File photo of migrants in a Calais camp taken July 2019. Photocredit: Mehdi Chebil
File photo of migrants in a Calais camp taken July 2019. Photocredit: Mehdi Chebil

Police abuse, discrimination, daily evacuations, lack of access to water and hygiene: the situation for migrants in the northern French city of Calais continues to deteriorate with the COVID-19 crisis and public health restrictions failing to stem arrivals or dampen dreams of making it to England.

With the easing of coronavirus lockdowns and reopening of European borders, migrants are on the move again. Several non-government organizations at the site say the number of migrants in Calais is now around 1,200, twice as many as at this time last year.

For Siloé, coordinator of the NGO Utopia 56 Calais, the summer of 2020 promises to be busy and above all, tense. At this time of year, the organization usually teams up with partner associations to collect donations of items and materials that can be used by migrants on the streets. "Since these events were cancelled with the coronavirus crisis, we're going to run out of everything, especially tents," she worries.

Since the dismantling of the huge “Calais Jungle” in 2016, where up to 9,000 people lived, migrants are now scattered in several camps, most on the outskirts of Calais. The largest – renamed "the Big Jungle" – is located in the Dune Industrial Zone near the port and is home to several hundred people, mainly of Sudanese, Eritrean, Afghan and Iranian origin. Around 200 Afghans and Iranians have also camped near the hospital and a group of Eritreans have settled near the stadium.

Refugee Youth Service, another NGO, estimates that there are around 100 unaccompanied minors among the 1,200 migrants. Contacted by InfoMigrants, the prefecture estimated that there were between 700 and 750 migrants of all age groups, mostly concentrated in the Dune Industrial Zone camp, adding that "the other settlements have almost disappeared."

>> Read more: We don't know where they've been taken: aid groups say after Calais camp evacuation

Lack of water and showers, piles of garbage and rats

With the arrival of the summer high temperatures and the ongoing COVID-19 threat, migrant rights groups are particularly concerned about health issues. "There’s only one running water point located in the Dune Zone, while in some camps, they are several kilometers away," said Juliette Delaplace from the NGO, Secours Catholique. "Garbage is accumulating and is not collected often enough, we have noticed the presence of rats. The state finances a maximum of 250 showers a day, which is far from enough for 1,200 people in need," she explained.

The prefecture, on the other hand, maintains that it has "reinforced" access to water since the start of the coronavirus crisis with "the installation of free access latrines and water points on four sites, a new water fountain and three mobile cisterns." In total, the prefecture says there are 43 toilets and 51 taps, and while water supply to some of these taps was cut during the lockdown to prevent crowding and maintain compliance with social distancing measures, the decrease was "fully compensated by a greater distribution of water containers."

In addition, two buses are available on rue des Huttes, five days a week, to transport migrants "in groups of 14 maximum" to the showers on rue Saint-Omer, more than an hour's walk from the Dune Camp. The showers are “completely and regularly cleaned to prevent the risk of infection. To avoid possible disturbances of public order in waiting lines, police surveillance is also provided," says the prefecture. There were 3,372 visits to the showers in May, an average of 169 showers per day, according to prefecture figures.

>> Read more: In lockdown, migrants in France up against pandemic, police abuse 

Daily evictions, police harassment and public service discrimination

"Everything is organized to fight against forming attachments, to discourage migrants from settling, starting with these showers on the edge of the city," Delaplace explained. "But more generally, it’s the right to accommodation that is not applied at all in Calais. People are expelled every morning, they feel they are being badly treated and harassed by the police," she said. This includes police seizing tents, blankets and even personal papers during evacuations, said Delaplace. "Right now, volunteers at Secours Catholique have started sewing small cloth pockets so that they [migrants] can keep their documents with them 24 hours a day. It's not right that it should come to this!"

Outside the camps, the situation is just as tense, according to migrant rights associations that denounce harassment and discrimination on public transportation, with several video clips emerging to support these claims.

In recent weeks, many migrants reported that city buses were not stopping at bus stops near the camps and passed when black people or people of color were waiting for a bus. "Since then, the director of Calais Opal Bus, whom we met, assured us that the exiles would be allowed on buses. This is now the case, except that once inside, they are almost always taken out to be checked. It's unbearable," said an outraged Delaplace.

The pressure is even greater for migrants whose asylum requests have been rejected and other undocumented migrants because an administrative detention center has reopened after a closure during the lockdown. "It's already full," said Siloé from Utopia 56 Calais, describing an explosive situation. "Last week, 34 people were sent to the administrative detention center in three days. This adds further pressure as the exiles are already being evacuated from their camps every day and the authorities are confiscating their belongings. The police are also adding more fences, especially around the 'Big Jungle', which results in restricted space and sometimes sparks turf wars between different exile communities."

‘Human rights violations – with impunity’

The prefecture, for its part, confirms that the pace of evacuations is intense: "Since Friday, April 3, the state has undertaken 24 successive operations to shelter the migrant population of Calais." The stated goal: "To take care, for humanitarian reasons, of a homeless population, whose presence in certain outlying areas of Calais also causes serious public health problems and breaches of public peace. It is also to stop the spread of COVID-19, to ensure the protection of all."

According to the prefecture, 617 migrants have been "sheltered" since the beginning of these operations in six centers in the department.

In addition, the prefecture says it is continuing its almost daily evacuations carried out under the authority of the public prosecutor of Boulogne-sur-Mer, a city 35 kilometers south of Calais. "The aim of these operations is to put an end to illegal occupations and to avoid the reconstitution of lawless areas and unhealthy camps that would soon become shantytowns. During these operations, all migrants who so wish can be sheltered in reception and situation assessment centers."

Since these centers opened in August 2017, around 4,797 migrants from Calais have been taken care of after their evacuations.

These figures do not satisfy migrant rights groups, who note that the overwhelming majority of migrants in Calais have England in their sights, and the daily dismantling and police pressure does not stem the flow of arrivals. "In Calais, we are clearly in the midst of ongoing human rights violations that have become normalized – and the local and national authorities continue to maintain the rotting situation with impunity," explained Delaplace.


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