Calais: a humanitarian crisis halfway between Paris and London

This article has been developed by Serin Tuncehan, Dionne Ruizendaal, and Emma Santanach.

Refugee crisis. We hear this word every week, many times. The media is full of news about it: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Venezuela… All these places have one thing in common: they are really far, thousands of kilometres away from us. Lately, however, European countries are terrified by what is happening in Ukraine. But what if there were already people suffering from police brutality, being denied basic needs, living with no shelter, and even dying, right next to the countries that claim they will bring democracy and human rights to the world?

Well, this crisis has existed for years before the attack on Ukraine happened on the 24th of February, and its name is Calais. Located on the border between France and the UK, Calais has been in the spotlight many times because of the dramatic conditions that migrants and refugees face there, although its presence on mainstream media is relative. However, the combination of freezing temperatures and harsh weather, increasingly forceful evictions of refugees from makeshift shelters by police and cuts to funding for organisations makes it a real humanitarian crisis that is unfolding between Paris and London.

Displaced people have gathered in and around Calais, on the northern French coast, since at least the late 1990s seeking to enter the UK from the French port by crossing the Channel Tunnel or stowing away in the cargo area of lorries heading for ferries that cross the English Channel. During all these years, informal camps of migrants were formed, being the most notorious the Calais Jungle, which sheltered around 10,000 people between 2015 and 2016. However, this camp was destroyed in 2016. Today, migrants and refugees live in so-called informal living sites.

Charlotte Lloyd, a member of the OCC team in Spain, volunteered in Calais for two months last winter. “I was interested in going to Calais because I grew up in the North of France”, she says. “It is just mind-blowing to me that, throughout my whole childhood, I could cross the channel several times a year without ever thinking whether I would be allowed to do that or not, while there was always people stuck there”. Charlotte volunteered in Refugee Info Bus, an organisation that provides information and electricity to the people refuged in Calais. As she explains, “there are a lot of different organisations working there, for several years, under the umbrella organisation Auberge des Migrants”.

Despite the high number of organisations there, their work in Calais is anything but easy. Charlotte explains that the police presence “is basically escalating”. The authorities are increasingly carrying out forced evictions of the different living sites. According to Charlotte, they usually show up with a convoy of police cars and make a perimeter around the living site, in which they evict whatever it is within. That involves taking people’s tents, which means that the majority of their things gets destroyed. “This used to happen once a week, but it happens every 48 hours now”, says Charlotte. “To see this happening is completely bizarre. These people are homeless and the police removes the only shelter they have”.

Moreover, the authorities also exercise pressure on the organisations. For instance, by questioning the volunteers, or giving fines to the organisations – recently, distributing food was declared illegal -. “The authorities place giant rocks in the places where the NGOs park their vehicles close to the living sites”, Charlotte explains as an anecdote. “They don’t want people setting up camp and living in places in Calais, and therefore they are making it impossible for NGOs to provide support”.

Charlotte considers that there is not enough awareness about what is happening in the North of France. “I don’t see enough information about it on the news… There are people who are dying trying to cross the channel”. Added to this already dramatic situation are the harsh conditions of the weather, which makes living there extremely dangerous, especially in winter; or cuts to funding for organisations, leading to the withdrawal of some of them. When being asked whether there is still space for optimism or not, Charlotte concludes that “it is very easy to feel powerless with something so huge, but in the people working together is where the power lies”.

From OCC, we want to call on the governments’ duty to protect the fundamental rights of all people under their jurisdiction, regardless of their nationality and/or legal status. Governments must work together to ensure safe routes that provide solutions for refugees.