Dunkirk: A photo essay in which refugees seek peace.
Five o’clock in the morning. A March morning filled with fog through which the sun shyly breaks through.
When you let the air out of your mouth, it mixes with the cold to form steam, and after 15 minutes of walking, you start to feel the chill in your feet. On the outskirts of the village of Dunkirk sits a wilderness area that legally belongs to the refinery. Under the name of the refugee camp, it has for many years provided solace and a space where refugees, tired from their journey, can breathe and prepare for the journey ahead. It encompasses a large, flat area that we might call a threshing floor and a stretch of forest surrounded by a river called the ‘jungle’. The land dispute is hard to explain, revealing an absurdity and a sea of paradoxes. The general idea is that refugees residing in France have an illegal status. The law, however, is more likely to allow them to meet legality on the land than outside it. The area, however, belongs to a refinery, so the police evict them on average twice a month.
Refugee camp: a stop on an uneasy road
Dunkirk mainly receives refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan (and other areas where Kurds live). These places are subject to war, political persecution, and war crimes. The economy is devastated by long-running conflicts, and security is under constant threat.
Crossings to Europe are challenging. The costs that refugees have to bear are often beyond their means.
The savings of their entire family usually finance the crossing of one refugee. Remember that we are talking about countries where the average monthly income, according to administrative data, fluctuates around two hundred dollars. The reality, however, deviates significantly from norms due to instability in these countries. Countrymen from Afghanistan, for example, told us that they earned a dollar a day. The average cost of getting to Europe cannot be calculated. In my conversations with refugees, I have heard of sums of $ 3,000 per crossing demanded by smugglers. However, I have also heard of $8000 and $3,000 for information about a ship. A ship that stands somewhere and goes here, but whether it will take and arrive is unknown, so the risk is enormous.
Refugee life in a camp on the brink of crisis
The Dunkirk camp deviates from the populist definition of migrant camps.
Everyone is in it voluntarily and can leave it at any time. It is not a state-ruled ghetto that separates its residents from society. It is a space where refugees arrive to gather strength to continue their journey. The authorities claim that migrants are illegally occupying the area and settling in. However, the truth is different. As a rule, refugees spend one to several days there. The longest-standing person I could speak to was in Dunkirk for a fortnight.
Recovery is not limited to a temporary halt in the trek. In Dunkirk, refugees can get a hot meal, receive medical assistance, take a shower or equip themselves with clothes, blankets and tents.
Refugee camp kept alive by volunteers
Volunteers from organisations such as Help4Dunkierque and other NGOs are waiting on site. Every day, they come to the camp to help.
It is hard to say what time they start the day. They prepare hot meals at night and bake bread in the morning.
Later, the ‘bathhouse’, an old bus converted into a mobile shower, is put into operation. However, it still has the heart of an old Ford, so the ritual of encouraging it to come to life sometimes takes up most of the morning.
Eight o’clock in the morning. The first team is already in the ‘jungle’ and treats the most frosty with warm tea. The early spring mornings do not spoil with temperatures. The hardest hit are those who arrive at night – often in soaked clothes and without tents. A mug of hot drink at such a time means so much more than usual, and the gratitude it writes on faces is hard to convey with words. This is why I take pictures.
Moments later, the clothing team arrives. Soaked jackets, T-shirts and shoes are exchanged for washed, dry ones.
It is not the shoes that make the man
In European society, I often encounter a charge against refugees that criticises the items they own. The extreme right undermines the legitimacy of helping people who are dressed in designer clothes. Personally, if I had to walk a million kilometres on my boots fleeing gunfire, I would choose my best shoes rather than my grandfather’s flip-flops.
For the rest, the value of objects in such situations is subject to transformation.
I am standing next to a van from which clothing is being issued, and I observe a situation. The team can’t find a size 44. There is a hustle and bustle among the volunteers who are digging through the pile of clothes. Suddenly, in a semi-triumph, a girl emerges from the abyss inside the car with a pair of worn-out shoes. They are size 42, two sizes too small for the foot of the Afghan man who has asked about the shoes. The volunteer hands them to him and declares sadly that they are the only ones she has found. The boy tries them on, saying that it’s okay, that he can manage, the important thing is that they are not wet. He pulls the Nikei off his wrinkled, calloused feet and presses the tried-on shoes onto them. He bends the back part, treating them like flip-flops, gives his shoes back to the volunteers with a sincere thank you, and I’m just now realising that I’ve been observing the swapping of branded but wet Jordans for worn-out hallmark ‘sneakers’ that are two sizes too small.
The shower arrives on site. The middle of the car is divided into two cabins, which are disinfected every 10 baths. Refugees, holding towels and fresh underwear in their hands, line up. Contact with running water helps to recover morale and wash away all the fatigue accumulated by the trek.
A walk down memory lane
I’m waiting for my buddy, who has been helping out at the camp for a month, to finish issuing ‘numbers’ for the shower and be changed by our friend. Walking alone in the jungle area can be dangerous. People who have been traumatised and no longer carry confidence in humanity are suspicious of the type with a camera to their face. They don’t know who I am or what my intentions are.
I am perceived entirely differently when I walk with Marcin – the refugees know him and are fond of him. They see in his face the man who gave them food and clothes and dressed their wounds. We walked through the area and talked. Marcin shows me the remains of the bonfires, telling me the story of the previous day.
These are not bonfires made to warm. A fire, in this case, set by a state-sponsored ‘cleaning company’, ceases to be an element that gives warmth and becomes a threat that takes away safety, peaceful sleep and private belongings.
The evacuation took place at night. The police ordered people to flee from their tents and gave no time for a free evacuation. Refugees plunged into sleep were woken by lights and shouts. They were only allowed to take necessities with them. Most of them had lost their documents, jackets, blankets and tents. The cleaning company collected these belongings and piled them up in heaps, then set them on fire.
In the pictures above, we can see two vehicles. One was driven by an invalid from Afghanistan, and the other was driven by Kurds fleeing.
In addition to arson and eviction, the ‘clean-up company’ also committed preventive actions. It drove in heavy equipment – excavators – with which the ground was dug up. To what end? On a ploughed-up surface, it is harder to pitch a tent harder to exist. What served as a house only a day before today forms a landscape of folds covering the jungle terrain.
The events described above are repeated twice a week. Refugees who are fleeing war and famine lose everything, and they already possess very little.
As an ordinary person, all I can do is spend a few days helping out in the camp, write an article, and take photographs. I am not in a position to stop wars or offer shelter to the people who have lost them. As ordinary people, we feel our power to make things happen is small. Crises exist, people die, and what we can do is emergency aid—reducing evil and helping.
The people whose stories I have described have food, clothing and the ability to bathe, thanks to Help4Dunkierque.
The volunteers, who work for free, are driven by goodness and hope. The organisation is not funded; it is grassroots non-governmental. It needs money.
~ Rob Silent
This article first appeared in Rob Silent.