Advice for Media, Journalists & Film-makers in Calais

Firstly, I don’t consider myself part of the media, a journalist or a film-maker. However, I have published many writings about my experiences in Calais and have produced a short film showing conditions in the camp. I have also spoken to many journalists and film-makers who have gone on to produce content that is very much within the mainstream media, including The Independent, The Sunday Mirror, BBC radio and VICE magazine, as well as independent film-makers, bloggers and magazines.

So, although I don’t consider my primary concern in Calais to be the media – I mostly teach English and make friends – I do think it’s very important to share the stories of the people who live there and to be a part of a information movement that promotes the humanity we share with migrants and refugees, rather than one which protects the material inequality that divides us.

All that is preamble to some basic notes and advice for media producers of all shapes and sizes who want to work in Calais. Please note: this is to be read in addition to my general advice for people visiting Calais.

Before arriving in Calais

Do your research. I don’t mean reading the Daily Mail or even the Guardian. Read the Calais Migrant Solidarity and Passeurs d’Hopitalités (in French) blogs. These are both run by long term activists in Calais and are full of the important day-to-day news that media outlets skip over.

Feel free to contact Calais Migrant Solidarity (check their website for their email address and, more reliably, their phone number) – but do not expect them to do your job for you. They will not set up interviews with migrants and they will not show you around the camp. Most likely, they will guide you to their website.

Working in Calais – short term

If your trip is short – just for the day or perhaps two days – my advice would be to follow simple ethical guidelines. I’m sure you’ve thought of these points already, but I think it’s worth repeating and reiterating.

Don’t film anyone without asking their permission – even from a distance. Many of these people are “illegal” (whatever that means!) and are justifiably suspicious of people wielding video cameras because it might (unlikely, but it might) get them killed or deported. Many don’t appreciate the attention, so don’t assume anything and always ask permission. It was for this reason that I decided not to shoot any people at all for my short film, which made the results suitably bleak!

Be careful not to treat your work, and the migrants themselves, as a means to an end. Frankly speaking, many, many film makers and journalists come to the camp in Calais and I feel that some of them go looking for a big news story or to profit through their line of business from the misfortune of others.

Having said that, many migrants are very eager for media coverage in the hope that it will ameliorate their living conditions or help pave the way to a fair resettlement programme. Your work really could become a small but important contribution to justice for the migrants, but, equally, don’t abuse their hope or make promises that you can’t keep.

If you get too close to the police, they may demand your camera and confiscate your memory cards. Big media companies are usually okay, but smaller indies or activists are at risk. Stay alert.

Working in Calais – long term

If you’re lucky enough to be able to commit a week or two, a month or several trips over the course of a year or years, then congratulations! You will be able to really get under the skin of migration, deep into the stories of migrants and witness the frontline battle that rages. Courage! And remember: the best stories don’t come out of nowhere or overnight.

I first went to Calais in the summer of 2014 and I have been back there many times since. I have seen tear-gassings, evictions, pitched battles with steel bars, cricket matches, film showings and a New Year squat party – but I still consider myself an innocent novice and learn a thousand things every time I visit.

I have made a few friends, who are still unfortunately living in the camp and I feel more and more welcome each time I go back. The last time I was there, teaching English for a week, I slept in the camp and I would suggest this as the best way to get to know people and understand camp life.

However, if you want to stay in the camp, you must:
a) be brave.
b) make friends.

Luckily, most people living in the camp are absurdly friendly, but ultimately it comes down to how personable you are. It’s obvious, but be nice!

On a more practical note, unless you speak good Arabic or Tigrinya, I’d recommend finding someone who speaks English, explaining what you’re doing and, above all, making friends. If you’re one of the good guys, they might invite you to camp with them.

The camp is roughly divided into mini-encampments of 5-20 dwellings, usually split along ethnic lines. There are plenty of Sudanese and Pakistanis who speak decent English – some fluently, no thanks to me! That should get you started.

During your stay at the camp, try to contribute something beyond your project: teach English or how to shoot films, fix bikes or shelters, keep the fire going.

Finally: Remember that this is their home and respect their customs and rules.


If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.

NOTE: Conditions in Calais change on an almost daily basis. This advice is based on information from late June 2015.

Battles with bicycle maintenance (and a ghost)

When it comes to bicycle maintenance, I am, by my calculations, precisely halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite.

