Conversations From Calais: the powerful design project giving a voice to refugees

Mathilda Della Torre is making sure the words of refugees living in Calais camps are heard

"You said you were going back to Syria," reads a poster pasted on a wall on a street in London. "I asked you if it was safe there. You answered you didn't care, at least if you died there, it would be with dignity and in your own country, instead of dying here, like an animal."

This heartbreaking extract is from a conversation between a refugee stranded in France and a volunteer aid worker. It is one of about 100 emotional snippets printed on to posters and put up throughout more than 50 cities across five continents and in several languages, as part of a project called Conversations From Calais.

On another poster, the words read: "You asked me if I had seen those photos of white people coming to Sudan. You said the white people always looked so happy, smiling with the locals. You said they always felt welcomed in your country, because they were treated as guests in your home. So you asked me why you didn't deserve the same treatment in Europe. I didn't know what to answer."

Mathilda Della Torre, 23, who is studying for a master's degree in graphic communication design in London, launched the project at the end of last year. Through it, she says she hopes to re-­humanise the refugee crisis, highlighting the struggles and hardships faced by so many people fleeing their home countries in search of safety and security in Europe.

"Two years ago, I decided to go to Calais Refugee Camp with my mum to volunteer after we'd attended a pop-up shop run by Help Refugees where you could buy items like notebooks, food or clothes for migrants," Della Torre tells The National. "I was so shocked this was happening and that I hadn't been aware of it. I thought everything had ended. I felt embarrassed and naive to be French and not know about this."

Last month, 220 migrants were rescued in the English Channel in the space of 48 hours. Last year, 2,758 boats attempted to cross the Channel illegally – a five-fold increase compared to 2018, during which 568 tried to cross. The camp Della Torre visited, which is also known as "the Calais Jungle", hosted almost 10,000 refugees at its peak and was cleared by French authorities in October 2016, with about 6,000 people moved. At the time, France's interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said the country would create accommodation for thousands elsewhere in a bid "to unblock Calais".

CFC 13 Asylum application appeals can take up to 18 months forcing children and adults onto the streets during that time Photo by Help Refugess_Choose Love

Soon after, amid failed asylum applications and mounting racism, migrants began gathering in the area again in the hope of making a successful attempt to cross the Channel, eventually forming several smaller camps that are regularly cleared. "The French police arrive early in the morning and take away a lot of their belongings," Della Torre explains. "The refugees are forced into this cycle of constantly having to find a new place and this is what is so physically and mentally exhausting and damaging."

The evictions are an attempt by authorities to prevent migrants from reaching the UK illegally. In November, Michel Cadot, the head of Paris's police force, said there would now be a permanent police presence deployed in order "to stop these camps reforming". He said the evacuations were a bid from the state to "take back the public space". The UK-France Co-ordination and Information Centre in Calais – which opened in 2018 and is operated by British Home Office border officials, National Crime Agency officers and British immigration enforcement staff – backs the strategy. Before the centre opened, UK home secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, said it would "allow the UK and France to work even closer in the fight to tackle illegal activity at the border and the crime networks who are putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk". 

Della Torre has a different take on the matter, arguing these evictions put even more vulnerable people at risk. "Now people are staying under bridges and next to the highway," she says. "The evictions are more and more frequent but the number of people is not decreasing. These people are totally dependent on humanitarian organisations." This is what inspired her to begin writing down conversations she had with people stranded in Calais, which led to the idea of creating the posters.

This project is a way of bearing witness, re-­humanising the migrant crisis, sharing stories and documenting what's happening

Della Torre recalls a particularly striking conversation she had while volunteering with Help Refugees to distribute clothes. A refugee asked for a specific colour of jumper, but it was no longer available. "He said to me 'but you don't understand, I haven't been able to make a choice about my food or my clothes for the past 18 months. I don't have choice in anything I do. I was sent by one smuggler to another, who decided where I was going, and then it's charities deciding when I'm going to eat, what I'm going to eat and where I'm going to eat'."

