Q&A with photojournalist Howard Davies: Documenting the displaced in northern France

News Stories, 14 August 2009

© UNHCR/H.J.Davies
Afghan men sit in their makeshift shelter in the woods near Dunkerque in northern France.

Howard Davies is a photographer whose assignments with UNHCR over the past 20 years, have include documenting refugees in Pakistan, the wars in the Balkans and the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Recently he returned to Calais, in northern France, where hundreds of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are living in makeshift camps or derelict buildings, the majority waiting for a chance to be smuggled into the United Kingdom. UNHCR and its partner, France Terre d'Asile, provide information to them on asylum procedures in France and the UK. For several years, starting in 1999, the area was the site of the controversial Sangatte camp, near the entrance of the Channel Tunnel linking France and Britain, which housed people looking to enter the Britain. Davis spoke to UNHCR's Senior Public Information Officer in Paris, William Spindler.

Why were you interested in this story?

As a photojournalist, I covered the Sangatte camp in Calais extensively when it was at its peak and I also covered the closure of the camp for UNHCR in 2002. Since then, I have done other projects but I have been following the situation in Calais and knew the number of people living rough there had been growing. I thought it would be a good time to go to make an update on the situation.

How does the situation now compare with Sangatte?

There are many differences, but the main one is that Sangatte was a huge warehouse with many children and families as well as single young men. With both the Red Cross and UNHCR there, people, on the whole, felt safe. Now it is almost all single young men, with very few families. And they endure much worse conditions, and are more vulnerable, sleeping in makeshift camps.

You visited some of these makeshift camps. What did you find?

I visited some of the camps on the coast near Dunkerque, as well as five or six camps in Calais, which are mainly divided along ethnic lines. I visited a camp where a group of Sudanese, about 30 of them, were living in a tent given to them by a local charity. Ten days earlier they said the French police had come and bulldozed the derelict house where they had been living. They were very nervous and did not want their pictures taken.

I also visited the so-called Pashtun "jungle", a forest where some 700 or 800 Afghans live. It was hard gaining trust to take photographs. They said that lots of journalists had come and taken photographs but things had not changed for them after the journalists' visits. There has been a lot of media coverage. On a couple of visits, people smugglers came and they immediately told me not to take any photos. There is a widespread fear that the French police will close the camp. It seems the traffickers believe that the media coverage is provoking the closure of the camps.

Did the smugglers threaten you?

A couple of times they came up to me and it felt quite threatening. They made it very clear that there would be no pictures taken. My impression is that the others were scared of them. The smugglers look different; well dressed, wearing expensive watches and speaking fluently in several languages. People explained to me that the smugglers will lose clients if they are dispersed. Now they have people under their control and it feels that the people there are just a commodity.

Did you manage to talk to some of the people? What did they tell you?

People want to tell their stories. My impression is that many of them were fleeing conflicts where they had lost relatives or their whole families. Some of the Afghans said they wanted to escape the Taliban and told stories of how they could be forced to fight or their families killed. I asked them why they wanted to go to the UK and not France, and they said they did not feel safe in France. Some of them speak English, not many speak French that well. They have this idea that England is a "good" and "safe" country for refugees and some have relatives there already. They can't explain why, but they feel England will take care of them.

Did you see any children in these makeshift camps?

I saw a few younger boys who seemed quite vulnerable but seemed to be with relatives, but there was at least one boy aged 14 who I photographed and who, as far as I could tell, was unaccompanied. The others said that they were helping him. He had been travelling overland from Afghanistan for a long time and looked to be in a state of shock. France Terre d'Asile is trying to identify some of these unaccompanied children. They have the option to go to a local children's home but they say they do not like it there and usually go back to their friends in the "jungle". UNHCR is liaising with the home to see if more support can be offered for the unaccompanied children from the camps.