On December 17, as part of on going work with an several organisations, I travelled to Calais, to record a concert with musicians in the refugee camp there. The concert was held on Friday the 18th, International Migrants Day. Before travelling, I’d been unsure if the whole thing was a good idea or not; the weather had been appalling recently, and there had been several fires in the camp, many people where struggling to survive, and I wasn’t sure what the priorities would be. When we arrived, conditions in the camp where bad, but it soon became clear that many people there where keen to take part, and the atmosphere was very supportive. As well as recording the music, there was also a reporter, interviewing people who wanted to tell their stories. We also had translators. From the very beginning, we discussed everything we did, and sort permission of everyone recorded, as well as permission for any photographs. As it turned out, with a sensitive approach, people where keen to tell their stories, and wanted people in the UK to hear the reality of what is happening in Calais, and why they are traveling there.
Arriving in Calais, you can’t help notice, there are fences everywhere; lots of them. There are also a lot of police. Not just normal ‘ friendly local bobby ‘ police, but big scary ones, with body armour and CS gas (which they use a lot). When you meet the people in the refugee camp, you realise how pathetic this is. Having travelled so far, in such terrible conditions, many refugees are malnourished and in ill health, they are in little position to put up a fight, their energy is directed at survival and reaching somewhere safe and permanent to stay. The millions spent on keeping people out could well dwarf the amount , that wisely invested would help end this misery.
I arrived in the camp early on Friday morning. Music Against Borders had been there since Monday. Its the first time I’d been, and its immediately very emotional. There is mud everywhere, and its cold. There are a few donated caravans and quite a few huts, but even the best ones are only wooden board and tarpaulin. There are lots of tents, many in very poor condition, and soaked with water and mud. There is a lot of rubbish lying around (and empty CS gas canisters, that the French police are so keen to fire into the camp from over the fences). There are also porta loos and a couple of makeshift showers. Imagine how bad the toilets are at any major UK festival, then double that at least. Over the months people have set up a few shops, social centres, and places of worship, but don’t let any of that fool you into thinking, there is anything like home comfort and secure civilisation here. There isn’t, conditions are grim, but the people living here are friendly and happy to see faces coming to support them. If its your first visit, the misery can be overwhelming, but smile, engage with people, and do what you can to help, you’ll soon realise that many genuinely appreciate it.
We arrived at a dome shaped marquee, used for a community arts place. Whilst unpacking, two young guys approach. They are on the phone to a doctor, in broken English trying to explain their friend is sick. Can we help as the doctor doesn’t understand. Their friend can’t walk and sounds very ill. He has also been hit by a gas canister. I speak with the doctor, and eventually he agrees to send an ambulance. We have to go and meet it at the main entrance.
I walk with the guys, and we chat, and introduce ourselves. They are from Afghanistan, one of them is called Maseeh. He has a degree in Civil Engineering, and had worked as a builder for the British army in Helmand province. When the British left, he and his family started getting death threats from the Taliban, and one day, whilst driving with his mother, a bomb went off near their car and he had a narrow escape. I couldn’t quite understand if his mother had been injured in the blast, or if the stress had made her ill. Either way he decided to leave. He traveled with a group of people, and made it to Iran, where they where shot at by either the police or military, and some of the group where killed. They then travelled through Turkey, across the sea on a 6 meter boat, with 70 people. Eventually they arrived in Greece and travelled to Calais. The whole journey took 3 months. He’s very keen to come to the UK, as he already has family there, and can’t understand, as someone who has worked for the British army, and is willing to work and pay taxes, why no one will help him. He asks if i’m a volunteer, or being paid to be there, I tell him volunteer, and he really smiles and shakes my hand.
We arrive at the main entrance, and wait for the ambulance. When it arrives, they can’t (or won’t) come into the camp, so we have to walk back to Maseeh’s hut, where his friend is. Its tiny, and there is just room for the 3 of them to sleep on the floor, other than their clothes and some bedding, they appear to have nothing. Their friend is clearly very ill, and only semi concious. As there is no stretcher, we have to use a wooden board to carry him to the ambulance. Its utterly depressing, as the poor guy is dragged carefully onto the board, I cant help but think what his life must have been like to end up in this muddy field, so far from his home and family.
The ambulance drives him to hospital, and we go back to the dome.
The radio people are set up on a bench, people are talking about their lives. A young Kurdish woman from Iraq asks UK politicians to look at their kids, then look at hers; why are the only toys they have to play with are sticks and mud on the ground?
There are lots of people wanting to talk, None understand why they are being treated so badly, some are keen to stress that the terrorists the UK are so scared of, are the same one’s they are escaping from, and all they want is somewhere safe, where they can live and work for a better future for their kids.
More people keep arriving, and we start setting up for the concert, people are clearly looking forward to it and the atmosphere starts to lift.
When the concert started, musicians from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Ethiopia came to play, and the dome soon filled with crowds of people. Regardless of the situation, the atmosphere was the best I’ve experienced at any gig; so many people clapping, dancing and cheering all the acts, no one cared about nationality or language, they just supported and enjoyed the music as a shared experience.