I am competant enough to be technically able to replace worn brake blocks (those rubber things that stop the bike) (not the soles of your shoes), and yet incompetant enough to be incapable of fitting them so that they both:

a) stop the bike when I squeeze the brake levers

AND

b) don’t rub against the wheel when I’m not squeezing the brake levers.

This second feature of my brake adjustments turns every bike ride into some kind of resistance training. Great for fitness, not so great for getting anywhere faster than a mobility scooter.

The fact that I was able to cycle over 4,000 miles around the coast of Britain (not to mention another 1,500 around Tunisia) is testament more to the robust design of the modern bicycle than to my own skills as roadside mechanic.

Wheeling Adventure

Why do I mention this? Well, in the British Library the other day, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet called Wheeling Adventure, written over sixty years ago by a chap called Frank Urry (the ghost in this tale).

Frank was, at the time of publication in 1951, in his 70s and could justly claim to lived through the very beginnings of what we now know as cycle touring. When he first sat on a bike it scarcely had pedals, let alone brake blocks.

To read his words from beyond the grave, gleaned from over sixty years of cycling, is to recall what a wonder the bicycle is and what joys we spurn when we “motor” instead.

“Why should I want to go swiftly from place to place with but a glimpse at the going? The day is no longer, nor do you crowd more into its hours, except miles, and what use are they if you have missed the sights along them, the music of the winds and birds, the gossip of the wayside people, and the satisfaction of the perfect achievement of your body?”

I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I smugly sat in the library, thighs still warm from the morning cycling up to King’s Cross, surrounded by academics who’d braved instead the morning rush hour.

But my smugness was not to last.

Chattering of neglect

For there followed a passage that really stung my attention, concerning bicycle maintenance:

“Oh! the thousands of bicycles that pass me – that I pass – squeaking, groaning and chattering of neglect, that were once the pride of their owners and are now wrecks of inattention, and all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

Yes, my poor bicycle, the same beast that had carried me gamefully around the coast for two months without so much as a squeak, is now an old nag, scuffling about the streets of London, a bolt or a bearing or a brake or a bracket always only moments from breaking.

Frank’s spirit gently chastises me from across the chasm of years that separates us: “even with disregard and neglect the bicycle still runs, which is surely a proof of its marvellous design and simplicity of construction.

Ouch.

The handicap of this neglect ” he adds, with hint of disdain in his tone, “is the rider’s.

And how right he is! Every time I take to the roads, I am frighteningly aware of a slight antagonism between my chain and my gears. Perhaps one in every hundred turns of the pedal grinds with a nasty gnashing of teeth as the chain skips a link or two, my foot slips forward, the momentum shifts in my hands and I lose momentarily my line on the road. Surely it is only a matter of time before a passing bus or a rubbish lorry decides to take a terminal interest in this careless instability.

Frank talks frankly: “It is so simple and so much neglected, that I often wonder why such a priceless property – or rather a property giving such priceless pleasure – should be so abused.”

I feel quite ashamed that, for my bicycle to whom I owe so much, I do so little. I vow to address its quiet complaints. Tonight.

Bicycle Workshop, Interior, Night

As things stand, I am aware that my bicycle has the following running problems:

  1. The rear wheel wobbles laterally. This, I have been informed by someone less hapless, is a problem with “the cones”. I thought “the cones” were what they put on the side of the road when they’re doing roadworks. I have no idea why or where they might be on a bicycle.
  2. The rear brakes are rubbing against the rear wheel. (When they shouldn’t be.) I am optimistic that this problem might be resolved when I’ve dealt with the cones.
  3. The chain skips too often for my liking (or safety).

Not having a diagnosis for #3 and being optimistic about #2, I decide to tackle #1.

With the help of a bike maintenance manual, some spanners and no little brute force, I successfully dismantle the rear cassette (gears) and get right down to the cones. These are little nuts that keep the all the bits of the axle together and spinning freely, but not too freely. They just need a little tightening, I’m assured, to eliminate that wheel wobble.

So I tighten the non-drive side cone. I can’t get to the other one because something else is in the way. I put the wheel back together and back on the bike. I give it a test spin. Nothing happens. No wobble: good. No spin: bad. I’ve over-tightened the cone.

I pull the whole thing apart again, slightly loosen the cone and put it all back together again. This time the wheel spins: good. And wobbles: bad.

