Refugee Week

It is refugee week this week. I have a lot of sympathy with migrants, whether forced or who have moved for economic reasons. While it might not look it, it’s part of my own family history.

My father’s parents moved from their home countries, to come to London. They moved to find a better opportunity there than there was at home. Firstly, they lived in Stoke Newington, where my father was born, then moved to the sybaritic paradise that is Hayes in Middlesex. Yes, they moved from Scotland and Wales, but that movement is baked in to my DNA.

I have also been a migrant, first I lived in Germany – when I was a teenager – then I lived in the Soviet Union. In UK terms I was that most disdained character a migrant student. Later on in life I have lived in Germany again. It is a terrible experience being a migrant, you don’t speak the language, everyone is different and the food is not what you are used to at home. I very well remember my feelings on my first day in Germany. I was in tears because I turned on the radio, those of you that know me will know how important the radio is to me, and I couldn’t hear Radio 1, which was my listening of choice when I was 16.

(You have to remember that all of this is before the internet – The time that history has forgotten).

So, now you know a little bit of my history, you will understand why I think that migration is such an important thing to me. I have visited migrant camps, The Jungle Calais, and some informal camps in Northern France. They are utterly horrible places.

As part of Refugee Week I have made a couple of films highlighting the problem and trying to humanise the migrants.

Thoughts on migrants crossing the channel

The Jungle Calais

It is reported on the BBC that there has been a sudden upsurge in the last couple of weeks of migrants attempting to cross the channel in small dinghies. This has been deplored and with the channel being the world’s busiest waterway, it is extremely dangerous.

Dunkirk Migrant Camp

Why are they trying to cross the channel in the first place? The report that I heard on the radio seems to point to the migrants fearing that once Brexit comes in to force then it will be impossible to cross the channel.

These reports have avoiding, what, I think is one of the key reasons for chancing the crossing.

It is utterly utterly horrible in the camps. The squalor has to be seen and smelt to be believed. You can read my reports of what the situation in the migrant camps is like here and here.

I can’t replicate the smell, but I can show you what I have seen.

I hope that it will spark some sympathy for those in the camps and hopefully some action some where. Please look at the pictures, share them and talk about the reasons why people want to flee to England.

Part of the shanty town in the jungle

The Jungle Calais

Toilet area in the Jungle – The smell was appalling

The Jungle Calais

Green Slime – The Jungle

The Jungle Calais

You can see all the pics that I took in the jungle here

This is a stress free area – Oh the irony – Dunkirk Migrant Camp

Dunkirk Migrant Camp

Hopeless and aimless feet – Migrant Camp Dunkirk

Dunkirk Migrant Camp

Rubbish creates pest – Migrant Camp Dunkirk

Dunkirk Migrant Camp

Hopefully Hopeless – Dunkirk Migrant Camp

Dunkirk Migrant Camp

You can see the whole set of Dunkirk pictures here

Its Refugee Week

In the midst of General Elections, Terror attacks and the Grenfell Fire its easy to forget that its actually refugee week.

I am very concerned about the way that the UK handles refugees and migrants, the Brexit poll seems only to have exacerbated the issue.

Last year I went to the Jungle Refugee camp and saw for myself how desperate migrants are to get into the UK and I heard for myself the terrible stories they told about why they left their countries to try and come to the UK.

The Migration Museum, where my film is exhibited, is a good place for us to start our understanding of the migrants’ stories. I recommend a visit.

In the meantime, here is a version of my film, made at the Migration Museum, I Too Am Human and below that links to the photos that I took in Calais.

Click on the images to see the whole show of pictures.

The Jungle Colour//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The Jungle B/W//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

In the Jungle

I have recently come back from a trip to the Jungle Refugee camp in Calais.

I have seen shanty towns in Kenya but have never been to a refugee camp. It is horrible.

The camp hides in plain sight at the East end of the Calais Ferry Terminal next to the motorway that almost every holiday maker will use to travel on to the heartland of Europe. It is obvious but inconspicuous in its openness. The camp sits on a former sandy nature reserve and has been half cleared by the French authorities, who have built a camp made from containers for migrants/refugees who are willing to be finger printed and documented. This has reduced the size of the camp but has created a refugee Apartheid separating those who the authorities believe can be settled as refugees from those who have fled terrible situations at home, but who the authorities do not class as refugees. The men I met there were mainly from Peswar in Pakistan, Northern Afghanistan, or Eritrea.

The first question I get asked is why did I go? And this was the first question that the people I spoke to in the camp asked me. The main reason for going was to understand what the Jungle camp was like, who was there and are these people actually the demonised migrants flooding Europe as I read in the press, or desperate people trying to escape a terrible situation at home?

The second question I get asked is what is it like. I think this video and the images below, answers that question, but read on afterward to see what I thought.

I have put a small gallery of pictures on the site, however if you want to see all the pictures from my trip: click here and here

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In simple terms its horrible.

