Migrants walk in the city of Calais in October 2019. Credit: Mehdi Chebil
Migrants walk in the city of Calais in October 2019. Credit: Mehdi Chebil

In Calais a vast operation has been announced to shelter migrants on a voluntary basis in a bid to combat the spread of the coronavirus. But many migrants hoping to reach England fear being trapped in uncertain conditions far from the city.

''If they take us to these centers, there's no telling what'll happen to us. I'll run away and keep trying to get on a truck and get to the United Kingdom,'' a 16-year-old Sudanese told The Guardian. Like him, many migrants in Calais oppose the decision by French authorities to give them shelter in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus. For them, the measure is a "source of stress".

The operation was originally set to begin on March 31, according to information from the Pas-de-Calais prefecture given to NGOs last week. As of Friday, April 3, it had not yet started. 

The evacuation of the migrant camps in Calais is expected to take several days and be carried out on a "voluntary basis", NGOs told InfoMigrants.

NGOs said migrants will go through a health check, the details of which were unkown at the time of reporting, before boarding buses kept half empty in order to respect social distancing. They will then be taken to accommodation centers in the Pas-de-Calais.

The scheme affects between 800 and 1,000 migrants living on the streets in Calais, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors, according to figures from NGOs. "In the camps, we are far away, but in the centers, we are closer to each other and therefore more at risk," the young Sudanese continued in The Guardian.

Distance from Calais

''Some migrants are worried. They ask us: 'Are they going to ask us for our papers?', 'Are there going to be OQTFs (Obligation to Leave France) and transfers to the CRA (Administrative Holding Center)?'" Antoine Nehr, of the association Utopia 56 said. "Things are not clearly explained in the languages these people speak. We tell them: 'Get on a bus, we'll take you to a center.' Many of them are bound to refuse."

Moreover, many fear being far away from Calais, the city these migrants came to in the hope of reaching England. The centers to which they will be redirected are scattered throughout the region. 

"People who have no other prospects for survival may agree to go to these centers," said François Guennoc, vice-president of the association l'Auberge des Migrants. But for the majority, there are too many unknowns attached to this operation, he believes. "We don't know if they will be locked up in these camps. People also don't know how they will be able to return to Calais, as there are far fewer trains running and a strong police presence on the roads.''

Crossing attempts continue

Returning to Calais remains a priority. Despite the pandemic, attempts to cross the Channel continue at a sustained pace. Last week, in a single day, 110 migrants were rescued by the French and British authorities. "I'm not sure that the virus makes a difference, departures (to England) are still made almost every day," said Nehr.14 migrants trying to cross the English Channel were rescued by the French coast guard on March 25, 2020 | Photo: Préfecture maritime de la Manche-Mer du NordIn fact, for this population, which has been suffering for several days under the full impact of the measures taken as part of the health crisis, coronavirus -- which hadn't yet reached the migrant population in Calais at the time of reporting -- seems to be a secondary concern. As it was for the young Sudanese migrant who said he thinks "more about survival" than about the pandemic.

"They know the danger of the virus but they can't avoid it," Nehr said, referring to the living conditions in the camps where people have to make do with deplorable hygienic conditions, sometimes crammed together in tents.

Several associations have stopped their activities

''There is real educational work to be done to explain to everyone that this virus is dangerous and that they should seek shelter for a while. At the moment, they have many more questions about the fact that certain services are no longer accessible to them, such as showers, which have been closed for several days," Nehr continued.

As a result of the containment measures, several migrant aid associations have indeed stopped their activities in Calais. The remaining associations have had to "adapt", drastically reducing the services they offer and the number of staff on site.

Near the camp on Rue des Huttes, the compound of the state-mandated association La Vie Active is no longer supplied with electricity to prevent people from gathering there, according to the non-profit organization Utopia 56.

This means it is now impossible for migrants to come and recharge their mobile phones. Without a phone, they can no longer stay up to date on the situation or talk to their relatives; they cannot use the internet, or, worse, call 15 in case of serious symptoms of Covid-19.

“We have since fallen out of contact with a lot of people, especially with young minors," Nehr lamented.

 

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