Nannie Sköld has been responsible with a colleague for running the school for children over the age of eight at France's first-ever internationally recognised refugee camp at Grande-Synthe. This is her last despatch from La Linière
Everyone is full of questions. Yesterday, as my friend and I were walking down the path through the camp, a man came up to ask if we could help him. Suspecting he might ask for shoes or blankets, we said that we weren’t sure that we could help, but we could try.
'Come here', he said, and beckoned us towards a fire that was gathering strength outside his shelter. He and his friends had placed a pot of boiling water on the fire, filled with king prawns.
Concerned, the man turned to us, 'How do we cook this?'
Being vegan and vegetarian respectively, my friend and I may not have been the best people to ask. My friend called her mom to ask for advice. I sketched a diagram which was of little help, but gave us some time while my friend’s mom was researching how to cook king prawns.
The man and his friends appreciated our attempts, but decided to take matters into their own hands. They brought out an onion and a can of tomatoes, and decided to cook the king prawns Kurdish style.
'No chance today, my friend?' There are individuals in the camp who have been met by this sentence for over a year, as they step back into the camp after yet another unsuccessful attempt to cross to the UK.
Because although a lot depends on how much money you are ready to pay, where you are from, whether you are alone or with your family, and how strict the border police are on a given day, it is always ultimately about chance.
It can depend on the type of lorry you end up in. During the last week I have heard of one family in a lorry carrying bananas, another child in one full of Kinder eggs (he promised he didn’t eat any), and many people travelling in freezer lorries transporting meat. Usually the most difficult control to pass through is the one with the dogs. Some lorries hide your smell better than others.
It can depend on your body type. Like in hide-and-seek, some people are more easily hidden than others. I have spoken to many men (always men) who used to work as personal trainers, do professional weightlifting or who were body builders, and have been told about their attempts to quickly lose weight, in the hope of increasing their chance of crossing.
But chance also depends heavily on politics and on governments, and on choices made by individuals and organisations influenced by Paris or Westminster.
A large number of the approximately 150 unaccompanied minors in the camp, in theory, have a legal right to enter the UK. Despite this, only a handful of minors have been able to cross legally. Sometimes this is due to inefficiency or lack of resources. Other times it is deliberate. On 8 November (although only recently made public), the Home Office informed their staff that they were further restricting their interpretation of the Dubs Amendment (under which unaccompanied minors currently in Europe may have the possibility of entering the UK legally). Of the relatively large number of minors in the camp who had been likely to be eligible, the number of minors who fit the narrow criteria of the Home Office’s new regulations can be counted on one hand.
Going to visit minors in their shelters, I carry the news that their chances of going to the UK are lesser now than they were just a few weeks ago.
'Are you hungry?'
We politely declined their offer, but wished them the best of luck with their dish.
A close friend of mine from the camp made it to the UK a few months ago. Last week, I went to visit him for the first time on British soil (NB: asphalt). We explored his new city, caught up on what’s been happening in the camp and what’s happening to my friend in the UK, and had cup after cup of sugary tea, just like in the camp.
He is relieved to be in the UK. After months and months of getting into lorries and getting caught at border controls, he is relieved to have made it across the channel. He lives in a warm (albeit very run-down) house, and can no longer be stopped and taken away by the police on the charge of not holding identity documents. There are still many things to be worried about – winter, asylum, the Home Office – but also many former uncertainties that he no longer needs to worry about.
Yet, he misses the camp. He misses living in a community of 900 people where almost everyone speaks Kurdish, where Kurdish food is cooked and communal meals are served, and where most people are considered friends and look after each other.
He doesn’t want to go back to the camp as it is. But, he told me, if a community like the camp existed in a safe place like the UK, it would be perfect.
A pregnant woman in the camp held her hand on her belly and smiled.
'Do you know the name of the baby?' I asked her.
Her smile widened. 'Mowgli', she told me, 'because the baby is from the jungle.'
Early tomorrow morning, I will leave the camp. I have a lot of anger, as well as a lot of love, to express before then.
It is a sad reality that, as a volunteer, much of the time and energy that could be spent preparing food in the kitchen, working to create and maintain a safe space for women, or providing legal support for unaccompanied minors, is instead spent battling with political decisions of other organisations, local politicians, or the state.
A couple of weeks ago, two volunteers who have been working with unaccompanied minors to push for their right to legal passage to the UK (through the sponsorship of respective family members in the UK, under the Dublin III regulation), were called into the office of the City Hall. The two were accused of having been part of an incident in which neither of them had been directly involved, and in which the charges were completely fabricated. At the end of the meeting, they were told that there was no problem.
Despite this, Afeji and security officers have banned the two from entering camp. Despite the City Hall saying that there was no problem, they have refused to communicate this to the actors who control access to the camp.
In practice, this means that many unaccompanied minors who have a right to go to the UK legally are refused essential legal support which could enable them to do so.
Some unaccompanied minors do not have shelters. Some sleep in open-air community kitchens, others sleep in the tea tent. When unaccompanied minors have approached Afeji, who are responsible for distributing shelters and for the welfare of minors, they have been met by scorn and laughter.
Yesterday morning, a 17-year-old unaccompanied boy who has been sleeping in the tea tent went up, together with me, to an Afeji employee. I informed the Afeji employee that there is a minor who has no shelter, and that another Afeji member had told me to come back the next day in the morning. He told me that minors shouldn’t be sleeping in the camp, 'They should be in Paris. Or the forest.'
Noticing the 17-year-old, he laughed. This is not a minor, he said, and, laughing, walked deeper into the office, away from the minor who probably slept in the tea tent again last night.
As I was leaving the camp along the highway, a man looked at me, confused, and said, 'I’m new. This is camp?'
'Yes,' I said.
I thought, you must have been through so much already. I thought, you must have so much more to go through. I thought, I’m so sorry.
Yet, everything changes. A friend who was severely threatened in Calais, and who has been at great risk in La Linière because of his ethnicity, has been trying to get to the UK for a long time. Last night, he sent me these messages:
Nannie Sköld is a former delegate of the Young Scotland Programme