The snow has been falling non-stop in Calais for the past week. Photo: Care4Calais/January 2021
The snow has been falling non-stop in Calais for the past week. Photo: Care4Calais/January 2021

Just ahead of this week's cold snap, authorities in the northern French cities of Calais and Grande-Synthe announced they would open emergency shelters to help house homeless migrants. But NGOs say the measures are insufficient and that the shelters are difficult to reach.

For the past week, it’s been snowing non-stop in the French cities of Calais and Grande-Synthe, prompting authorities to announce the opening of emergency accommodations to help shield migrants from the cold.

In Grande-Synthe, authorities said 170 extra beds had been made available.

"Taking into account the [large] number of migrants on the Dunkirk coast, we have decided to strengthen our sheltering efforts without delay. Over the past weekend [February 6-7], 170 more beds have been made available and 78 people have already accepted shelter through this offer," the prefect in Dunkirk wrote in a statement, in which it added that the "emergency measures" should not be considered "sustainable solutions". Instead, the prefect is encouraging the migrants to apply for asylum.

'Don’t want to leave the coast'

But local NGOs say little information has been made available about the emergency shelters: "Where are these 170 beds?," Laure, a coordinator at Utopia 56, asked. "We haven’t been able to get more information about them than that [they exist]."

Although Laure welcomed the opening of emergency shelters, she said it is important they are located by the coast. "The problem is always the same: The migrants don’t want to move far away from Grande-Synthe and Dunkirk because they want to go to Britain," she explained. "And so many migrants refuse to go to accommodation centers that are located far away."

She added that the emergency social services (which can be reached by calling 115 in France, ed. note) cannot be relied on as a solution either. "They can only accommodate 20 people in Dunkirk, and so it’s almost impossible to get a place with them." According to Utopia 56, some 500 migrants are currently living it rough in Grande-Synthe.

Claire Minot, a volunteer at Salam which distributes food by the Puythouck forest in Grande-Synthe, described the current situation as "terrible".

Many left in the cold

In Calais, two hangars – one for minors and one for adults - have been opened up to house migrants until February 15. "It's a good thing, but it’s tricky to get there: you have to catch a bus, and you can’t just turn up," Siloé, at Utopia 56, says. "The bus service is only available between 4:30 pm and 6:30 pm, and so there’s nothing in the evening or in the night."

And there are few other solutions available. “Our citizen accommodation network is still pretty weak here in Calais. We call the emergency social services every evening, but it’s always the same thing: they’re full every night.”

Many migrants have no choice but to sleep out in the cold. "It’s an emergency. We distribute fire wood, pocket heating equipment and survival blankets," Siloé said, noting that some 800 people are currently estimated to live on the streets of Calais. On Thursday night, temperatures are expected to drop further. "To -6 or -7 degrees Celsius. We hope it won’t lead to any tragedies."


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