‘It’s more difficult than ever’: A Volunteer on the Situation in Calais Under Coronavirus

by Shona Walne

12 May 2020

On a muddy patch of scrubland on the outskirts of Calais, I walk between broken tents, towards a small group of men and boys who are crouching around a fire. 

As I approach, one looks up and laughs at the medical mask I am wearing, “You can take it off”, he tells me, “there is no corona here.” 

I try to explain that the virus can be carried and spread by those with no symptoms, and show them an information leaflet I have brought with me. They laugh again, looking incredulously around us. 

The pictures on the flyer show people washing their hands; coughing into tissues then throwing them away and keeping a two-metre distance from one another. 

Here though, there’s no access to running water or proper waste disposal and people sometimes sleep three or more crammed into one small tent. There is little they can do with this advice but ignore it completely.

More difficult than ever. 

Working for one of the few organisations that still operates on the ground with the homeless migrant population in Calais, my colleagues and I have a unique perspective on the current crisis, along with a first-hand understanding of its impact on those living here in makeshift camps.

As elsewhere, the problems caused by Covid-19 here are not only those associated with the virus itself, but also its countless indirect effects, felt with disproportionate intensity by those already living at society’s edges. 

For years, volunteers and small grassroots NGOs have struggled to fill the gaping holes in state-run services, but our work has become more difficult than ever. 

Many individuals have had to leave Calais, while many organisations have had to scale back or suspend their operations.

The already-inadequate provision of food, water, and essential items such as warm clothes, shoes and blankets, as well as phone credit and charging, has become even more unreliable. 

The existing struggles of day-to-day life have been exacerbated and understandably tensions are high.

‘No corona.’

The absence of anything resembling adequate sanitation, medical care, or access to essential information about Covid-19, is more noticeable than ever. But even if this advice were available, much of it would be impossible to follow.

Organisations working on the ground take every practicable precaution to avoid bringing the virus in or out, but there’s little or no information about it’s prevalence. 

Accessing testing appears impossible and while many insist there is “no corona” in the camps, only hearsay hints that the reality may be otherwise.

In so many ways, the crisis has only emphasised the barriers already faced by those who are here. Increased border controls and travel restrictions are, of course, almost a joke – to them, these borders were always closed. 

There are more subtle repercussions, too. As well as the practical help my colleagues and I provide, there’s a social side to our job too. 

So often, the people we work with are not only deprived of their human needs, but also of their dignity – from their interactions with the Calaisien public, to their treatment by the state in all its forms. 

Against this hostile daily reality, something as simple as a handshake becomes a symbol of the solidarity and respect these communities are so often denied. A few moments spent playing a game or dancing to music becomes an opportunity for connection between people, as equals. 

These things are basic but precious and their impossibility in the current crisis is yet another blow.

‘France? No good.’

The French state’s response to the escalating crisis is another part of this complex picture. Emergency accommodation centres have been opened, and transport is provided almost daily for those who wish to go to them. 

For now, this is voluntary, although the authorities have spoken openly about the possibility of ‘coercive measures’ in the future.

Rumours spread quickly here, and some say that once in the accommodation centres, there are as many as eight sharing a bedroom and people are not allowed to leave. 

State agencies share very little information with other organisations, so we can only guess at whether this is true.

Even if it isn’t, many do not want to go. They see Calais not as the end of their journey, but a stopping-off point, and don’t want to ‘waste time’ in an accommodation centre.

They are mistrustful, too. France, people tell us again and again, is “no good”. They have had no history of being made to feel safe or protected at the hands of the French state – quite the opposite. Why, now, should they believe things would be any different?

Each day at work, we see how decisions taken at the very top of the political ladder trickle down to those on the bottom rungs, playing out in ways that appear entirely unconsidered. 

For many, the slowing of economic activity and resulting drop in international movement means fewer chances to continue what they hope will be the final stage in journeys that are already months – or years long. Almost everyone here wants to travel to the UK, their reasons as diverse as they are.

It’s a journey that’s become even more difficult now, and unsurprisingly, many are frustrated at feeling stuck somewhere they are so clearly unwanted. 

Danger is nothing new. 

People regularly tell us they are not afraid of coronavirus, that God or Allah will protect them. To some, a reliance on religion rather than medical knowledge might seem naive.

But in Calais, danger is nothing new. Nor is having to rely only on yourself, your friends, and your faith, utterly unsupported by systems others take for granted and in circumstances many could barely comprehend. 

For these communities, deemed ‘illegal’ by their very presence, life has already been harder than most of us can imagine. As coronavirus continues to spread, all of our futures feel far from certain, but none more so than theirs. 

The decades old problems here, and their complex causes, are ones which will require structural solutions. Some suggestions are made in Refugee Rights Europe’s current campaign, which calls for policy changes including access to the UK’s asylum system at the border, and measures to identify the most vulnerable

For those of us working on the ground, it often feels like all we can do is react to the problems in front of us; problems that will not stop without changes at a far higher level than ours. 

While charities’ work can help people to survive, most believe these are circumstances under which nobody should be forced to live. 

In the current crisis, and beyond it, the thousands stranded on Britain’s doorstep must not be forgotten.

Shona Walne is a support worker, creative facilitator and educator from Plymouth, UK.  She lives in Calais, France, where she works for an NGO, supporting young migrants to access essential services and their legal rights.

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