Over the past few months, authorities in Calais have poured millions of euros into a spectacular project aimed at restoring the city’s image as an attractive tourist destination. The migrant population, meanwhile, has practically been banished from the city center. Food distribution is no longer permitted and camping has become almost impossible. InfoMigrants reports.
It’s 10 pm when the last train of the day rolls into the Calais railway station. Among the passengers are six migrants, two of whom are minors. They are greeted by an icy cold wind that is almost a trademark of the city. Volunteers from the Utopia 56 aid group are waiting for them by the station’s entrance. Every night they drive to the station to meet the dozen or so migrants arriving from all over France on a daily basis. Two young volunteers walk up to the migrants who have just arrived to offer them a ride to one of the four makeshift camps located on the outskirts of Calais. As they start talking, a police van drives by, passing as close to the group as possible to make sure the volunteers don’t give the migrants anything to eat.
On October 18, Calais authorities issued a decree banning all “food distributions to migrants” in the city center. The decree was intended to discourage migrants from heading into the heart of Calais in search for food – especially after nightfall. It’s common to see small groups of migrants pounding the city’s sidewalks, sometimes for hours, despite the freezing cold.
Other migrants seek refuge under the streetlights in an effort to avoid the forest camp, where people are forced to sleep among rats and drunks. For the past week, a group of Sudanese migrants has slept near the train station. They don’t have any tents and their jackets do little to protect them from the harsh wind. “We hide as soon as the police come,” one of them says, noting that he much prefers the cold and the hard bitumen at the station to the soggy, wet ground of the forest camp where the “rats swarm”.
Twenty-five-year-old Hamdan from Darfur, who recently had his application for asylum in France rejected, says he would actually prefer to stay in the forest, but since he got to Calais 12 days ago he still hasn't been able to get his hands on a tent. Although winter is approaching, local NGOs complain of fewer public donations, meaning they no longer have enough money to provide the migrants with tents. Hamdan currently spends his nights sleeping on a piece of cardboard.
‘They want to keep them out of sight’
“The station is a focal point,” Antoine Nehr from Utopia 56 explains, calling the police presence “crazy” and accusing the authorities of “inciting hatred” toward the migrants. Nehr says they are blaming migrants for leaving “human excrement” in the streets and for “disturbing public order.” “I’ve never seen such things,” he spits. “The city is stigmatizing these people by making them out as being dangerous and by putting them in precarious situations.”
Despite the ban on food distribution, Utopia 56 continues to sneak meals to the migrants each night. It has already received four warnings for doing so.
The decree has one main objective: to clean up the streets of Calais and restore the city’s former image as an attractive travel destination. On November 1, the city installed an enormous, €4.5-million mechanical dragon. Authorities say the investment is aimed at bringing the tourists back and in turn creating new jobs. The NGOs, on the other hand, say that it’s all an excuse to drive the migrants even further out of the city. “They want to keep the migrants out of sight, in the forest,” Nehr says.
But it’s difficult for the migrants to hide in the forest. Every two days, police come by to tear down their camps. “The police officers took all of my stuff, even my shoes, I’ve got nothing left,” Hamed, a 27-year-old Iranian says, his feet in just socks and flip-flops in the freezing cold.
Hamed currently stays in a tent in “rue des Huttes” (Hut Street), another migrant camp on the outskirts of the city. According to local NGOs, the camp is the largest in Calais and accommodates around 300 people. “They even took my crutch,” says Hamed, who hurt his ankle during his six-month journey from Iran to France. “They threw it in the trash. I couldn’t get it back.”
‘France destroyed my life’
In September, a new three-meter-high fence was erected along Graveline Road near “rue des Huttes”, effectively preventing the migrants from setting up camp in that part of the forest. By the end of this year, another fence, stretching for more than a kilometer, is to be erected on “rue des Huttes” itself. The migrants, most of whom have had their asylum applications rejected, are being pushed into an increasingly small piece of forest, which is filled with rubbish. There are currently four camps in Calais and its suburbs, housing a total of 500 migrants.
Nehr says the conditions the migrants live in are “inhuman” and notes that although the state-backed association, “La vie active”, distributes food by the camp twice a day, “it’s the state’s decision to shrink the camp”.
Abraham says he feels trapped in France, a country “where you sleep in the streets even though you’re an asylum seeker”. Like many of the other migrants, Abraham now has his sights set on Britain – a country he had never planned on going to in the first place. So far, he has tried to cross the Channel “six time by boat, and several times on trucks, even though it’s a lot more dangerous”.
“France doesn’t want me, but it doesn’t let me go either,” he says. “We have nowhere to go. Please, just let me leave.”
*Aside from the “rue des Huttes” camp, there is also the “BMX” camp, and the hospital camp as well as a fourth in Marck-en-Calausis, a commune just outside of Calais.