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I’ve spent time with refugees in French coastal camps and they told me the government’s Rwanda plan is not putting them off coming to the UK

Refugees, despite enduring relentless hardships and evictions, persist in seeking sanctuary in the UK through perilous crossings, displaying unwavering determination.



I’ve spent time with refugees in French coastal camps and they told me the government’s Rwanda plan is not putting them off coming to the UK

Refugees, despite enduring relentless hardships and evictions, persist in seeking sanctuary in the UK through perilous crossings, displaying unwavering determination.

I t is 7am and I’m sitting in Pierre Lascoux’s old van with his dog, Arthur, at my feet. Lascoux, a 60-year-old volunteer, has dedicated the past two years of his life to helping refugees.

Every morning for four weeks we have talked about the plight of refugees in the Loon Plage camp in Dunkirk’s industrial zone. Lascoux recently finished a 42-day hunger strike in order to raise awareness about the awful living conditions endured by the migrant population at the border.

I volunteered in French refugee camps in Dunkirk and Calais in the summer of 2023. It was part of my fieldwork and research around the concept of “hospitality” at different militarised border zones.

While I was in the camps, I witnessed police violence and saw refugees cramming on a boat that was clearly not big enough to take them. I heard guns being fired and moved among the smuggling gangs and mafia in charge of the crossings, hearing stories from people who had been through hell in their own countries and on the journey to France.

Despite the relentless hardships and suffering, one thing appeared to unite them: they wanted to seek sanctuary in the UK. And headline-grabbing policies about floating prisons and flights to Rwanda were not going to stop them. They had come this far, and they were determined to finish their journey.

“I was warned by a French Egyptian not to cross the channel, not to go to the UK and to try to stay in France … But I have not escaped the police brutality from my country, smugglers from Libya, the crossing of the Mediterranean and the ‘jungle’ in France for nothing. I was determined to come to the UK.”

— DM Boss (pseudonym), Egyptian asylum seeker

Loon Plage

Back in Lascoux’s van, we survey the horizon for French riot police, the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), who frequently come early in the morning to dismantle the camp. Faced by a mound of rubbish at the entrance (because the local authorities refuse to provide a skip), Lascoux waits every morning to provide aid to the refugees when they get thrown out. These days, the police dismantle Loon Plage every two weeks and the Calais camps every two days.

Lascoux lets people leave their personal belongings in his van so the cleaning company which accompanies the police doesn’t throw away all their cherished belongings. During the last evacuation, the police forcibly removed Lascoux from the camp and illegally confiscated his van.

The camp is reminiscent of the infamous Calais Jungle, which was shut down in 2016. I will never forget the image of a group of people, whose boat had capsized, walking back to the camp in the early hours of the morning. One couple pushed a supermarket trolley with two young children who must have been younger than five years old and who were drenched and haggard. They must have walked at least a dozen kilometres from the beach where they had probably stayed for days before trying to climb into the rubber dinghy. Everyone there tries several times before being successful, and each time they fail, they have to trudge back to the camp, exhausted.


Loon Plage is a series of wild camps; they cannot really be called refugee camps. Refugee camps are usually places run by state organisations or charities; places where people can seek sanctuary and, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), refugees have to be provided with shelter, food, water and latrines.

But Loon Plage really is a “jungle”. That’s what the refugees call every wild camp along the north coast. There used to be access to water, which was originally intended for use by the fire service. But because refugees used it to wash, the police blocked it. As a result, a 22-year-old Sudanese man died in 2022 while trying to wash in the canal which runs adjacent to the camp. In Calais, it is not uncommon to see 1,000-litre water tanks distributed by charities like Calais Food Collective being stabbed by the police forces or disappearing overnight. According to Rachel Read, a volunteer for Calais Food Collective:

“It does not matter how hostile the state tried to make it here, they are not going to stop coming. If anything they are going to keep coming more because France is such a hostile place that they try to move through it and out.”

Lascoux works for Salam, a refugee charity which was established after the arrival of the first Kosovar refugees in the 1990s. Salam recently succeeded in obtaining a water point and a skip for the Loon Plage camp following Lascoux’s hunger strike, which ended with his hospitalisation. Lascoux is currently regaining his strength. The last time we spoke he told me:

“It is a small victory but the fight must go on. It is intolerable to see human beings treated worse than animals in France in the 21st century.”

