French Police confront a migrant in CalaisHelpRefugees

In October 2016, the Calais ‘Jungle’ – a temporary town of refugee housing, shops and other facilities – was demolished. The estimated 8,000 inhabitants were evicted, with most relocated across the country by the French authorities. After the operation, the prefect of Pas-de-Calais declared, “our mission is accomplished”.

It wasn’t.

At present, over 800 refugees live without shelter in fields, on roads, and in woodland around Calais. Three hundred and fifty have been camped near Dunkerque. Many of those relocated in 2016 have returned. Their backgrounds comprise some of the world’s most conflict-torn countries – significant populations include Afghans, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Kurds. Their living conditions have been described by a French tribunal as “inhuman”, with no protection against the rain beyond donated coats, and few sources of warmth for the winter. In comparison, the Jungle seems like a distant dream. The only access to food and water is currently provided by a group of grassroots, volunteer-run charities set up in the last decade: HelpRefugees, L’Auberge des Migrants, Utopia 56, the Refugee Info Bus and the Refugee Community Kitchen. Their work is all that maintains refugees’ sense of humanity.

These conditions – conditions which Western democracies themselves denounce when they involve, say, an African dictatorship – are continued and enabled by the French authorities. The hypocrisy is blinding.

“My face is burning. It feels like I’m on fire” 

Reports of abuse by police are constant and consistent. Forced removal of belongings – including blankets – occurs weekly. CS gas is used to make sleeping bags, food and water unusable. There is also evidence of violence against people themselves: a recent Human Rights Watch report claimed the police “routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants while they are sleeping”, according to “nearly every asylum seeker” interviewed. Police batons have been used indiscriminately. “Such police conduct”, the report indicates, is a “violation of international standards” and human rights law. 

Fears that refugees could create a new permanent camp have led to an extreme police crack-down on any forms of shelter. Together with the abuses outlined above, this has created a homeless and highly vulnerable population. Similarly, police also have been known to harass volunteers giving aid, although such occurrences have decreased since the report and a lawsuit by HelpRefugees against the local government in July. Instead, abuse largely occurs at night when there are no witnesses. I was a recent volunteer with HelpRefugees and had to keep my ID on me at all times during food distributions in case of random checks. Such checks can be used to delay or even prevent vital hand-outs.

These are not the regular French police. They are the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) – France’s riot division, heavily militarised and deployed to the area on two-week stints. Questions exist regarding whether their presence in Calais is aided by the British Government: the Home Office denies paying salaries, but will not indicate whether they fund CRS equipment. Meanwhile, to protest police abuse, refugees must file a claim with the police, granting the CRS de facto impunity. This situation is entrenched: similar allegations were also made by the Human Rights Watch in 2015. Camps have existed in Calais for more than two decades.

Nevertheless, deputy prefect Vincent Breton rejects the reports detailed above: he claims “these are allegations, individuals’ declarations, that are not based on fact”. Yet, judging from my own recent experience as an aid worker and the mass of testimonies gathered, I find his statement difficult to believe.

Moreover, the Calais local government is fighting a continual battle against aid-providers. HelpRefugees recently won a court case demanding authorities provide refugees with access to water and other withheld amenities as outlined under French human rights law. In May, a tribunal banned the government from openly disrupting food distributions, finding that the Mayor was “infring[ing] in a grave and manifestly illegal manner on [migrants’] right[s] not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Food distribution at the Calais migrant campHelpRefugees

There are no short-term solutions – certainly not the police’s method of abusing people until they move on. In fact, this may have made things worse: a July survey by L’Aurberge des Migrants found that 88.2% of migrants were not considering claiming asylum in France, possibly through fear of the authorities. The processing centre in Calais has been shut down, whilst Paris is overwhelmed. Instead, claimants are directed to Lille – and are apparently being arrested en-route for lacking the very documents they are travelling to acquire. Unaccompanied children reportedly refuse to approach protection services because this requires visiting the police station. The authorities’ approach appears to be fuelling even greater desperation to reach the UK.

Additionally, the charities involved are increasingly under-staffed and under-resourced. Donations have fallen dramatically in recent months – where a year ago the HelpRefugees warehouse had piles of new items above head-height, their stocks are close to empty. As volunteers leave for home, fewer are arriving to replace them. Yet these are the only groups maintaining basic living-standards – filling the hole left by the failure of the local government. Larger providers of humanitarian aid are barely present on the ground. I believe the lack of recent media coverage is partly to blame for this new crisis. Without a steady stream of news stories about Calais, our awareness has disappeared. Yes, it is much harder to report without such dramatic numbers or a single fixed camp, but by failing to report, our media is implying that the problem has been solved. It hasn’t.

Yes, the situation is bleak. But somehow the refugees you meet are almost always smiling. They play football. The Refugee Youth Service runs entertainment for the few children. It is only in private that their trauma becomes clear – on my last day, someone told a volunteer friend that they wanted to kill themselves.

No matter their motivations, these people are haunted by what they have experienced. None of them deserve to be treated like this – to be beaten, tear-gassed or made into symbols of 'the other'. They only want to feel safe.

Showering facilities at the Calais migrant campHelpRefugees

Reading articles such as this, it is very easy to give up hope – before we carry on with our lives, focusing on less depressing subjects. That is a normal, habitual reaction. But we can all do better. Anyone can volunteer in Calais. Anyone can donate old clothes or money. The charities present, led by HelpRefugees, need all the support they can get. Even if you only spread the word, it is still a positive contribution.

The refugee crisis at France's border ports has not gone and will not go away. It is a continuing manifestation of the turmoil around the globe; as long as those conflicts continue, we must make sure that those displaced – their victims – are not forced to suffer further