Migreat spoked with Phil Le Gal, a French documentary photographer, currently travelling in regions where asylum seekers are found to be entering the EU. Phil tells us about his initial documentary project on the Schengen space, what is happening in Calais on the ground and the importance to paint a more human picture of the crisis in the media.
The Start of the New Continent Project
Two years ago, Phil had formed the project to tour Europe’s in the aim to document with pictures and local migrant stories the human impact of the Schengen Agreement signed thirty years ago – on June 14th 1985.
“[Europe] has been suffering from bad publicity, whether it’s about migration, or about Greece and economics. But so much has been achieved,” he said. “Twenty-six countries without passport controls — you just whizz through and it’s amazing. And the fact that you can have rights in all these countries is amazing. People now take it for granted.”
The project named “the New Continent” aimed first to report on the new borders of the EU and celebrate the agreement’s achievement: a peaceful Europe, finally re-united. But the project went through a major refocus after May 2014.
A defining moment: the rise of extreme rights movements and the Calais crisis.
In May 2014, European extreme right parties – the likes of UKIP, Golden Dawn and Le Front National – won a majority of seats – and soon followed an IFOP poll that stated half of Western Europeans would be in favour for a return of border controls.
For Phil Le Gal, the EU elections was a “defining moment. That’s when I decided to go forward with the project”. Initially, Phil had a map of places where he wanted to go and collect stories. This is how it looked like:
However, after his visit to Calais and the news of an unprecedented wave of refugees crossing borders of Europe, Phil Le Gal had to adjust his travel plans to accommodate with the news. He no longer follows his map but let the news and refugees tell him which places to go next.
Using a documentary approach to media – he writes on his blog his reflections – coupling this with an embracement of social media tools – he posts daily on instagram and facebook pictures on the ground. He even set up a studio for a day.
Phil has now been documenting the refugee’s perspective of the Schengen space and it is working: his pictures illustrated an article from the World Policy Institute and other major media. What he has to say about the crisis seen from the ground is tough and draws a real insight of the current complex situation out of sensationalist headlines, expert ego fights on numbers and empathetic but naive calls.
Phil started in Calais’ named “jungle” – today perhaps one the most embarrassing and mediatic hot spot of the refugee crisis after the Macedonian border and the wall being currently built in Hungary. At the end of the summer, he will have stopped by most hot spots: Serbia, Hungary, Italy and Greece.
“What you see there is an unprecedented of number of people who have reached this area. Calais is unique because it offers three ways to reach the UK: by boat, lorry or train; and it is one Schengen border within the EU.”
Most asylum seekers Phil has met had sometimes little knowledge of European Geography. In Hungary, Phil met an undocumented migrant who asked him where he could find a taxi to Sweden. “They do not know that there is a border in Calais” – says Phil.
With a little sense of Geography, they also all share no knowledge or poor information about their rights in the UK. “Some asylum seekers in Calais have friends or relatives in the UK. They are bilingual with some mostly speaking a bit or good English. They are coming from regions which were, for some of them, previously part of the British Empire. They think life will be better there for what they have been told. They have no idea that they will likely end up living in modern slavery and that refugees can be detained there – unlike in France”.
Over the summer, Phil started distributing disposable camera to them so they can themselves document their journey and life. So far 20 cameras have been distributed over Europe and Phil has had no news yet. “I asked them to get in touch when they are in a safe place”.
The summer UK headlines of Calais and a surge of journalists reporting there seems to have empowered migrants – and brought a positive change in the camps. Night lights and water are now available in what Phil continues to call a “shanty town”.
The French Government closed the Sangatte centre, the humanitarian centre and shelter that was build for asylum seekers in Calais in 2002. “The French Government does not want to build a full scale asylum center as a way of not acknowledging the problem”.
Caption: Musa from Darfour. Musa has arrived 3 weeks ago in the Calais Jungle. He has been wearing the amulet around his neck since he left Africa. He hope it will protect him when trying to reach the UK.
“Many of them suffer of post traumatic disorders because of their journey through the Mediterranean. When I meet them, some want to share their stories. They want to talk, talk, talk, and talk to tell what happened – like a psychologist. They want their stories recorded and known; for others that are going to take the same journey, they ought to know better the truth of the way we welcome asylum seekers in Europe”
Phil is at the moment putting together these stories gathered during summer 2015 and aim to release related material in the coming weeks.