Right now approximately 600-800 migrants – known as ‘sans-papiers’, meaning ‘without papers’ – are sleeping rough in the border town of Calais. Most are young, single men but there are some women and children too. They have taken long and arduous journeys to reach Calais, displaced or driven away from a broad range of countries – including but not limited to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – most commonly due to conflict and poverty.
This isn’t a new situation: it’s been going on for about 20 years as people have either travelled to Calais to cross the Channel, or have been drawn to a growing community of fellow sans papiers hoping for safety in numbers. Here are seven things you ought to know about their situation:
1. Finding shelter and food is a daily struggle…
After the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, the Red Cross opened and ran a semi-official refugee camp near Calais, providing food and amenities to migrants hoping to cross the border into the UK, but this was shut down in 2002 after pressure from the British government. Until a couple of weeks ago the migrants were camped out in a few different spots around Calais, including a few squatted buildings. Even those going through the exhausting process of claiming asylum are not entitled to accommodation, food or other benefits.
At the end of May armoured riot police stormed into the three main camps in the early morning, drove out all the migrants and bulldozed the whole lot. The justification given by the police was an alleged outbreak of scabies among migrants, which posed a ‘health and safety’ risk to the public. Incidentally, no showers, medical care or housing alternatives were offered.
2. …and conditions are poor.
Since then almost everybody has come together to occupy the food distribution area, further out of town and towards the ferry port, where the charity Salam provides one meal a day to the migrants. There are never enough blankets and tents, only two portable toilets on site (seldom emptied, if at all) and only a cold tap to wash under and drink from.
One squatted house remains, housing around 60 women migrants around the corner from the camp. It has been open since June 2013 but is also due to be evicted imminently, which will leave women (some of whom are pregnant) and children exposed to the elements with no offer of shelter.
3. The local political environment is hostile.
The local government is determined to turf the migrants out and Natacha Bouchart, the conservative mayor of Calais, is responsible for much of the migrants’ misery. She belongs to the Union for a Popular Movement, formerly led by Sarkozy, and also sits in the French Senate. She has made clear her desire to prevent migrants settling in Calais, and the focus of her campaign for re-election this March was the expulsion of illegal migrants. Furthermore she has invited the local Calais community to aid in “accélérer les procédures d’expulsion et de destruction” – accelerating the procedures for expulsion and destruction – of migrant squats and camps, setting up a phone hotline and launching a Facebook appeal asking citizens to inform her if they believe someone is squatting a building.
Bouchart is supported by local fascist group Sauvons Calais (‘Let’s Save Calais’), which frequently holds rallies and demonstrations in the Place d’Armes (Weapons Square) in the town centre, and goes around Calais in groups attempting to intimidate migrants.
Remember this is the torment migrants have to face every day even before those hoping to reach the UK face the increasingly militarised UK Border Force on the other side of the Channel.
4. The asylum system is designed to deter…
Nobody camped out in Calais wants to be sans-papiers, but even though most should be eligible to claim asylum, not all have enrolled in the asylum system. It can take several months to get the first appointment, and in the meantime migrants are undocumented and on the street with almost no hope of getting accommodation. Those who have decided against claiming asylum in France have usually done so in order that they can attempt to travel to the UK and claim asylum there – hoping that they will be treated better than in Calais. Of course many don’t actually mind which country grants them asylum as long as they are granted access to basic rights and legal protection.
5. …and harassment is routine.
In addition to routine negligence from the authorities, migrants are also hounded and harassed by the police on a daily basis. Although they are not really supposed to enter the camp, police loiter in vans outside and circle around the area, and migrants get a lot of hassle from them walking around the town. In June a small group of migrants who were walking near the camp were shot at by a nearby security guard with an air rifle. One was hit in the arm and another in the back.
And then for those wanting to get to Dover…
6. Crossing the Channel means risking death, again.
It’s easy to forget that everyone in Calais has already endured extremely dangerous journeys at massive personal risk and expense. Deaths are frequent on the crossing from North Africa to Italy, and the Channel is not much safer. Jumping lorries often results in broken legs and being run over, and trying to board ferries frequently results in drowning. Just last week a young Eritrean man almost drowned attempting to swim into the port and ended up in a coma in intensive care. For those who do manage to get some way over the Channel – either by lorry, train or ferry – death is still a very real risk.
7. Determination persists.
A hunger strike started on 11 June, with 25 migrants demanding that French and British authorities step in to provide secure housing, sufficient food and more freedom to travel. This method was used in October 2013, but this time the strikers say they will set themselves on fire in the town centre if they are ignored. The migrants are aided daily by the practical support of Calais Migrant Solidarity and the No Borders network, both of whom are also working to raise the profile of the camp to encourage volunteers to help. Solidarity work takes many forms, such as helpings with squats, finding blankets and boosting morale through visits and entertainment.