No Man's Land - A Report on Dunkirk and Calais No Man's Land - A Report on Dunkirk and Calais

Visual artist: All photographs are made by the authors

No Man's Land - Conflicts of Space#5 No Man's Land - Conflicts of Space

Ymke Kelders & Carolien De Groot

no man's land

No Man's Land - A Report on Dunkirk and Calais

There are many ways of living. However privileged, (un)lucky, rough, or fun life takes shape, in the end, we all get through the day. The conditions under which we live are of great influence, of course, but how much of it can be defined by our own doing? How much of it is our own choice? What does it mean to live somewhere, to inhabit a place? And what does the desire of living in a place entail?


Today, there is an unbelievable large number of people living in refugee camps around the globe. In an interview with Peter Haffner, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman states that due to the effects of globalization, the amount of refugees will only increase in the future: "By 2050 we can anticipate one billion exiled refugees, shunted into the no-man’s-land of transit camps (2015/16)". I decided with two friends to visit such a no-man's land. The no man's land of Dunkirk and Calais to be more precise, where thousands of refugees are waiting to be transferred to England. Questions that came to mind during this stay were: how do no man’s lands play a role in our daily life? Have we forgotten about the no man’s land and the ways that space also defines ‘known’ ground? Should we read the desire of refugees to go to live in a different place under different conditions, as a way of making a statement for different conditions of the world, and different characteristics of the non-space? This article is a report on what we observed and experienced in Dunkirk and Calais. It aims to be a visualization of the burning desire that is out there in no man's land: the desire to go somewhere else.

On November 2, the three of us drove to what is left of what we all know as ‘the Calais Jungle’. When we found our way around the massive construction of newly built high walls, we overlooked an almost empty field. The tents, houses, were taken away by the police, and in the days before our arrival people were forced into buses and taken to other parts of France. What was left was what caught our eye immediately: a small white church in the middle of the field. On this day there were still around 1,500 people waiting to be taken somewhere. We had contact with a local organization that was still working in the camp, but the police did not allow us to set foot on the grass and we were asked to leave. The sadness and tension that floated across the almost empty field hit all of us, we packed up the 800 cookies we brought and left. There was still another place we felt we needed to visit.


Driving 30 minutes north arises the smaller, more closed off refugee camp Dunkirk. This camp gives shelter to around 1000 people, almost all Kurds. This refugee camp – like the one in Calais - already exists for years and for the same reasons as the one in Calais: Dunkirk offers people a possibility to illegally travel to England. In the Netherlands the news almost always covers the situation in Calais so we had little knowledge of this place, only of its existence. In contrast to Calais, this camp is less visible from the outside. With some difficulty we were allowed to enter this part of France, this little Kurdistan, this home to many people.


What do you do when you enter a place that gives shelter to so many people under such circumstances? A place no one actually wants to be, but got stuck, and is related to the other by a shared hope? The gravel ground announced our entrée that can be questioned in its sense of belonging. The only humble thing I could think of that would justify a part of our arrival was that we should listen.

Although it being November, the sun felt relatively warm. For this reason, many people were walking around the camp, chatting in groups or sitting on the small hills of sand that surrounded the camp. For this reason, or for there being not much else to do. The camp counts more than 300 of these wooden huts, all representing home to at least 3 to 4 people. The ground is part of Grande-Synthe, a commune part of the agglomeration of Dunkirk, and the camp is getting a bit of funding from the local authorities. There is a ‘community kitchen’, a ‘women’s house’, a ‘men’s house’, and a ‘child center’. We saw many men, little women, and some children. Some men told us they mostly sleep during the day. The chances to get to England keep them awake at night.


Every day at 22:00 the men go to the port and try to cross the water. Every day they try to get on a boat, jump on a truck, get taken along by someone in a freezer, or find other ways that we did not get familiar with. Every single day. Although we were already aware of the reason the majority of people were staying in this area, it still surprised me. What was there to found that could not be found in France? What was there, apart from some people’s family, that made men leave other countries in Europe that they were going to school in, for this promised land of England?

At the same time, French and other European citizens enter the camp on voluntary basis. They organize activities for children, run the kitchen and set up community centers. Here, the differences between two groups of people could not be more visible. One feels useful to the community, the other does not feel they belong to this one and is desperate to enter the English community, that resembles a promise of a better future. What is the attraction of this English community? The Guardian devoted some articles to it already in 2001, and the explanation have not really changed since then. First, unlike in France or Germany,  refugees who reach Britain instantly acquire the effective status of asylum seeker. While they wait for their cases to be examined, they are housed and fed and given 60 pounds a week. After six months of being in the country, they can apply for a work permit. However, England has a big black economy which makes it easier for people to already start working. This system is somewhat encouraged by the government since there is no penalty for an employer who hires illegal immigrants. Ultimately, only one in 40 illegal immigrants is repatriated.

Additionally, England does not acquire you to have a national identity card. There, nobody has the right to ask you for your papers unless they suspect you of having committed an offence. In France, people are not allowed to work and while they ask for asylum they receive 180 pounds a month, but are most all of the times having to find accommodation themselves. Dunkirk offers you one of these accommodations. A home that I struggle with calling a house.

The wooden huts have a floor in it and they can be closed by a door. Some built some extra part around it. Random things lie in front of the huts people. Socks, a shoe, an office chair, a wheelchair, all objects that do not seem to belong to someone in particular, but do belong to this space. Habitants define their own piece of land on this no man’s land. The objects look estranged from their common use but also seem to fit the place. For the whole time we were there, the clouds surrounded us, they had a somewhat dangerous, threatening look that definitely added to a feeling of alienation. The place seems to have no meaning at all and all the meaning in the world. “It is not good”, someone said to us. I agree, and it is not even winter yet. We can learn more about the division of space from this no man’s land and  people’s  will to cross the ocean, people’s demand for better conditions and desire and audacity to hope. I think we have lost focus for a long time now.

Ymke Kelders is one of the editors from the grid, and works as a researcher and teacher at the University of Applied Sciences within the research group Community Care. She taught the course ‘Cultural Analysis of Disability’ (UvA, NICA), is teaching a research course and is going to teach a course on ethics. She’s a volunteer at the youth department of the NVVE (Dutch organisation for euthanasia).

Carolien de Groot is schooled as a sociologist, specialized in social policy and evaluation. She has a bachelor’s degree in Art History. Currently, Carolien works on a broad scope of subjects, focused on crossing-border activities and marginalized groups in society.


Works cited

Haffner, Peter. "Interview with Zygmunt Bauman: Love. Fear. And the Network." In: 032C, Issue #29, Winter 2015/16. 

Henley, Jon. ‘Why Refugees Prefer Britain to France’, The Guardian, September 6, 2001,