‘Stop the boats’

I have been interested in the representation of migration for several years, and I had already been to Calais with Franco-Swiss photographer Elisa Larvego in January 2023 researching alternative representations of migration.

I use the term “refugee” instead of the negative term “migrant” because in the camps there are both categories. But the people I met all sought refuge from desperate circumstances and should all be deserving of protection.

I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes and speak with both volunteers and refugees: to hear their stories directly and gain a better understanding of these highly contentious border areas – all of which are linked to the highly politicised migration argument between France and the UK.

According to the UK government, in the year ending September 2023, 37,556 people arrived in the UK in small boats which sailed from the northern coast of France. (There were 44,490 in 2022.)

According to Lascoux, in summer 2023, the population of Loon Plage fluctuated from around 300 in June to 2,000 in August, depending on appropriate weather conditions for attempting a crossing. These numbers were based on the number of meals that were distributed by Salam each day and Lascoux’s knowledge of the camp.

Since February 2003 and the Touquet agreement, the French and British governments have operated juxtaposed border controls. In return for financial compensation, France agreed to take charge of border surveillance and the regulation of illegal migration flows. Then, 20 years later, at the 36th bilateral Franco-British summit in March 2023, the UK pledged €541 million (around £460 million) to France over three years to curb illegal crossings into the UK – to stop the boats.

But it is not working. What I witnessed during my stay on the camps is that securing the borders does not prevent people from crossing – everyone crosses, it is just a matter of time.

Rather than stopping the boats the policy, which has seen the French police enforce zero-fixation points to prevent refugees settling anywhere, has simply led to an increase in violence by the authorities. This, in turn, has made crossing more costly, violent and dangerous. But violence and danger were just a daily reality inside the camps, as I was to learn.

Smugglers run the camps

I soon realised that the Loon Plage was run by Iraqi-Kurdish smugglers, who have also infiltrated the town of Grande Synthe and have a monopoly on boat crossings on this part of the Pas de Calais coast.

The mafia-like organisation they belong to is structured and runs quite smoothly. Permanent “staff” run the “shops”, maintain the camp and feed the refugees who have paid for an “all-inclusive” passage. These “permanents” are people who have decided to remain in the region to control who comes and goes. The shops are small stalls at the entrance of the camp where food and cigarettes are sold. Some people, whose families have sold everything or who have more financial means, will manage to pay for the whole journey from their country of origin to the UK. This category of people do not usually stay long in camps because their journey has already been negotiated and paid for from the outset.

The shops are sometimes used as payment points and also act as relays for les petites mains, or “little hands”, the ever-changing mafia workforce. The little hands include recruiters who generally work between Calais and Grande-Synthe to recruit refugees who have arrived alone and who want to make the crossing and the “organisers” who accompany each convoy of refugees on the beach on the night of the crossing and who stay with them while waiting for the boats.

I learned from my interviews that the smuggling network has many recruiters working from other towns and countries in Africa and in the Middle East. They also recruit refugees to pilot the boats. It is hard to find boat pilots, so at times they get paid in addition to getting a free crossing.

— A refugee camp in Grande-Synthe. A muddy camp with a lot of dirty waste. People are cold and hungry.

The permanents

So during our morning visits to the camp, Lascoux and I would talk to the permanents. They are exclusively men. When women are present they are often part of a family and they only transit via the camp – they never stay. The camp can be especially brutal for women travelling alone, so associations like Refugee Women Centre try to relocate them to refuge houses where they are safer like at the Maison Sésame in the town of Hezeele, northern France.

In a supermarket trolley, which they normally use to transport belongings, the shop owners set up a wood fire and two large black cast-iron kettles and heat the water for the coffee on a blackened grate. The pungent smell from the fire is due to the hydro-alcoholic gel and plastic crates they use for fuel. They ask if we want to join them for a coffee.

These men would often come and ask me to eat with them or join them for mugs of tea. It seems nice, but it is also to check out who I am and to figure out what I’m doing there. The shop “owners” and the little hands are suspicious of everyone.

Human trafficking brings in huge sums of money for smugglers operating out of Paris, London and even Baghdad. But the fact that I’m volunteering for Salam to distribute meals quells some of their suspicions. As does the fact that I’m with Lascoux, who regularly brings wood, tents, blankets and clothes.

CREDIT: SOPHIE WATT —
— Camp coffee with the ‘permanents’.

