The recent scale of tragedies in the Mediterranean— now rather morbidly dubbed “the sea cemetery”—have elicited media narratives on sunk migrant boats that often conceal policies and practices that put their lives at risk in the first place. Many reports don’t take into account that while lives lost are mourned—publicly, at least—the migrants who do survive are shuttled into detention centres or pursued for being “illegal“. For the survivors who make it to Calais, the French town with a direct port to the UK, there is no detention centre, but rather makeshift camps with no sanitation and running water. Occupying a transit space, they wait in undocumented limbo to make the last leg of their journey and cross into the UK.
The place that Calais holds in the European imagination has shifted over the decades. Auguste Rodin’s 19th century sculpture “Burghers of Calais” depicts six men who sacrificed their lives for the besieged town during the 100 Years’ War between France and the UK. Located in in front of Calais town hall, it stands as a central monument to civic heroism. It captures the moment of the men’s departure from France to England and straight into one of the King’s camps. Imagine if such a monument honouring all the refugees who likewise departed their lands—for the sake of family or community and with the knowledge they’d be shuttled into detention centres and camps—were created to stand in a central government site.
Nothing could be further from that scenario, of course. Migrants are chased and beaten by police, their makeshift shelters destroyed and their means to healthcare effectively blocked. But as far from the centre as they are, artists from outside and inside Calais have provided depictions of migrants in this transit zone. A variety of documentaries have rendered realist portrayals, such as Marc Isaacs’ Calais: The Last Border (2003), which juxtaposes the world of migrants fleeing from war against that of British day trippers searching for leisure and adventure. Sylvain George’s May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of War) (2010) is an intense black-and-white chronicle of migrant attempts to cross into the UK and a close-up of the violent police clampdowns they face. Other films, including No Comment (2008) by Nathalie Loubeyre and Joël Labat and Invisibles (2014) by Pascal Crépin, provide a context for the Calais crisis, documenting the closure of the Red Cross Sangatte camp years ago and giving space to migrant testimonials of human rights violations.
But films on these issues are not limited to the documentary genre. Phillipe Lioret’s migration drama Welcome (2009) tells of a love story that drives a young Iraqi man to risk his life crossing to the EU and then attempting to enter the UK to be reunited with his love. Because the film also features a father figure who helps the young man, it also reveals the French criminalisation of those who harbour the undocumented.
Realism also characterises current photography collections on the Calais camps, with an emphasis on documenting appalling conditions and social problems; a realism of entering a local space and reproducing its “reality”. Richard Jinman’s photography collection Galloo Squat (2014) focuses on what’s also known as “Fort Galloo”, a building now inhabited by Sudanese, Egyptian, and Syrian refugees. The photos are a snapshot of the mundane—a haircut, a washing line, a stack of washed plates—but situated in an all-male dark and dank abandoned factory. The idea that such “squats” are subject to state regulation are unsettled by these intimate portraits—intimate, because they have captured the private, quotidian aspect of illegal and undocumented settlements, the daily tasks of home and community building. The concept of home in these settlements is also taken up by Henk Wildschut’s exhibition Shelter (2015), showing the different kinds of makeshift housing used by desperate migrants: tents, wooden crates and even debris. The brooding, anxious black-and-white photos of Julien Pebrel’s collection Les Migrants De Calais (2008) show another side to undocumented migration—the wandering, the evasion of surveillance, the avoidance of getting caught. On the road, the migrants are shown walking with their belongings in one hand, scoping a border fence, heading en masse to the port.
The artwork of Calais native Louise Druelle (also known as Loup Blaster) feature, on one hand, this frontier of global commerce and trade, the Calais port; and on the other reveal the obverse side of globalisation. In her paintings, settlement scenes depict police harassment represented by riot gear and a death mask, and a meeting in the squat known as the “Tioxide Jungle” (named after the chemical factory in the area).
From within the settlements’ temporary communities have sprung murals, songs, and vernacular, informal architecture. Although ephemeral cultural productions are part of this transit space, Druelle, an activist herself, was able to capture Sudanese migrant songsperformed on acoustic guitar in the Fort Galloo camp and post them online. With the help of activists, a Fulani-style cabin was erected in one of the camps, and a makeshift church has also gone up. Sometimes, art classes are even conducted. Murals, as well as graffiti, feature portraits of migrants and peace slogans that mirror their aspirations.
Of course, there are no national Rodin-esque monuments to honour Calais’s migrants and refugees. While Calais’s informal settlements are considered transitory and illegal, they are still complex communities in the making; comprised of an average of 2,500 migrants at any one time. Their coordinates have been marked by smugglers, hefty sums, flimsy boats, police violence and detention. That the expression of their fears and desires also marks the spaces they inhabit, however temporarily, speaks to an extraordinarily vital construction of complex community life despite enormous struggle and hardship.