This pattern repeats several times over until eventually the Goblins of Bicycle Maintenance get bored of tormenting me and I have both a spinning and non-wobbling wheel.

I am pleased with myself.

For exactly 30 seconds.

That’s how long it takes for me to realise:

  1. My brakes are still rubbing when they shouldn’t.
  2. My wheel is misaligned to the right hand side.
  3. Some of the spokes are loose.
  4. The tyre is wearing so thin that you can see strands of fabric poking through the rubber from the inside.

It is at this moment that I recall Frank Urry’s words: “…all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

I have been working on my bike now for well over an hour and, not only is it still a wreck of inattention, it is far more of a wreck of inattention for all the attention that I’ve given it.

Thanks to my lavish attention, I am now fully cognizant of the fact that my bike is a death trap. That tyre is so thin that it would puncture on a cotton bud.

Life after Frank

You must, by now, be wondering at my deluded sense of self-awareness: Halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite! With a tyre no thicker than a housemaid’s pinnafore? Pah.

But, dear reader, may I draw your attention to my bed. For lodged neath said furniture, until now only gathering dust, is my answer to the ghost of Frank Urry, tutting and head shaking:

One spare rear wheel – cassette, cones and all.

Which brings me to the lesson of the day: half the battle of competance is carrying spares. Or, as Blue Peter would have it: “Here’s one I made earlier.”

Bicycles, Freedom and Migration

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

So said Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century American suffragette and social reformer. No wonder that the newly invented bicycle soon became known as the “freedom machine”.

Bicycles give you the freedom and independence to travel long distances without having to rely on stage coaches, horse-drawn carriages or (ugh!) men.

But today’s petrol-fuelled transportation means we’ve forgotten how hard a five mile walk to the local shops can feel. An hour and a half foot-slog is covered in just twenty minutes by bike. That’s the difference between going out and staying in.

For women of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition of a bicycle meant they could travel further to visit friends, go shopping alone or take a job for the first time. The impact of this emancipatory invention cannot be overstated.

(Okay, so maybe the impact of the bicycle can be overstated a little bit: biologist Steve Jones credits the bicycle for the remarkable explosion in diversity of the human gene pool over the last hundred and fifty years. A boast too far?)

Bikes mean freedom for Calais migrants

For the migrants stuck in Calais, the bicycle can have a similar liberating impact. The wasteground where the migrants are ghettoed is more than two miles from the town centre. That means hours of sore-slogging walks every day.

The migrants are not given more than one meal a day at the Jules Ferry Centre. Where can they get the rest of their food? From the town, a five mile round trip.

The camp nurse is only available during restricted hours and not at all on weekends. Where can migrants seek medical help? From the town, a five mile round trip.

Clothes, the library, internet access – all are a five mile round trip away, or more. The most prized possession of many migrants is a decent pair of shoes: they are worn down in a matter of weeks. Many migrants are stuck in Calais for months.

Bicycles are a gift of freedom

But there is more to the liberating powers of the bicycle than the mere practicalities of transportation. As women found in the nineteenth century, bicycles are a gift of freedom.

Migrants in Calais have spent weeks, months and years, slowly making their way north from whatever war-torn country they are fleeing. They have trusted in mafia agents and abandoned themselves to deadly rust-bucket boats in the Mediterranean; they have spent days playing hide and seek with gun-toting border guards and dodging ticket inspectors in train toilets.

Nobody makes such a journey out of choice. Nobody wants to beg and borrow for their lives. A bicycle can give migrants the freedom to go where they want, under their own power – at last! A bicycle gives the gift of self-reliance, independence, autonomy and pride.

(Not to mention that bikes are damn good fun! I watched a group of lads taking it in turns to cycle at giddying speeds round the pretty flower beds of Richelieu Park. The simple pleasures.)

Words are not enough – what can I do about it?

Glad you asked! At the end of August, we’re launching a biketilla (a bike flotilla?) to Calais. On the 29th of August, hundreds of people will be cycling second hand bikes from London to France, leaving the “freedom machines” with migrants in the camp there.

You can join us by attending the Facebook event or by sending a message to humans [at] ukhip.eu. Then just put a call out to your friends for a spare bike and get pedalling!

If you can’t make it on the 29th, then please do consider getting involved in some other way, by sharing the event or by baking us a cake to keep us fuelled! THANKS!

Me and vegan cake