The crossings

There is little freedom in the camp and each refugee is attached to a recruiter, who works for one or two smugglers. The traffickers have claimed different parts of the beaches along the coast and compete with each other in order to gain more custom. Once the refugees have paid their passage (between €800 and €4,500, depending on their nationality), the smuggler allocates them a convoy “team” which often waits in the woods near the beach for several days before attempting to cross. Kevin, from Guinea, who tried to cross while I was there and whom I interviewed both in Calais and when he arrived in the UK, told me:

“There were 55 people in my convoy and in the forest there were more than 250 people who waited for four days because there were five smugglers who had their group. In our group, there were women and children too, and we had nothing to eat for four days. It was raining, the weather was bad and the waves were rough. One of the boats overturned on departure.”

Many families and children transit via Loon Plage rather than Calais, where conditions are even more harsh due to more frequent police evacuations. DM Boss said:

“I tried three times to cross but only paid once. Each time we were waiting in the woods for hours and even days before the crossing.”

At each stage, the refugees are surrounded by the little hands, different teams for different places, who keep an eye on them and tell them what to do. The convoys are also infiltrated by the gangs to ensure that the refugees are not working for the police or informing journalists.

As in Loon Plage, the convoys mix nationalities and therefore prices. Sub-Saharan Africans pay less (between €800 and €1,200) than the Vietnamese or Albanians, who can pay up to €4,500 and who have arrived in the north of France as part of their own smuggling networks.

There are few sub-Saharan Africans at Loon Plage and they are often recruited as the boat pilots or as recruiters, as this pays for the crossing. Making sure that a group of sub-Saharan Africans gets on board, despite the fact that they can usually only afford minimum price, allows the pilot to remain unidentified once in Dover. The pilot is often therefore a refugee who did not have any other means to pay for the crossing and who has very limited experience in steering boats.

This network of people trafficking can only exist and be extremely lucrative because the French and the British governments have not agreed to establish safe passages between France and the UK and are determined to invest in “securing” the border instead.

CREDIT: SOPHIE WATT —
— A young refugee walking with all his belongings in a shopping trolley.

The sound of gunfire

It was difficult to get close to refugees in the camp because being seen talking to me could put them at risk. A few of the interviews I undertook with refugees I met in the camp took place in the UK once they had crossed.

Each talked about the violence at night and the fact that the Kurdish mafia is heavily armed. While on the camp I heard gunshots several times and was told they were “just shooting rats”. DM Boss, who stayed at Loon Plage for two months, confessed:

“I could not sleep in the tent at night, I had to get out and wait in the woods because in the evenings once the NGOs and charities are gone the smugglers and little hands talk and argue and get their guns out; so I used to wait until they went to sleep.”

In May 2022, two Iraqi men were shot in the camp and one died from his wounds. In February 2023 another Iraqi man was shot and seriously injured. Many more incidents go unreported.

The Kurdish network is renowned for its efficacy, but due to the increasing police presence on the beaches, they are starting to take more risks. The coordinator of the charity Utopia 56 Grande Synthe, Fabien Touchard, explained that police violence has gradually moved from the camp to the beaches at night because it is harder for the associations (mainly Utopia 56 and Osmose 62) to witness everything that happens along the coast as far as Belgium.

Smugglers are taking risks with the lives of refugees, by forcing them in ever more dangerous numbers on to boats which cannot handle them in order to escape the French police. In fact, in the year ending September 2023, there was an average of 48 people per small boat, which was higher than the previous year (37) and much higher than earlier years – in 2020 there were 13 per small boat, in 2019 11 and in 2018 the number was 7.

The boat crossings have become better organised, as risk levels have increased. For example, 397 refugees have died since 1999 trying to cross the Franco-British border. And in one single incident on November 24, 2021, 27 refugees drowned. Just after I left Calais, on August 12, 6 people died at sea, while on January 14 2024 4 Syrian refugees (two young men and two children) were killed attempting a crossing.

The most recent victim is a seven-year-old girl, named Roula, who died while crossing the Channel with her pregnant mother, father and her three siblings.

More frequent boat crossings began in 2018 after a few successful attempts were made in 2017 following the dismantlement of the Calais Jungle in 2016. They gradually replaced the crossings in lorries which had become too dangerous and almost impossible due to new technology employed by border police.

CREDIT: SOPHIE WATT —
— Graffiti in Loon Plage, near the railway line.

