Nannie Sköld is 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 latest despatch from La Linière
Today I wasn’t in La Linière. Two friends and I borrowed another volunteer’s car and drove to a sterile high-security building outside Lille’s airport. We knew of four people from the camp who were detained in the centre, and today learned of many more.
In detention, many people have given a different name to the police than what they call themselves in camp, in order to protect their identity. Because of this, it is tricky to ask to see someone without being certain of what name they were arrested under. Of the four friends we were planning to visit, we only managed to get the name of one in the end.
The visiting rooms are small, beige, and have four chairs nailed into the floor. I found a small chocolate in my bag to give the friend we were visiting. We hadn’t got anything else – it is Sunday and it is France, and not even the massive supermarket beside the camp is open. We asked how he was. We joked about him and his friends forming a boy band in the camp. After an hour, at 5pm, visiting hours were over, and we were ushered outside by the police.
The experience of spending time in a detention centre, and what is at stake, varies greatly from person to person. For some, detention, with the possibility of deportation, is the likelihood of being sent back to Bulgaria or Hungary, where systematic abuse against refugees is talked about as a rule rather than as an exception. For others, deportation would mean being sent back to Germany or Belgium, from where it would take a couple of hours to get back to La Linière by bus. Detention can be a frustratingly long wait for bureaucratic procedures to be completed, or it can be the end to any hope of ever getting to the UK.
Walking back to the car, we heard someone yelling our names. In one of the windows, we saw the faces of the three friends we hadn’t managed to visit. 'Chony bashi?', we all yelled to each other, 'How are you?', before getting into the car, and leaving to go back to the refugee camp where these men are trying to leave from, but at this moment wished they could return to.
In La Linière, there are approximately 900 bodies. Some bodies are in a relatively healthy condition given the situation they’re in, others are bruised by truck parts or Belgian police, and yet other bodies are extremely new and tiny. Refugee camps are not a normal environment for any of these bodies, and they are all – directly or indirectly – attempting to exist elsewhere.
For individuals trying to cross the border to the UK on lorries, the body can come to be seen as an obstacle. The 37 degrees of a human body can be picked up by infrared cameras. The smell of a body can be smelled by police dogs. If the body is discovered, the body may then have to walk back for several hours to return to the camp.
More or less a quarter of the women in the camp are pregnant. For these bodies carrying other, smaller, bodies, so much more is at stake. Do they still risk everything on a lorry? Or does the husband make separate attempts to get to the UK, with the hope of one day reuniting in the UK?
There are bodies that are constantly questioned. Individuals under the age of 18 are legally considered children, and have the right to more protection than adults. However, many minors do not have documents proving their date of birth, and are therefore subjected to scrutiny by authorities trying to disprove their claims of being under 18. Often this is based on little more than behaviour and appearance. In other words, bodies that look younger are likely to be given more protection than other bodies. Minors in bodies that appear older may be denied.
Two days ago, a six-year-old boy came up to me and shaped his fingers into a heart. I pointed at his heart and he took my hand to show me how his heart was pounding. I put two of my fingers together and held it against his neck to show him how to feel your own heartbeat.
The camp is full of bodies.
Maybe it’s winter now, maybe it’s just rainy, but, either way, it is a time of change and upheaval. Most obviously, Calais: the camp has during the last couple of weeks been completely demolished. The 10,000 people who were living in the camp have since been bussed to centres all over France, with only a ridiculously miniscule number of unaccompanied minors being taken to the UK, and many individuals and families having disappeared off the radar of humanitarian organisations.
A few days ago, a friend said that he was going to Calais to see if there was any information there about the possibility for unaccompanied minors to go to the UK through the schemes promised by the Home Office. Together with three other friends, we drove to Calais the next day. We were met by destruction, hundreds of birds, hostile but easily convinced police officers, a group of unhelpful officials, and another group of more helpful humanitarian workers.
Returning to our car after the unsuccessful attempt, we passed by the (former) bus that used to be the (unofficial) women’s and children’s centre in Calais. And a man who was looking for treasures in what was left of it.
Meanwhile, in La Linière, the situation has become more volatile after the demolition of Calais. Rumours about the camp closing, which have always circulated, are being taken more seriously. The efforts of Afeji, the state-sponsored organisation responsible for running the camp, to close the camp are becoming more difficult to ignore. Individuals and families are coming back after having been in a lorry, or in detention, to find their shelters (together with all their possessions) having been taken away.
In August, Afeji decided to restrict entry to the camp to allow people who they consider to be 'vulnerable' – families, minors, and individuals with severe medical conditions. In October, the organisation decided to not allow any new individuals or families access to the camp (although many have found alternative ways to get in). Last week, in an effort to further regulate the camp, Afeji introduced wristbands. Although there had been rumours about the wristbands being individualised and users being forbidden to remove them, the wristbands now in place are flimsy rubber bracelets, which many choose to keep in their pockets.
Yet a friend of mine tugged at his wristband in disgust and told me: 'It is like we are sheep.' Another friend told me that she takes off the wristband and puts it in her pocket when she goes to the supermarket, fearing that she would be judged.
In Calais, the camp was completely demolished within the space of a few days. In La Linière, rules are tighteningtighteningtightening and everyone fears what winter will bring.