The Open Air Prison of Calais

Riot police look down over the camp from the flyover. From below it looks less like a flyover than a prison wall. Five riot vans stand guard, half a dozen riot cops in each, just looking down on us. I take a piss into the bushes underneath their machine gun gaze. It makes me feel safer.

At the entrance to this open air prison, off rue Garennes, there’s a driveway of asphalt, where two games of football, a set of tennis and a cricket match are in progress, each game modified and adapted to the conditions. Spectators range the banks on either side, while the riot police keep score and umpire (maybe).

Saving four on the leg side are a range of new hire toilets, installed just a couple of days ago in response to a battery of complaints by migrants and by French charities on the migrants’ behalf. Before these new arrivals, toilet facilities were located in the bramble bushes, or a 15 minute walk over sand dunes in the Jules Ferry Centre.

Drinking water taps have also recently been plumbed into the arid ground. Three months of traipsing to and fro for basic facilities such as toilets and water are over. But to call the conditions satisfactory for human existence would be a grievous violation of the definition of the word “satisfactory”.

4,000 people live here, in a bewildering ingenuity of tents, wire fence cages and pallet wood houses. One man from Senegal has even managed to build a traditional house, complete with thatched roof. Another skilled carpenter has constructed a two-storey house of wood, with a twin room, kitchen and balcony that overlooks the road to the Jules Ferry Centre.

But most of the denizens of this sorry open air prison survive in throw-away festival tents, held together with gaffer tape and rope. The wind blows hard enough to rip open my shelter on the first night. The rain soaks heavy in Calais.

These people need proper shelter, they need many more water taps and many more toilets. Above all, they need proper nourishment.

The Jules Ferry Centre, the French government’s concession to humanity, provides one meal a day at 5pm. No breakfast, no lunch, just a kind of a supper, doled out at the end of a three hour queue. Many migrants rise above this desultory charity, preferring to fend for themselves, sharing large communal meals with their communities. Sacks of potatoes stand sprouting in the sun.

Many of the migrants here are Muslims, currently observing Ramadan, not breaking their fast until sundown, long past the 5pm cut-off time for Jules Ferry. From somewhere, the internal economy or networks of solidarity, my Sudanese friends summon up a traditional meal of stew, grilled chicken and hot harissa paste, with rice pudding for dessert, all laid out on a carpet covered with a bed sheet.

We sit and wait, clock watching. My neighbour offers me a date to break the fast. Then the call to prayer bursts out from somebody’s mobile phone. The sun finally dips below the motorway and the Calais sky blushes in embarrassment, silhouetting the riot police as they look on through binoculars.

We can eat.

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