Night patrols and ‘taxi boats’

I patrolled the coast around Boulogne-Sur-Mer at night with Osmose 62. Charity founders and volunteers Dany Patous and Olivier Moctar Barbès patrol the coast most nights before going to work. They explained how the smugglers were changing their techniques to adjust to the increased policing. The latest technique is called “taxi boat”.

Instead of awaiting pick-up on the beach, refugees are told to wait in the water at different locations along the coast to stop the police from chasing them. The boats then pick up the groups at sea the same night, and end up cramming in more people and taking longer, more perilous routes to Dover.

The night patrols, or marauds, are surreal. Walking through a ghost town at night, along small roads, along the coast, as well as car parks near beaches; being on the lookout for any signs of refugees and on constant alert for the police.

For me it was high in adrenaline and emotion because the objective was to help refugees who had failed to cross, while at the same time making sure not to reveal their presence to the authorities.

Before I arrived at the rendezvous point at 4am I saw a big group of refugees roaming the streets of Boulogne and I told Barbès. It was then impossible to find them again. Barbès said: “They have learned the art of making themselves invisible because of the chase with the police forces.” After patrolling the town, we drove along the coast and stopped at different beaches where we met a group of French police. They asked us for ID and told us that they were looking for a large group that was hiding in the nearby woods.

That night, we stopped for a group of young Syrian men who needed hot drinks and food before going back to Calais on foot.

Later, we watched as 40 people crammed on a small inflatable zodiac boat leaving the coast in the early hours of the morning at around 6am. We arrived just after the boat had left but the police officers present, who had not bothered chasing them, told us that the departure had been chaotic with women and children shouting. The boat had a problem with the motor and was progressing slowly in circles. It looked so flimsy and so small and was taking so long to reach the open sea that one of the police officers said that they would never make it.

This boat was later rescued by the coastguard because it had started sinking. They did not reach British waters this time. According to the refugees I interviewed and some volunteers, departures are extremely traumatic, because they are all fighting to get on board as quickly as possible when there is not enough space to accommodate everyone. Marie, from Refugee Women Center, said:

“It is not uncommon for the little hands to throw women overboard when the boat is too crowded.”

And DM Boss told me:

“I retrieved a little boy by the leg while he was being stepped on by people jumping on board.”

When I was in Calais, I met a Sudanese refugee, a professor in political science at the University of Khartoum, with his nine-month-old baby. They had been separated from the baby’s mother and the couple’s two other children while trying to get on board a boat. He was caught by the police and had been prevented from crossing with the rest of his family. He has been staying in a refuge house ever since and has tried to cross with his baby dozens of times with no success, while his wife and other two boys are near London.

The many jungles of Calais

Many refugees travel between Calais and Loon Plage in order to negotiate their crossing. In Calais I interviewed around 20 volunteers and refugees in safe places but I could only interview one refugee away from the camp in Grande-Synthe and a few others in my car.

Since the dismantling of the big jungle, the mayor of Calais, Natasha Bouchard, has tried everything to deter refugees from arriving in the region to the extent that she managed to obtain the right to forbid food and water distribution in September 2020. Partly because of this more arduous environment, the “jungles” in Calais are smaller and usually populated by younger men and teenagers.

The camps are grouped by nationality, which means that the tensions are not always as high as in Loon Plage. I informally talked with a few Afghan people who had to leave Afghanistan because they had been working for the British and American forces as translators and saw their lives put at risk after the recent withdrawal of the British forces in the region.

I managed to interview five people from Guinea, Chad, Iran and Sudan and found a smaller camp of Francophone Africans within the Sudanese camp who did not want to be interviewed but who were proud to show me their survival skills. They were cooking when I arrived and although their tents were deep in mud they had managed to build a common area for eating with a roof made of wood and recycled tent material.

Most of these young men, aged between 15 and 25, had been through Ceuta or Melilla together (Spanish enclaves in Morocco), where the living conditions were even more dangerous and precarious than on the French northern border, and they were talking about their journey through Morocco like they were war veterans. They had managed to climb over the three six-metre high border fences despite being wounded and under attack from both the Moroccan and Spanish police forces. They were proud and felt invincible and spoke like an army of child soldiers ready to conquer the world.