CFC 08 Mathhilda picttued is the founder of Conversations From Calais Photo by Teo Della Torre

After that exchange, Della Torre says she noticed negative coverage in the media about refugees attempting to cross the Channel, as well as an overall lack of media coverage about the situation in Calais. This spurred her decision to travel to Dover, which has a major port for ferries to Calais. She pasted the first 50 posters all across the English town.

"An article last autumn portrayed the arrival of migrant boats on the coast of England as an invasion – that the country had to strengthen its borders," she says. "So I travelled to Dover and put these conversations up using wheat pasting [a liquid adhesive created using wheat flour or starch mixed with water] – it is an easy way to gain control of public spaces."

After that she created an Instagram account called Conversations From Calais and in January she launched its website. It allows people from across the world to submit excerpts of their own conversations with refugees, as well as being able to download posters to display where they live.

Another poster reads: “You told me you were stuck in the sea for eight hours with your wife and five kids. The boat broke down. It was dark and the kids were crying. I saw the darkness in your eyes as you said you saw death in those waters.”

Josh Man-Saif, the community and networks manager for Help Refugees, says Europe should be ashamed of the lack of protection for child refugees who are travelling alone. "Two hundred unaccompanied minors are living just 20 miles away from Kent," he says. Under the Dublin Regulation, these children have the legal right to be reunited with family, he says. But with Britain leaving the EU, it means the future of this regulation is uncertain.

The Dubs amendment to the Brexit bill, which would have protected unaccompanied child refugees in Europe without family by transferring them to the safety of the UK, was overturned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Conservative MPs in January. Ministers argued the Brexit bill was not the appropriate place to deal with the issue.

"Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children as it cannot guarantee that we reach an agreement," UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told Parliament at the time. "That is why this is ultimately a matter which must be negotiated with the EU and the government is committed to seeking the best possible outcome in those negotiations."

But Man-Saif says this leaves no mechanism to protect these "lost" children. The only option for many unaccompanied minors is to use traffickers or try to take other dangerous routes. "It means one more lifeline is gone and these children will be forced to take more risks," he says. "It means chasing lorries, potentially getting on to a boat in a storm, sleeping outside for months with strangers you don't speak the same language as. So many children disappear."

Since 2016, the spaces available for refugees to camp in have become smaller, he says. "They were in the woods and then wastelands in industrial zones, but month by month police and private companies have fenced them off. Now most people are sleeping on the pavement at the side of the road."

Last month, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) released a statement condemning the failure of the French authorities to protect migrant children, specifically those who are unaccompanied. Corinne Torre heads MSF's mission for France and says that with the vast majority of asylum applications from unaccompanied children being rejected, the organisation took the decision to open a day centre in Paris that offers legal support, medical care and a safe, social environment for those aged under 18.

“A year after we’d opened the centre in 2017, 57 per cent of the unaccompanied minors we’d provided legal assistance for were recognised as minors, which shows that evaluations by the French authorities were not done properly,” Torre says.

CFC 10 French police carry out a clearance operation in Calais Photo by Help Refugess_Choose Love

She stresses mental health is a major problem among refugee children and that many of the minors MSF deal with have been kidnapped, tortured or suffered sexual violence, in their home country and during their journey into Europe. "We do mobile clinics every week in the north," she says. "We can testify that the situation is really bad. It is becoming increasingly complicated because now we have more unofficial camps around France. This includes families with kids, which is unacceptable

. We have more and more vulnerable people. European policies are not working. Everyone’s protecting their own borders.”

It is for these reasons that Della Torre says she feels the work she's doing through Conversations From Calais, no matter how small, is important. "It's about giving a voice to migrants," she says. "These people feel as though they are being ignored by governments. This project is a way of bearing witness, re-­humanising the migrant crisis, sharing stories and documenting what's happening."

It's been a success so far. The project gained momentum after January's Refugee Solidarity Summit in Deptford, where her posters were exhibited. A selection of images of the exhibition taken by a visitor garnered almost 12,000 shares online. "It's been a bit overwhelming but I've seen the positive side of social media," Della Torre adds. "Seeing there is a need for this project has motivated me to keep going. People still need to be talking about this issue."