The camp is a very male place, with the age of the inhabitants being around 25-50. But all male. There are some women about, but the ones I saw were the aid workers doling out free food in the chickpea kitchens or doling out clothes from the distribution points or running the jungle library or therapy centre. They are aid workers and not the core inhabitants of the camp. The main population is male.

The camp has four components.

The cleared area where the “famous church” and community building are. I say buildings, but if you think about Glastonbury after the festival that is what you should keep in your mind. However dial the glitz of Glastonbury down to 1978 and 4 months of rain.

There is the cleared area, where the community buildings are situated. It looks like Satan’s building site covered in rubble, latrines and what I can only really describe as general shit.

The very centre of the camp is a container village, ordered, disciplined and surrounded by a huge fence to keep out the undocumented migrants – a double exclusion.

The shanty town, which looks like a shanty town. If you live in Reading imagine the festival with home made tents that has been there for 2 years. The place is massively scruffy with shacks made of odd bits of material, wood, carpet and home, but surrounded with the detritus of a mobile population of men who do not want a stake in the place they live in.

The main street, which like most main streets is a collection of small shops, restaurants and a couple of mosques. The shops are very interesting and I will come on to that later.

The latrines. These are very important and actually, on the day I was there not very smelly. But the sweet, sickly smell of chemical toilets and general excreta pervades the air. On a hot day it must be awful. It was about 15 deg when I was there and the air was already quite fruity.

Ok I think that this is five areas, but you get the picture.

All through this are doted caravans and aid spots of people who are trying to bring doctors services, dentistry and counselling to people who are dislocated and desperate.

What are the people like? Is another question people have posed to me.

What are the people like?

They are men, men who have travelled for months or in a couple of cases I spoke to years to get to Calais.

For some reason, which I cannot fathom, England is seen as a beacon. Not of better social security, not of better food, not of better housing, certainly not of better weather, but of something intangible…..better hope.

The men I spoke to all wanted a better life than the one they had at home, but it was not a better life in terms of money, in terms of old fashioned Pounds, Shillings and Pence but they saw England, Sorry any ScotsNats readers out there, but Scotland didn’t figure as a beacon of hope, they saw England as a place of hope.

Hope?

The men I spoke to were lucid, intelligent and could hold a better conversation in English than most Englishmen. I think this is the thing that most surprised me. I could hold a normal conversation at a normal speed and normal pace as I could at home. Everyone I spoke to hoped to make it to England one day.

No Hope?

Whilst they were imbued with hope, there was a sense of failure. Some of the people I spoke would not let me photograph them because, they said: ” I do not want my parents to know I have failed..”They said that they were embarrassed that they had ended up in the camp.

But why were they embarrassed? They felt that they had been undone because at home they were people of status, they were software engineers, marketing managers and store managers. At home they had responsible and status bringing middle class jobs, but felt under threat by the wars and violence around them. To end up in a shit and wood smoke smelling shanty town in France’s least fashionable town was not how they saw their lives panning out.

The majority of men that I met were polite and a bit sceptical as to why I was there. They wondered why I was interested and whether I could do anything to help them? They were right to ask the question, but I was amazed at the fluency at which they could ask the question, and the generosity with which they pressed cups of tea in to my hand, NATO standard of course (If you don’t know what that means look it up here)

And so to the shops. Why were there shops and restaurants there? The Ashram Kitchen aside, which is run by westerners, all the shops and restaurants have been set up by the inhabitants of the camp. As well as meting a need for fresh food and some where to meet, one of the shopkeepers, a baker, told me that he set up his shop because he was bored. He had a managerial job at home and wanted to keep his brain active. He did what I would probably have done if I was in that situation, he tried to deal with his boredom and frustration with activity. His bread came highly recommended by the others I spoke to.

What does this mean?

When I was driving home, I found I could smell the camp on my hands. I had shaken hands with so many people that it had left a mark on me. I could smell the sweet smell of latrine disinfectant, shit, wood smoke, mens’ sweat, dirt and a sense of homelessness. When I sat on my sofa I realised that my clothes smelt the same. In just a short few hours I had become part of the camp, or so it seemed. I know that I have been left with a sense of deep confusion as to what my own reaction to the camp should be and whether, for the sake of humanity, the UK should let these people come in. I know that the people I met would not seem out of place in the high street of any average English town or even possibly a Scottish town. Many of the men I met certainly spoke better English than that I hear spoken by the year 10 girls from my children’s local secondary school.

In fact I do know what this means.

The camp is a blot on our humanity. It is a reproach to European nations that claim to stand for human rights yet refuse to accept that these people and those like them getting in rickety boats in Libya this morning are not fleeing their lands because they want to.

The camp is made up of bright, resourceful, determined and hopeful people who will be an asset for any country that will have them.

The camp is disgusting and I wish that the Nigel Farage’s and Boris Johnsons of this world would come with me on my next trip.

What I don’t know

What I don’t know is what my own and my town’s reaction to this should be. I am only a photographer, a student, a father, a businessmen, a husband, a man – what can I do?

I am still working this out and would love to hear your opinions (Yes I know I am asking for trouble – I really am interested) Contact me on digitalmck [at] gmail.com