Migrants line up at a food distribution site on Verrotières Street, Calais. Credit : InfoMigrants
Migrants line up at a food distribution site on Verrotières Street, Calais. Credit : InfoMigrants

Rumors are rife among migrants in Calais: some talk of "chartered buses" to take people to the UK for resettlement. Others claim that you can file for asylum in France a second time, even after being initially rejected. The recent "Sandhurst Treaty" between France and the UK has led to great confusion and misunderstanding among refugees.

Yaya warms his hands over a small wood fire on Verrotières Street in Calais as the temperature dips under 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It's 5pm, the sky is grey, and the damp from the relentless rain of the past few days is making daily life a bit more unbearable each day. But Yaya - who originally hails from Sudan has been in Calais for several months now - says that he tries to remain hopeful despite the cold, the hardship and harassment by the police - especially since hearing certainrumors.

"I thought, finally it'll be possible to get to England. England is going to open its borders," he told InfoMigrants. "That's the kind of thing that people say here."

But as the days go by and Yaya finds himself still stuck on Verrotières Street, "trapped in the mud." A few days ago, a friend of Yaya's, who is just 16 years old, made it to Calais. The teenager came from Germany after hearing that it would become easier for minors to secure their passage to the United Kingdom.

"My friend is younger than 18," Yaya said. "I don’t think there's hope for me. But what does he need to do to get to the UK? Where does he need to go? He'll be able to go [to the UK], right?"

Yaya and his friend, like many other migrants trapped in Calais, have fallen prey to false rumors that have recently been circulating among the sizable migrant population there. The Utopia 56 refugee charity, which is quite involved in Calais, says that one of the most commonly held rumors to surface in recent weeks is that it is going to be easy for minors under the age of 18 to get to the United Kingdom.

"Some people think that the British government has chartered buses to bring migrants to the United Kingdom," says Charlotte, a volunteer with Utopia 56.

"Just yesterday, another person asked me where the bus was leaving from."

Tickets to Canada, buses to England

Many of these rumors sprung up overnight after French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May signed an agreement on January 18. During their meeting, London promised to "drastically" reduce the time it takes to process asylum claims to go from "six months to just 25 days for unaccompanied minors," according to Macron. In Calais, however, this statement was severely misunderstood.

The 25-day waiting period doesn't actually begin until the end of the asylum process, meaning that essentially, the applicant has to complete a number of steps first, including submitting a claim at the local police prefecture, waiting to be assigned a legal representative and being interviewed. Applying for asylum or family reunification in the United Kingdom still remains a long and complicated process.

Another such rumor that has been circulating is that some migrants will be given free plane tickets to go to Canada. A third rumor is about an impending change to French law, which would make it possible for people whose asylum claims have been rejected to try again. About 30 Eritrean women arrived in Calais last week believing that rumor, says Julie, a volunteer with the association L'Auberge des Migrants.

"They were convinced that, just by being [in Calais], they could obtain asylum. But they had all applied previously and been rejected."

Different camps are scattered around Calais. This picture was taken near a hospital complex less than five kilometres from the “Verrotières camp".
There actually is a bill on asylum and immigration under discussion by French lawmakers. The bill, which is supported by Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, would change the length of validity for certain visas and alter the length of time people could be held in administrative detention. However, there is no mention in the bill about giving people a second chance to claim asylum.

"People's behavior has changed"

"We tell them that these rumors are false," says Julie, who often works with unaccompanied minors for L’Auberge des Migrants. "But it's not enough. We don't know what to tell them because, quite simply, we are often faced with questions that we just don't have answers for. For example, if someone asks us, 'Are things going to change soon?' we don't have anything to say because we just don't know."

Charlotte from Utopia 56,and Julie from L'Auberge des Migrants both say that they just don't know where these rumors come from. There is some worry, however, that they might be spread by people smugglers who want to traffic more potential migrants to Calais. Yaya from Sudan doesn't know what to think after hearing all the rumors and myths in the air. He dismisses much of the talk as "it's just what people say here."

Trapped in Calais and with no possibility of obtaining asylum in France or continuing their journeys to England, many migrants are growing increasingly frustrated, NGO staff and volunteers say.

"Their behavior has changed. We've reached a level of tension that we've never seen before," Charlotte explains, adding that the recent influx of migrants who had previously stayed in Germany, Italy and Belgium hasn't helped.

"Not only do they feel like they've been tricked [by the announcements made by Macron and May], but they also aren't used to the police violence here; to [things like] having their tents sprayed with tear gas or their sleeping bags destroyed," Charlotte says. "We are in a situation that could degenerate quickly."

About 400 people are living in the Verrotières camp, which is built on muddy and dirty terrain.
NGOs worry about escalation of crisis

The climate of uncertainty coupled with rumors has given way to mounting tension that directly impact NGOs in the field.

"We are their only points of contact. So, inevitably, when they are desperate, they take it out on us," says Charlotte, who confirmed that several days prior a man armed with a knife assaulted a volunteer during a food distribution. Jemal, an Ethiopian migrant who lives on Verrotières Street, explains where this resentment that many of his fellow migrants feel originates from:

"The volunteers are really nice," he says. "But everyone here tells you that they never have any real solutions for us. People are fed up."

Because of the tense security situation, most of the associations that work in Calais have begun to develop security protocols. After facing threats, the Refugee Youth Service, an organisation that tries to identify and help unaccompanied minors, had to suspend its activities.

"We also stopped distributing food in certain places - just for a few days. We just can't lose control and tolerate violent behavior," Charlotte says.

Bilal, who is originally from Eritrea, says that he is finding it hard to take this toxic atmosphere anymore. Along with the rumors, the police harassment and the high levels of uncertainty, he says that migrants are now also facing considerable food shortages.  

"We save food, we cover bread in cellophane and save it for later," he says. "One day, [the NGOs] didn't stop coming because someone had become aggressive. But we had nothing to do with it.

"We are afraid that the NGOs will stop coming."

 

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