortress, and the only way to pass is to hide in one of the thousands of trucks that will eventually board a ferry. For 500 euros you can hide in a truck but the border control is thorough: dogs, infrared cameras, and CO2 detectors.
There are often cases of death from people covering their heads with bags, in order not to be discovered. They are often caught. They spend the night at the police station and walk back to Calais. They try every night until it works. Meanwhile, they stay in the harbour of Calais. Since former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy closed their shelter, the camp of Sangatte, in 2001, they have nowhere to go. So they live where they can. Each nationality has its "home". Afghan people live in the forest, under polytarp and pallettes. The Eritreans squat in a builiding. Palestinians and Egyptians sleep on a pier in the harbour. All the migrants gather twice a day for a free meal provided by the various organisations in Calais, run by volunteers. The migrants are dirty, exhausted and often ill. They are harrassed by the police and treated like cattle by the authorities. I spent 10 days with them. I tried to show how strong these boys are: they can still smile, they can still live, despite what they have been through. Thomas Baltes