By Marchu Girma, Grassroots Coordinator
‘We are thankful we made it here alive,’ Sarah tells me, as she shows us around the small cabin she shares with her 4-year-old daughter in the Calais refugee camp. She left her home in Eritrea three years ago, and has been living in Calais for about 10 months.
‘I travelled through the Sahara desert like many other Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees. Only people who have made this journey understand how difficult it is.The journey is from one desert to another; we had no one to welcome us,’ she explains. Her daughter was just two years old when they boarded a crowded lorry to cross the Sahara; on arrival in Libya, they were amongst 700 people crammed into a rickety, 350-capacity boat, transporting desperate refugees across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Had she been frightened for her daughter? ‘It was my daughter’s luck that shielded us from the worst fate,’ she said.
We met Sarah and her daughter by the camp’s ’Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre’ – a blue double decker bus which was donated by members of the public, including actress Juliet Stevenson – on WRW’s recent visit to Calais. The bus stands bright and tall above the muddy shanty town around it, and provides activities for children as well as a place where women can meet, chat and pick up essential donations, from sanitary towels to shampoo. It’s a welcome breathing space for women and children in the huge Jungle, where up to 4,000 people have made temporary homes in tents and wooden shelters.
The Jungle has no official status as a refugee camp, and the people we met are hugely reliant on the efforts of grassroots organisations such as the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre and Help Refugees, which provides support including food and clothes through a great team of volunteers. We also visited the government sponsored Jules Ferry centre on the edge of the Jungle, which houses and provides safety to some 160 women and 30 children.
I’m an Ethiopian refugee and Amharic speaker myself, and we’d travelled with my Tigrinya speaking friend, so we were able to strike up a rapport with the Ethiopian and Eritrean women we met there – many of whom, like Sarah, were keen to share their experiences with us.
Helen*, an Ethiopian woman with a sure, welcoming manner, showed us to her room in the Jules Ferry Centre and introduced us to her room mates. There were 12 beds, and some of the women were sleeping, which we learned was very common – many of those living in the camp sleep during the day, as they are up and about at night, trying to get onto lorries to cross the Channel. Although Helen at first seemed so confident and full of laughter, at one point a toddler ran into the room and her face changed. ‘He is like my son’ she said, and took out a photograph of the boy she left with her mother in Ethiopia more than a year ago when she fled political persecution. ‘I miss him,’ she said.
Her roommate Hanna* also spoke light-heartedly as she shared her anecdotes about life in the camp and the struggles she’d been through trying to board lorries. But then she spoke of the brutality of the French police, who enjoyed beating them with truncheons and robbing them of their shoes, leaving them to walk back to the camp barefoot. She described being trapped in a refrigerator lorry with 19 other people. ‘We were all about to die because we had run out of air, but in the last few breaths I had, I called the French police to rescue us,’ she told us. ‘When the police arrived, they stopped the lorry and broke down the door.’ Many of the refugees fainted as they were dragged out.
The women we met all had one aim: to get to the UK. One woman joked that the borders of England are so well guarded, it must be easier to get into heaven. ‘If I’d used the ten months I’ve been here to pray on bended knees, surely my entrance to heaven would be guaranteed!’ another quipped. Many of the women we met assumed we were new arrivals, and immediately asked us about our journey to the camp. When we explained that we were from England, they couldn’t believe it, and looked at us with questioning eyes, as if to say: ‘why would you want to be here?’ Outside the gates of the Jules Ferry centre we met a woman who was six-months pregnant and desperate to see a doctor. She told us she walks for two hours each night to try her luck boarding a lorry, and when she is unsuccessful she walks for another two hours back to the camp. She is full of fear about what she will do when the baby comes, and she will no longer be able to struggle on to the lorries.
Many people who hear about the situation for refugees in Calais wonder why they don’t claim asylum in France. The situation for the women we talked to varied, but most of them were trying to join family members already in the UK. Sarah’s husband, the father of her daughter, is actually living in Leeds and has refugee status. That should give him the right to ‘family reunion’, and give Sarah the right to cross into the UK to have her case heard here. But to exercise such apparently straightforward rights, the family needs a decent lawyer. It seems that they had been let down by one British lawyer already and they are currently trying again with another solicitor. Tied up in red tape, they are struggling to survive in the camp, where a recent survey found that 97% of the occupants are men, and where there are constant anecdotes about sexual violence that goes unreported to the police.
Sarah prefers to sleep at the Jules Ferry centre for safety, but comes to her cabin during the day for some privacy. ‘I do not feel safe in The Jungle. Our minds never rest, this is not where we want to be. This place is terrible!’ she said. A staff member at the Jules Ferry centre told us that although the centre is a place of safety for many women, she is concerned that many of the women who stay there continue to be exploited by men outside. ‘Sexual violence and prostitution are widespread in the camp,’ she told us, ‘I hear the going rate for a prostitute is as low as €3-5’. One night Sarah and her daughter joined the others trying to get on-board a lorry because she couldn’t see any other way forward. While they were trying, her cabin was ransacked and taken over by men.
Sarah’s daughter is a bright, bubbly girl, who can already speak five languages, and has seen far more than many adults in her short lifetime. When we asked her about life in the camp, she said: ‘no money, no paper’. What four-year-old has to be worried about her citizenship? Children are resilient, but this child has already seen too much.
Over the coming months, Women for Refugee Women will be working on a new project, Women at the Borders, in partnership with Help Refugees and Safe Passage UK, a Citizens UK programme. The project has two aims, to provide solidarity and support to women in northern France, and to work with the Safe Passage project to enable vulnerable women to access their legal and moral right to join their family members in the UK.