In October 2016, bulldozers came into the refugee camp known as the Calais Jungle. They tore apart the shelters that thousands of migrants had made their homes for the past few years before attempting the dangerous journey across the English Channel to the UK. The roughly 6,000 migrants who had been living in various forms of shelter throughout the camp were shipped off to temporary reception shelters throughout France. Although it has been more than three years since the official eviction of the Jungle camp, the charity Help Refugees estimates that there are still almost 1,500 migrants living in the forests of Northern France near Calais and Dunkirk, with around 200 of those being unaccompanied minors. In Calais, where the largest refugee camp in Europe once stood, approximately 500 people are sleeping in forests and under bridges, often with no shelter other than a sleeping bag. Charities such as Help Refugees have volunteers on the ground providing basic needs such as blankets, firewood and hot food; and work with lawyers to flag particularly vulnerable cases.

The French authorities have implemented a ‘hostile environment’ policy to deter refugees from setting up more permanent shelters, fearing a return to refugee camps on the same scale as the Jungle. In reality, this policy manifests as a constant displacement for the migrants situated there, with violent evictions early in the morning being a daily reality for people who have already faced weeks of treacherous journeying. Hundreds of people a month continue to risk their lives crossing the English Channel to Britain, only to face yet another hostile environment. With Brexit looming, and a Conservative government with its most significant majority in years, it is unlikely that these refugees will find the haven that they have risked their lives to find. Currently, the law states that unaccompanied child refugees have a right to be reunited with family in the UK, but with Brexit comes uncertainty as to how people seeking asylum will be treated in Britain without the pressure of the EU. In January of this year, the House of Commons voted against an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill that would preserve family reunification following Brexit. With a massive push in the UK for closed borders, and a ramping up of deportations by the Home Office, it is an uncertain time for people seeking asylum in Britain. Dehumanised by French authorities, dehumanised by politicians and the media; refugees are often seen as mere  statistics, only given the courtesy of a discrete identity if they die in tragic circumstances.

One project in the UK is attempting to bring a degree of humanity back to the refugee crisis. Conversations with Calais documents conversations had between volunteers and migrants in Calais refugee camps, printed out in distinct black and white and displayed by members of the public. Sometimes casual, sometimes incredibly poignant; the conversations give a glimpse into the human experiences behind the homogenous portrayal of refugees and migrants in the media. Mathilda from Conversations from Calais told STAND News how when starting this project she wanted to “break away from how migrants were portrayed in mainstream media by remembering, documenting and commemorating banal but intimate and relatable conversations”. Having volunteered with various organisations in Calais on and off for over a year, on returning home, Mathilda felt she had to document somehow the experiences she had in the refugee camps. This, coupled with anger at the portrayal of migrants in the media, led her to create Conversations from Calais. 

It is hard to estimate how many cities the posters are in now, as they are now easily downloaded from the Conversations from Calais website with instructions to make your own glue to stick them up around your city. The conversations have been translated into ten languages, and are in at least sixty cities across five continents. Often the way refugees are portrayed in the mainstream media reduces individual stories into lazy stereotypes; “as villains we need to protect our countries from, heroic figures we need to constantly celebrate, or hopeless victims that we need to save”. Conversations from Calais focuses on the individual stories, the everyday events behind the stories that find their way into international news. 

With simple black text against a white background, the simplicity of the posters mirrors the simplicity of the conversations they portray. They take away the complicated politics and bureaucracy, intellectual arguments and conflicting attitudes away from the conversations; distilling them down to merely an interaction between two humans. The humanity and openness of the conversations remind us that no matter how different our lives may be, there is more that unites us than divides us (a statement as important as it is corny). Conversations from Calais aims to highlight these ordinary conversations that do not often get the attention of the media, “we are all different and have a different story whether we are a refugee or not does not change that”. 

The humanity that Conversations from Calais gives its subjects is a welcome change from the portrayals given in the media, often by politicians and sometimes well-meaning commentators. While it will take incredible pressure and direct action from the public to push back against policies enacted which threaten migrant rights and safety, remembering our shared humanity is always a good place to start. Art and activism have the ability to move people, inspiring social change by appealing to the best of our humanity than the worst. The future is uncertain for those seeking asylum in Europe, with an increase in far-right presence in governments and on the streets in many countries; it is essential not to forget our fellow humans who just happen to have been born outside our borders. While it may seem like an impossibly large and complicated issue, Mathilda has faith that there is still a huge amount of compassion around us – “now it’s about finding ways to use that feeling to inspire social change and demand systematic change from our governments”. 

Find out more about the project on their website.

Photos by Ellen McVeigh

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