Kevin’s journey

Kevin, who is from Nzérékoré, a city in Guinea’s south-eastern forest region, took me to his camp after our first interview in my car. He was proud to show me that they had built a “Francophone corner” within the Sudanese camp. He introduced me to all his friends one by one who shook my hand and asked me if I wanted to stay and eat with them. They were all from different parts of West Africa – Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, Ivory Coast – and they were proud of their journey, but were tired of staying in Calais where they had been for several months. Kevin said:

“I managed to climb the three walls in Ceuta with a broken hand after seven years on the road and in the desert going through Mali, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. I should have stayed in Spain but I needed to try for the UK.”

Kevin said he came from a beautiful country, though from a persecuted ethnic group; he is from the Guerzé tribe. He told me he “had to eat stale bread and cheap jam and live in a mud bath in the north of France while France was exploiting natural resources in his country”. And yet because his country is not at war, despite the most recent military coups, it was difficult for him to make a case for political asylum in France.

When I first spoke to him, Kevin and his “crew” had just survived another eviction. They had managed to hide their belongings along the railway tracks within the Sudanese camp. Kevin remembers suffering from the effects of “tear gas that had been launched inside the tent” a few weeks earlier.

“I was asleep when they sprayed tear gas inside the tent and my lungs burnt for hours afterwards. I could not use the covers I had because of the smell. This smell is impossible to get rid off so I had to find another blanket.”

The mayor’s policy since 2008 is ruthless and relentless: evacuated every two days and chased from any public spaces, the refugees are mentally and physically exhausted.

Kevin said:

“We try crossing by trucks or by boats every night so during the day we sleep but the police usually come and force you out of your tent. You have to be quick and get all your papers with you otherwise everything is destroyed. It is scary.”

Mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, refugees in Calais often don’t have the financial means to pay for a crossing with the Kurdish mafia and thus access the Calais network of smugglers who are mostly Sudanese and North-African and who are less organised and less reliable because they use cheaper, poor quality boats and motors. Kevin told me:

“This network is a lot less safe than the Kurdish one and if you fail the crossing they often keep your money.”

Kevin negotiated his passage from €1,200 to €800 with Kurdish smugglers. It took him four months to make the money he needed because he told me: “I could not work as recruiter for them because all my friends are poor, they could not pay the crossing, so I had to do small jobs to save that money.” Kevin finally crossed in August 2023 with a convoy of people which left from the beach called Graveline. They had to wait for four days before setting off.

“The weather was horrendous, the wind was very strong and another boat capsized under my eyes. I am still scarred from the crossing, the sea was so dangerous, I don’t think I will ever go back on a boat in my life. Everyone was shouting and crying especially the women and the children who were terrified because of the waves. Somebody wanted to jump and we had to stop him and someone else fell in the water, we just had time to catch him and drag him back on the boat. I stayed at the front of the boat with my friend and a lot of us wanted to go back, we were terrified.”
— Protesters gathering outside Westminster Square in opposition to the Illegal Migration Bill.

Brutal evacuations

Every evacuation is brutal and dehumanises the refugees a little more. Apparently, the process of dehumanisation justifies the costly daily harassment of refugees that was heavily criticised by the UN Special Rapporters in 2018.

When I was in Loon Plage, the camp had not been evacuated for a month. One morning, I witnessed the camp evacuating itself because people could not stand the anticipation of the police forces coming to dismantle the camp. I arrived at 7am only to see a long line of people pushing supermarket trolleys full of their belongings to another part of the industrial zone along the canal.

They had internalised the process so much that it was just easier to “self-evacuate” instead of living with the anxiety of the police arriving in the early hours of the morning. When I asked one refugee why he was moving everything he said:

“I cannot stand it anymore. I am too tired, every morning I think they are going to come and they don’t come. I am moving so I can sleep better.”

The evacuations are performative in the sense they fulfil the role the French government plays in order to justify the sums of money being paid by the UK government to secure the border – despite the fact most refugees come back to the exact same settlements after the evacuation and will cross eventually.

new anti-immigration law passed by the French parliament on December 19 2023 will do little to ease the climate of suspicion and fear which surrounds the refugee debate in both the UK and France.

But nobody I spoke to would be deterred; not by the brutal camp evacuations; the fear of smuggling gangs, the terror of the crossings, or even the promise of a flight to Rwanda once landing in the UK. If anything, the violence and lack of hospitality at the French border which represent unprecedented breaches of fundamental rights of refugees further motivates people to cross. As DM Boss told me:

“I could not live in the jungle any longer, I was determined to come to the UK. I had to try.”

PUBLIC SQUARE UK




Sources:

▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 26 March 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Anjo Kan.



The Conversation