Posted by steven greaves photography on March 20, 2010 · 

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At 9am this morning, asylum seekers in France woke to cries of “Police! Police!” These boys and men, mostly Sudanese from Darfur, had taken up refuge in an abandoned warehouse in the port town of Calais. The small town, once famed for its’ lace industry, is ground zero for Europe’s war on migration. It is a staging ground where Africans (mostly Sudanese) and Asians (mostly Afghans) bide their time and try their luck at the opportunity for a new life. Across the English Channel (approximately 21 miles from Calais) lies Dover, England and, to the lucky few who make it, the Promised Land.
Fires burned as black bodies warmed themselves against the morning chill. Chai, heavily sugared, sat steaming on makeshift grills fashioned from bits of discarded wire. Some of the refugees milled about in the enclosed courtyard brushing their teeth or washing their faces. Under a clothes line full of wet garments, one man faced toward a distant Mecca and began his morning prayers. Debris littered the ground around him as sunlight struggled to penetrate overcast skies. On wooden pallets, the ground or in tents donated by local charity organizations, the remainder still slept. They were no longer safe in dreams unknown. 

The cry rang out- “Police! Police!”- and, with it, bodies scrambled. Many, woken from slumber, jumped from their beds, quickly dressed and ran toward the rear exit. Others gathered possessions- blankets, mobile phones, saucepans and plastic sheeting- and ran into underground tunnels filled with decaying refuse and the warehouse’s moldering foundations.  Those with little to fear- the ones with French papers- remained camped out by the fire pits as they watched their friends scramble for safety and escape. They could do little to help. Like me, they could only bear witness. 

With bolt cutters and brute force, about 15 Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (riot and immigration police) officers burst into the compound and raced toward the unsuspecting refugees. The only other exit and likely escape route had already been blocked by another 10 officers. Those that had fled in that direction were already being picked up by the black-clad cops. 

Hidden behind a skeletal wall, I began to shoot as the drama unfolded around me. It did not take long before I was noticed. A phalanx of officers rushed in my direction, surrounded me and put their hands in the air in an effort to shield my lens from recording the moment. In stern language I was told “No picture!,” “No photo!” and, unsure what to do, dropped my camera to my waist. It was my first interaction with French authorities in the five weeks I have been in Calais. Taken out of the warehouse and into the courtyard, I was told to face the wall, outstretch my arms and asked if I had any weapons. With quivering hands, I produced a knife and my passports and was again told to turn toward the wall. Beside me, a 30-something Sudanese man with arms similarly outstretched was being patted down. His crutches lay propped against the wall and a look of confusion and frustration was apparent in his gaze. With no chance of escape, he was obviously the first catch of the day. 

As adrenaline coursed through my system and anger surged, I dropped my arms, turned around and began to again shoot. The initial fear of the incident had somehow now subsided. I was determined to gain back the control I had lost. A young officer ran over and immediately ordered me to stop. I explained to him that I was a journalist and that “this is my job.”  He continued his tirade in a mixture of French and English forbidding my actions but I continued. Although on private property, I knew they could do little and began to feel like I had the upper hand. Seeing that I was not going to comply, I was shepherded inside the warehouse, told to stay put and, again, to stop shooting. I refused. A senior officer began speaking to the officer detaining me and, with passports and knife very quickly returned, I was thrown out of the compound. The heavy gates swung shut as did my ability to see what was happening to the asylum seekers inside. 

On the street outside, now public property, I resumed my work but was again harangued for doing so. Two officers had been charged with securing the entrance and, I suspect, prohibiting my re-entry. They repeatedly told me to leave the site but, again, I refused. I calmly rolled a cigarette, lit it and inhaled the smoke as the officer’s gazes bore into me. Their frustration became evident as one strode up to me and yelled into my face. I smiled as I spoke to him celebrating the rights of the free press, my ability to stand on public property and to shoot as I chose. This monologue did little to calm his anger and he stormed off into the compound leaving me with a more rational, calmer and seemingly older officer. He seemed to get a kick out of my ability to piss off the younger, eager officer so I offered a compromise. “If you stop working, I will stop working,” I said. He cracked a smile, turned and continued to watch the gate. 

The doors opened sporadically as officers went back and forth to and from vans waiting outside. From them, they brought ladders and bolt cutters. Another was driven inside the compound. The steel gates immediately shut obscuring my view of the interior. Periodically, the gates would again open as asylum seekers trickled out one-by-one. With looks of despair, they exited on to the street and left the scene. One strode up beside me and briefly remained until the officer tried to usher him away. “Where do I go?” he said, “This is my home.” The officer did not reply but simply pointed his finger down the street and stared into the man’s eyes. Those exiting were the lucky ones; they had French papers and were legally allowed to be in-country. Despite avoiding arrest like their friends, they knew, however, that their possessions would be confiscated and the squat destroyed.  They would have to rebuild and again amass the basic necessities for a meager existence- blankets, pots, pans, jackets and jerry cans. This was not new to them; it happened every week. 

As vans were pulled into the compound, I witnessed those who were not so lucky. They were being loaded up and driven away. About 20 would be carted off to spend a few hours, if not the night in jail. Eventually, all would be released back onto the streets and the game of “cat and mouse” would start anew. Although the borders are tight and opportunities for safe passage are few, as long as there is a chance, they will keep trying. They will keep coming!

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