“Where are you from?” I ask the boy.
He’s thin, around 12 years old, dressed in a dusty hoodie and ripped jeans. There are bags under his eyes, and he ducks his head at me, smiling. His eyes catch mine briefly, before he blushes and turns away. “Eritrea,” he says.
We’re standing in one of the small “scatter camps” that have sprung up in Northern France. Everyone’s heard of the camps at Calais and Dunkirk, but there are many other small camps such as this one which have sprung up along the coasts and lay-bys along the main lorry route to Dover. I can’t believe how young he is. He’s travelled all the way from his home country – where conscription and repression is widespread and flight is punished by torture and imprisonment – without a parent or responsible adult. This camp in particular is over half young women and male teenagers, and I can’t see many that look over 25.
We’ve brought in a car full of supplies and when we open the back they cluster around excitedly. Tins of tomatoes and fish they carry off in delight to their makeshift kitchen. Tins of baked beans they stare at in frank bewilderment. Others sift through the sleeping bags and rucksacks to choose what they need. Some of the big ones – the big three litre rucksacks that I’d take camping – are too big. They tell me they need small ones, close fitting, so that they can slip through gaps and fit them in the lorry.
It’s the afternoon meal and the guys start to break open the cans using sharp stones on a muddy table while the girls fry onions in oil in a deep pan. Some people settle down for the evening, make tea, chat and sing. Others begin to prepare for the journey ahead. Girls slip past in twos and threes, jackets wrapped tightly around them, hoods up, heads bowed. As it gets dark, some will go up to the motorways and lanes and wait for lorries. Often they’ll climb in when the driver is sleeping, and wait for hours until the lorry starts up. The last time I see my 12-year old he’s trailing at the back of a group, heading for the woodland and the lay-bys beyond. I hope he’s going to be OK. Everyone’s heard of people picking the wrong lorry, of being suffocated in airtight containers or frozen to death in refrigerated units. He’s journeying with a group who look out for him, but when it comes to jumping the lorries or the trains, it’s everyone for himself.
Over the next eight months I visit many such camps in northern France, and meet men, women and unaccompanied children from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. When I start to write my play CARGO – about a group of refugees crossing a border – I include vulnerable characters based on the children I have met, and the women travelling alone. I start to wonder how it would feel to be travelling by yourself, or even as part of a larger group of strangers. Who would you trust and who would look out for you? What would you eat and how would you go to the toilet? What would happen if you found yourself travelling with a group when historically and culturally you were sworn enemies?
Refugee friends who have made the journey to the UK fill me in: fruit and nut chocolate bars are a big favourite (“you don’t have to go to the toilet as much,”) and there is much discussion on the merits of bottle versus bag as a stand-in lavatory, especially when travelling for hours in a confined space. (“You need something with a lid, otherwise it gets too much.”) Teenagers speak of cutting the labels off their clothes, and more worryingly, scarring the tips of their fingers with a sharp knife to remove identifying fingerprints. All these details I’ve put in the play, and they lend a grounded, though harrowing, aspect to the journey.
Another friend muses on the need to keep your head down. When you’re travelling illegally, you can’t seek the help of the authorities, and many friends have witnessed or experienced violence or crime on the journey that they couldn’t or wouldn’t report to the police. Sex is frequently used as a bargaining tool or travelling requirement with traffickers and smugglers, or exchanged in return for “protection” in the camps.
“You have to let an awful lot go that you wouldn’t in real life,” my friend says sadly. “Because when you’re in the cargo, you never know what’s going to happen.”
CARGO runs at the Arcola from July 6 to August 6, 2016 at 8pm
Photo credit: Emma Stoner