Around sixty Sudanese migrants are surviving in a discrete makeshift camp in Ouistreham, in north-west France. Although there is a certain stability here, they all pursue the same objective every day: to stowaway on a truck to get to England by ferry.
An unseasonally sunny February morning has inspired Ouistreham locals to get out and enjoy this fresh spring moment. Everyone seems to be out strolling on the country path that runs along the canal leading to Caen, from Ouistreham. Riding his bike, Mahmoud meanders between the cyclists in lycra and the groups of walkers with walking sticks. The voice of a Sudanese rapper comes out of his phone and mixes with the shrill cries of the seagulls. Slowing down slightly, the young man suddenly takes a sharp turn and disappears into the small wood alongside the road.
Deep inside the trees, about 50 makeshift shelters have been erected among the trees. For about 300 meters, blue plastic sheets are stretched between the trunks. Some of them are supported by spindly branches cut off as hoops. This is where Mahmoud has been living for a year, with nearly sixty other migrants from Sudan, like him.
Unlike the camps in Calais and in the cities of northern France, the Ouistreham camp rarely gets dismantled. Here, there is no "police harassment" like the NGOs in Calais claim is a regular occurrence there. Located far from the beaches and the town center, the camp is "invisible" to both residents and tourists.
"This seclusion at least guarantees them tranquillity, and at the same time a certain stability. At least for the moment," says Philippe, from the local collective Citoyen.nes en lutte.
In Ouistreham, Mahmoud and his compatriots are only a short hop away from their ultimate goal: England. In order to reach England from this coastal town, they hope to hook up with one of the many lorries carrying goods that pass through the town every day, the departure point for ferries to Portsmouth, in the south of the United Kingdom.
Since 2017, many migrants have tried to cross the English Channel via this route, rather than through Calais and the far north of France. That year, "up to 250 migrants settled in Ouistreham", according to Philippe. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit put a stop to maritime traffic between France and the UK, forcing migrants to turn back.
But in the past six months or so, crossings have resumed, raising hopes of a passage for Sudanese migrants. According to an officer posted in the region, "the number of attempts remains constant" at present, but they are "very regular". Almost every week, migrants are spotted by port security officers, who then hand them over to the police. "Some still manage to get through from time to time," says Philippe. "Even if it's rare, it still makes the dream possible in the eyes of those who remain."
After prison in Libya and Malta, 'this is my new reality'
23-year-old Ahmed hopes one day to get on a truck, so he can join his brother on the other side of the Channel. He has been surviving in this camp for five months, after passing through Calais. It has already been too much for this former nursing student from Sudan, who has been badly damaged by his journey. With his head down, he tells InfoMigrants in a low voice that he left Darfur in 2020 for Libya first. In Libya, which he describes as "terrible for all migrants", Ahmed waited seven long months, including one in Al Zaouïa prison.
A few weeks after he was released, he crossed the Mediterranean for Europe. The voyage took three days and he was with 75 other people from Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia. "We managed to get to Malta alone. But we were immediately thrown into prison again. I was there for nine months. Now I'm here, this is my new reality," he murmurs bitterly, pointing to the shelters all around, some of which are overgrown with unkempt brambles. The green grass of the campsite that adjoins the camp, just behind him, has been meticulously mowed. The shrubs are carefully trimmed into shapes.
Ahmed walks away, stumbling. His shoes are too small for his feet. The young man follows the smell of a wood fire that suddenly permeates the camp. A little further on, a small group has lit a fire. It's time for breakfast. Finely chopped onions and tomatoes are simmering in a cast-iron pot. Another migrant, with his hat tight on his head, is holding his hands over the food to keep warm.
All the products collected from the aid organizations are stored nearby under a miniature yurt. "We buy them what they ask for: eggs, onions, vegetables, white beans, fruit juice and bread," explains Cécile, another activist from the Citoyen.nes en lutte collective. The floor of the "kitchen area" is strewn with straw, to absorb stagnant water. While the food preparation continues, one of the cooks grabs a bundle and spreads it out a little further, where the mud has taken over.
Traffic lights stuck on orange
For the rest of the day, the migrants take it in turns at the D-Day roundabout, at the entrance to the town, or in the small street with the fountain near the port. In both areas, the aim is the same: to get on a truck, to reach the port and then the ferry. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the former migrant camp was located on this roundabout and its immediate vicinity.
"During the first lockdown, in March 2020, its occupants were sent to accommodation centers in the region. When they returned to Ouistreham in May, large stones had been laid everywhere by the town hall. It was impossible to set up a shelter there," says Philippe.
Even if they no longer live there, migrants continue to come every day. This is the "lucky" spot. According to the migrants, getting on to a truck here is a bit easier, even if the trucks don't stop anymore. All the traffic lights in the area are blocked at flashing orange.
When weariness and fatigue are too great, the migrants leave the woods for a while and take refuge in a large house taken over by Citoyen.nes en lutte since January 22. Located just opposite the canal lock, it had been left empty for two years by a sailing association. The entrance is marked by a small, faded white gate, which opens onto a large plot of land. "We would like to make a vegetable garden with the migrants. In addition to being useful, it could keep them busy during the day and take their minds off things a bit," says Philippe.
A small outside staircase leads to the living room, where armchairs and a sofa bed are arranged. On two floors, a total of 25 beds are spread out on bunks. About ten people, wrapped up in duvets, are enjoying the heating, toilets and showers of the living area. A few telephones are plugged in here and there in the rooms. In the kitchen, the shelves are stocked with pasta, flour, tea and coffee filters.
But this fragile calm is now under threat. "A bailiff came by a few days ago," says Philippe. "We will know on March 10, whether we can stay here or not." The last building this NGO occupied for the migrants was a few kilometers away, in Ranville, but it was evacuated in October.
In the main room, a migrant is still enjoying a few hours of warm sleep under a thick blanket. Above him, a large map of the UK has been hung on the wall. Everyone here is dreaming of the same thing.
Marlène Panara, InfoMigrants special correspondent in Ouistreham.