Thoughts on a month in Calais, France

Tobias Drilling

Tobias (they/he) is a social anthropologist, humanitarian, activist, and catalyst for systemic change committed to supporting people on the move.

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Photo Credit: Tobias Drilling

November 2023. A month in Calais and Dunkerque, a month of working almost every day, a month full of cold, full of emotions, full of laughter and sadness, a month like few others.

Burnt rice, muddy rubber boots, instant coffee, oversized reflective jackets, friendship bracelets in Afghan colors, connect four. People on the move live in tents scattered around the edges of the forest of Calais and Dunkerque. I mainly meet young men from Sudan, South Sudan, Kurdish areas and Afghanistan. The men have different stories and reasons to be here. Some have been on the journey for years, others for just a few weeks. For some, the route through Europe is the easy part of their journey, others can barely make it through here. Some have enough money, others are poor.

Still, they are all queuing for our distribution. Because they are all in the same situation here: in rain, ice and snow, living in our old festival tents, they experience police violence while they wait for the next opportunity to cross the Channel to England. They are looking for freedom and are trapped in dependence. Depending on the benevolence of the state, depending on the support of NGOs, depending on coincidences and luck in misfortune. It is a place of extremes, a place of contrasts.

“He tells me he goes swimming almost every day.

To shower.

In the sea.


Salt water must make him crusty.

Then he tells me that his skin is cleaner than anyone else’s here.

Hygiene is important to him.”

They all got stuck in Calais or Dunkerque. In a small northern French town with around 75,000 inhabitants, a town with its own challenges and a lot of poverty. Calais has been a city characterized by migration for centuries due to its proximity to England. An important harbor. People have become jaded. Too much misery on their doorstep. Only a few locals still actively supporting people on the move. As is so typical, a young bubble of humanitarian activists lives in the city, at first glance recognizable as non-native, with an academically privileged habitus, together in the same bar in the evenings. People who often only spend a short time in this place with the hope to bring a little dignity to the refugees. I was one of them.

This connection with people on the move, which arises simply from the fact that you are stuck in the same place (intentionally or unintentionally) which is not your home, is an interesting emotion. People on the move often ask me why I am in Calais and Dunkerque when I come from the most beautiful country in the world. I find it difficult to answer. Because I don’t want to talk about white guilt, privilege, and global responsibility. I often blame the dysfunctional system and that I therefore want to change something and tackle this concretely through work like this one in Calais and Dunkerque. A Sudanese man defines my purpose in Calais as “helping” , against all my convictions, I end up agreeing with him. But who is really being helped?

We continue to talk about its purpose. How important it is to have a goal in life. Here in Calais he only has one purpose: to get across the Channel. He devotes all his strength, energy and thoughts to this goal. A dangerous goal. People attempt the 7-hour journey to England mostly on rubber dinghies. Boats filled with a disproportionate number of people, engines that stall, high waves, wind, police violence, tear gas and much more In the month I was in Calais, there were five evening mourning ceremonies for people who lost their lives because of the brutal border policies.[1] In doing so, we try to show people the respect they deserve, at least in death, and to create a shared momentum of remembrance.

“I actually wanted to take the morning off to write,

but right now, I feel nothing but emptiness,



The situation and this place are so incredibly difficult, cold and windy,

I have no words.

I don’t know what to do with this situation,

what exactly is my role here?

It seems too complex,

too sunk in and stuck

in a misery from which no one knows a way out.

Naming solutions is good,

but how can we implement this in the reality check?

Do solutions lead to more problems?

I’m at a loss.


On the other hand, many people also successfully made the crossing to England. In my last week alone around 1,000 people. Because it is and remains a reality: people in search of freedom cannot be stopped. Their routes can be made more dangerous, they can be exposed to violence, deaths can be accepted as collateral damage. But migration has been part of humanity since the beginning of society. And in view of the many wars and injustices around the world, 3,000 people in Calais and Dunkerque seem like a very small number.

People take the risks of fleeing because they cannot imagine a future in their respective home countries. And yes, there are all sorts of different realities in the lives of these people on the move, including the exception of the boy who just bought white sneakers for his waiting time in Dunkerque. But in the end, he too is exposed to the same dangers and can suddenly find himself completely evicted by the police.

I had many conversations in search of an understanding of the situation. People told me how they built rockets in Afghanistan as children, were tortured for years in the Iranian prison, walked through the desert for days without water, or had to flee through a Libya armed to the teeth. I give these examples to put the situation in Calais and Dunkerque into context, because many of the people here have already experienced a lot. Here, their lives seem fragile and yet they are more resilient than I could ever imagine. Their deaths are accepted by governments, their lives are worth less in comparison. They experience what European humanity prefers to keep quiet.

Sometimes we must actively go to these places ourselves to see these realities. Making people out of numbers. And I think that is exactly where we as privileged people are asked: to be present, to actively listen and to carry these stories into our privileged worlds. Because we are faced with a challenge where distributing food, sleeping bags, tents, and jackets alone is no longer enough. The slogan “Solidarity not Charity” comes to my mind again and again, and with it the question of how I can change systems and not just engage in petty politics. How can we collectively give these people the dignity and respect they deserve? And how can such a society based on solidarity achieve a majority of support?

[1] As I write this text, I learn of another mourning ceremony following a tragic boat accident on the Channel.