But serenity is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of half a dozen police vans. Groups of police, equipped with face masks and some with riot gear, are heading towards the tents. They are about to do what they have been doing every other day since August 2018: they wake up the migrants and ask them to move their tents a few meters – only so that the migrants bring the tents back to where they were once the police is gone.
Even during COVID-19, there is no respite from the police process. Humanitarian organizations say that at least 70 such evacuations have taken place in the various small migrant camps in Calais since the start of the isolation. This makes the migrants feel targeted, said Mengis, a 28-year-old migrant from Eritrea in northeast Africa. Like all the other migrants we spoke to that day, he didn’t want his photo taken.
“The police don’t consider us human. They don’t respect us. If you don’t wake up when they come, they take your tent off. Then we have to ask aid workers for a new one and wait up to a week, “he said.
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Migrants fear for their lives
Some migrants even say that the police threaten their lives. Five of Mengis’ compatriots have written an open letter and are filing a complaint against a riot police brigade alleging that the brigade repeatedly beat them, sprayed them with tear gas and called them names like “monkey” and “Bitch”. The General Inspectorate of the National Police is currently investigating the case.
Police force migrants to move their tents every other day
Lockdown also means that migrants are restricted in their movements. They are no longer allowed to go to the city center. Several migrants told us that security staff at a nearby supermarket, Carrefour Calais Mivoix, no longer authorized them. The supermarket refused our maintenance request, but said there was no discrimination at the store. And the migrants say that local buses, which collect them from the camps, no longer stop for them.
Deputy Mayor Philippe Mignonet, who is in charge of the public entity that manages the buses, says that they no longer stop for large groups of migrants, but continue to leave individual migrants, for example when they have to go to the hospital. “We had to change our policy after there were three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the camps, because others refused to continue,” he said.
“A step backwards for the human rights of migrants”
It is unclear whether these were the only cases of COVID-19. Aid workers report that some of the migrants have symptoms, but no test is available. Social distancing is impossible. The camps are littered with rubbish. There are no masks or hand sanitizers.
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Noël, a 20-year-old boy who arrived in Calais in December, says he feels like an outcast. “We are completely unprotected, left to our own devices. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been stuck in these camps. Some of us were taken to shelters, but we had to stay in the room with up to four people – it is illegal “Many returned, even if they had to walk for two days”, a- he explained.
In addition, aid workers have had to halve their staff in the camp due to the isolation – vulnerable volunteers have been sent home. Those who remained still deliver firewood for cooking or food in groups of two. Yann Manzi, co-founder of the aid association Utopia 56, says the situation has led to a decline in the human rights of migrants.
“We only provide the bare minimum – there is no more legal aid for them. Evacuations continue and migrants continue to be harassed by the police. You would have thought that we would all be united in this crisis. But these vulnerable people are left behind, “he said.
Authorities say evacuations are necessary
But the deputy prefect of Calais, Michel Tournaire, says that medical teams regularly check the migrants and that the government has provided toilets.
“In addition, we provide shelter for up to 715 migrants. They can receive medical care there. 353 people have already chosen this option. “
He adds that, COVID-19 or not, evacuations are necessary. “Migrants are evacuated every two days, if they camp illegally. We must prevent them from settling. I cannot say whether it is true or not – it is decided by our judicial authorities. “
But aid workers say the capacity of the shelters is not enough. They estimated the number of migrants in Calais at 1,200, double the government estimate. In Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Calais, at least 600 other migrants are camping, says Akim Toualbia, founder and president of the aid organization Solidarity Border.
“There are only six toilets here and not even soap to wash your hands. I really thought the government would do more, ”he said.
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But many migrants do not trust the government to help them anyway. They prefer to stay in the camps and try to cross, like Mengis.
” I’ll never give up. One day I will get to go to England. My dream is to become a doctor, to have real freedom, a beautiful house and a good life, “he said as his eyes lit up.
He wishes to join two of his brothers who have already settled in England. But the coronavirus pandemic seems to have made it more difficult than ever to reach the other side of the Channel.