Migrants in Calais, France
Migrants began to transit through Calais, France, in 2015 during the “migrant crisis” in Europe. Then, the humanitarian crisis in the Calais jungle culminated in 2016 when the French government decided to destroy the informal camp where refugees and migrants lived. At that time, around 6,000 people lived in the camp. French police expelled and relocated the migrants to several centers across France.
This relocation of migrants has highlighted two problems. François Guennoc insisted on the first issue. Guennoc said: “The relocated migrants return quickly to Calais because the solution offered to them is simply not sufficient. The migrants returned to Calais, France, to set up camps in the center so that they could cross the Channel quickly. However, the new camps are unsanitary and present dangerous sanitary and humanitarian living conditions.
Doctors Without Borders has reported that accommodation and food distribution centers pose a high risk of transmission of COVID-19. The increase in COVID-19 cases has challenged migrants and volunteers. Supporting migrants without creating new contamination clusters has become crucial. The number of migrants in the area fluctuates according to the seasons and the recurrence of police repression. Guennoc informed The Borgen Project that the number of migrants has increased from around 400 in February 2021 to 1,000 in March 2021 and will likely increase as the weather improves.
Obstacles to humanitarian aid
The pandemic combined with President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-immigration measures have made local authorities stricter in Calais, France. Migrants and associations are faced with police repression and prefectural orders which limit humanitarian aid. According to Guennoc, the strategy implemented by the authorities is to make the living conditions of migrants unhealthy and uncomfortable to discourage new migrants from settling in the area. The president of L’Auberge des Migrants said the police were destroying camps and seizing properties on a daily basis. Guennoc also underlined the pressure exerted on local non-governmental associations helping migrants in the region.
In September 2020, a decree was implemented prohibiting the distribution of food to migrants by non-governmental associations. Guennoc said the government was using the current health crisis as an excuse to make the living conditions of migrants more difficult. According to Guennoc, the “humanitarian minimum” prescribed by the French government is not enough to resolve the health emergency. In 2018, shortly after President Macron was elected, the French government promised to provide meals to all migrants in Calais, France. However, during COVID-19, several distribution centers closed, including the center on rue des Huttes. Mobile distributions that only provide about ten meals have replaced these centers. Consequently, COVID-19 has made support for migrants even more precarious.
Impact of COVID-19 in Calais
In November 2020, France reached a peak of COVID-19 cases. However, only a few cases of COVID-19 in the migrant population have been officially recorded. The lack of official COVID-19 cases could stem from fear of being put in isolation and not being able to cross the border. Guennoc said the French government has worked with Médecins du Monde and the French Red Cross to set up a dedicated space for COVID-19 testing in the region. However, several associations and organizations deplored the lack of access to water and basic hygiene in the camps.
Fundamental human rights are equally important in combating the transmission of the virus, especially among vulnerable populations. Thus, the health situation is paradoxical. For example, if shelters improve the living conditions of migrants, they can also become hotbeds of contamination during COVID-19. The pandemic has also affected humanitarian organizations on the ground. Guennoc told Project Borgen there were fewer volunteers during the pandemic. Some volunteers were at higher risk of contracting a severe form of the virus, and travel restrictions put in place between the UK and France prevented English volunteers from coming to the aid. However, donations did not decline during the pandemic. The Auberge des Migrants has been able to use the media to gain coverage and support from the French population. The association has not reported any positive cases and has used preventive measures, such as gloves, masks and social distancing when possible.
Different perspectives on the emergency
During the interview with The Borgen Project, Guennoc underlined the gravity of the humanitarian, psychological and health emergency in Calais, France – a statement corroborated by several organizations. Guennoc declared: “The CNCDH, the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights, has drawn up a damning report on the humanitarian situation. It did not affect the government because [it]cannot force the government to do anything. These reports only represent moral pressure exerted on the French government. However, Guennoc said that for local authorities the urgency lies in the growing number of migrants in the Calais jungle. The perspective of local government focuses on security rather than humanitarianism. As a result, the growing number of migrants could lead to further destruction, expulsion and violence.
Finally, Guennoc deplored the lack of communication between local authorities and humanitarian associations. The French population remains polarized on the subject of migrants traveling to and settling in Calais, France. Guennoc said one of the reasons locals are unhappy is the persistence of the problem. However, as a member of an association that helps migrants on a daily basis, Guennoc sees no solution if the French authorities do not work with the British government. Instead of pushing back migrants, Guennoc stressed the need for tolerance and compassion on the part of local populations and governments involved in this humanitarian and health emergency.
The situation in Calais, France, is critical in terms of human rights and health measures. When addressing the situation, it is crucial to move from a security perspective to a humanitarian perspective. To improve humanitarian, psychological and health conditions, international collaboration remains essential to provide lasting and humane solutions to migrants.
– Soizic Lecocq
Photo : Flickr