At the Border
poem by Alison Lock
A bird flitters
through air, unhindered
by the razor wire.
A man flees,
but he is trapped
by the fence.
A night-moth plays
in the headlights,
A child clings -
A worm pushes
In January 2017, I went to Calais to work as a volunteer, together with two friends, Kasia and Tasha, and three suitcases of donations from Eynsham and Oxford. Normally we would have crossed the border without even thinking about it. This time, owing to the circumstances of our trip, we were fully aware of our privileged position, being EU citizens with the right to free movement. We took note of the lorries, which, for those people trapped on the other side of the border with no right to cross it, were the only way, however precarious, hopeless and expensive, to reach Britain.
La Linière refugee camp, my final stop, was pretty much invisible to travellers on the Calais-Dunkirk motorway, fenced off by wooden panels. Inhabited mainly by Iraqi Kurds, who suffered greatly from the advances of ISIS/Daesh, Iranians, Afghans and even Vietnamese, in a ‘no man’s land’ between railway tracks and a fast road, the camp was the only internationally recognized place in France offering shelter to refugees.
The camp shelters were small with little or no daylight. Built from wooden panels and (sometimes) warmed by gas heaters which often leaked, they were cold and dark, particularly in winter, and often housed entire families with children. I worked in two wooden barracks which served as a children’s centre for around 150 children in the camp, many of whom were clearly traumatised by the conditions they lived in and by nocturnal attempts to go ‘on the lorries’ with their families.
I was not allowed to take photographs in the camp. This was an unwritten but very well executed rule imposed by the French security company which formally ran the camp. Their presence was visible but, as many British newspapers reported at the time, their control over day-to-day activities in the camp was minimal. The camp was an unsafe place, particularly for refugee women and children who were subjected to sexual abuse by people traffickers. One of the most commonly distributed items in the camp were adult nappies for women, for whom it was too dangerous to use toilets after dusk. Their only safe space – the Women’s Centre, which was funded by thousands of pounds raised through crowdfunding – was burnt down only a few weeks after opening by one or some men from the camp, and I happened to arrive a few days afterwards.
What you see here, with the exception of just a few images taken with a camera through the windows of the children’s centre, is mobile phone footage from the camp. At the time I didn’t realize that this material would become precious so quickly – the camp was burnt down during fights between Kurdish and Afghani men amid tense and overcrowded conditions three months after I returned home.
Some images from this series are displayed at 'Lande: the Calais 'Jungle' and Beyond' exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (June - November 2019). To coincide with the exhibition I have self published a book on the camp entitled 'At the Border'. It's available for purchase here.