One of the migrant camps in Calais in January, 2018 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil
One of the migrant camps in Calais in January, 2018 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil

The situation in Calais is growing tenser by the day. The number of migrants trying to cross the English Channel is increasing as the freezing cold weather is contributing to the rapidly deteriorating living conditions.

Last week, more than 60 migrants illegally made their way into Britain from France, and at least two-thirds of them are believed to have made the perilous crossing by sea, the Guardian newspaper reported on November 18.

Although authorities seem to have good idea of the number of successful crossings, the number of fatal attempts have proven more difficult to quantify. On Sunday, the body of a migrant was found stuck under a truck in the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone. And on October 2, the body of a migrant who had gone missing a week before was fished out of the canal in Calais.

The dangers of crossing the Channel

Last week, 17 people, including minors, managed to cross the Channel in a dinghy before being intercepted by police on a beach near Dover. "The road crossings are under surveillance and so the migrants resort to the sea," Calais-based NGO Auberge des Migrants said in a statement. The bulk of the illegal Calais-Dover sea crossing attempts are done by either inflatable or makeshift boats.

Calais is a small town in northern France located across the ocean from Dover in southern England. Many migrants who are hoping to make it from continental Europe to Great Britain gather in and near Calais. This is because the entrance to an underground traffic tunnel leading to England is located near Calais, and because the distance between the Calais and Dover regions is the shortest stretch of sea between Europe and the UK. 

"These [ocean] crossings are incredibly dangerous," NGO Auberge des Migrants warned in a statement back in August. "The maritime traffic is very dense in this zone. You might think that crossing the 29 kilometres that separates France from England is easy, but it’s a journey fraught with danger and traps. There’s dense traffic, very strong currents, violent winds and shallow waters […] 600 cargo ships cross the English Channel every day, most of them huge vessels and container ships, it’s crazy to head out there with these little boats at night," it said.

‘The people we’re helping are on their knees’

On the French side, in Calais and in neighboring small town Grande-Synthe, the living conditions remain tough for the migrants who have come there in a bid to try to reach Britain. According to the NGOs present there, some 500 people are currently sleeping it rough in Calais, and between 300 and 400 in Grande-Synthe.

The November 13 evacuation of a camp in Grande-Synthe allowed for authorities to direct about 450 migrants towards some 20 migrant reception centres in the Haut-de-France region. But, according to Auberge des Migrants, far from everyone who needed it was offered accommodation. The evacuation was the seventh of its kind in Grande-Synthe in the past six months.

At Grande-Synthe, Auberge des Migrants helps the migrants by distributing warm clothing, tents, and blankets. "The police destroys everything that helps them protect themselves from the bad weather," Christian Salomé, president of Auberge des Migrants, said.

"With the cold weather coming in, the lack of solutions for accommodation and the persistent police presence, the people we’re helping are on their knees," Utopia 56, another NGO active in Calais, said. "For the past six months, the police have come every second morning to remove them and their personal belongings [tents, bags and blankets], sometimes by using teargas."

Winter is coming

In Calais, local authorities have also closed the migrants’ access to a multipurpose building where they up could seek shelter from the rain. Philippe Mignonet, a town hall security official, said the closure was necessary to prevent the bulding from becoming "an urban squat." 

"For several weeks, the number of migrants in here have increased. Even couches have been installed. The municipality has received complaints from residents on several occasions," he told French newspaper La Voix du Nord.

François Guennoc, the vice president of Auberge des Migrants, called the closure "a scandalous decision."

"I don’t see how this would bother residents. These migrants are seeking shelter from the rain," he said. 

The facility had previously been used to shelter migrants on the orders of the government during extreme cold weather (also known as "Le Plan Grand Froid," a national plan which is triggered whenever the temperature drops below -2 degrees Celsius).

With snow expected in several French regions this week, Calais authorities on Monday presented a plan on how they will deal with the migrants camping in the region this winter. According to the plan, two hangars will be made available - one reserved for minors and families and another for adults - but the number of available places is limited; there are only 350 spots open for adults and 85 for minors.

Meanwhile, Auberge des Migrants is resuming its early morning hot tea tours in the migrant camps, hoping they will protect at least some migrants from hypothermia.   


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