Some 20-30 migrants are squatting inside a run-down house in Calais which was taken over by a squat collective in February. A court hearing set for May 10 will decide whether or not the squatters should be evicted. Meanwhile, a local reporter went to visit and take photos.
"In this space, we hope to break the vicious circle of police and state violence, racism and the policy of dehumanization which is being carried out in Calais," declares a squat collective who took over the grand old villa at 24 Rue Frédéric Sauvage at the beginning of February 2022.
The squat, say the activists, is intended to provide a space for a "dignified life" for the 20-30 migrants who are currently spending time there. Each day, inhabitants work to make the house more habitable and meet to discuss how tasks should be shared out.
The empty house is "one of many left empty in the town," said the squat collective, writing on the website squat.net in French. The website is available in 15 languages and contains news of squats all around Europe.
A reporter and photographer, Marc Demeure, took a series of photos for local French newspaper group La Voix Du Nord, showing what life was like inside the squat. Notices telling people to wash their things up after use in the kitchen and little signs pinned to the walls indicating that the house was a "house of happiness."
An alternative to the streets
In February 2022, the squat collective estimated that "around 1000 migrants are sleeping on the streets of Calais," and that this was "unaccpetable" because many of them had very limited access to hygienic facilities, a proper place to stay, water, food and medical care.
More than 1,000 migrants are waiting in Calais, some for months or even years, in the hope of making it across the English Channel to the UK. In 2021, record numbers of migrants made it across the stretch of water from the French and Belgian coasts to Britain. Numbers are predicted to be significantly higher this year, judging by those who have made it across in the first four months of 2022.
According to the squat collective, "French and British authorities have deliberately transformed what should be a politicial question into a humanitarian crisis, and have reinforced the conditions of extreme precariousness and invisibilization [of migrants] via recurrent police violence, illegal expulsions every 48 hours and the theft of [migrants’] personal effects."
In February, the collective appealed for funds to help cover legal costs of the squatting and to cover daily life in the house.
In March, reporters from La Voix du Nord visited the squat. At that time, they had been visited by official French bailiffs from the justice department. They served them with a court summons for the end of March. The squatters said they were pleased the bailiffs had arrived, because that gave them time in the squat until the court case. Under French law, only a judge can decide if they should be evicted. However, local newspapers reported that the Calais mayor was inviting local residents to file their complaints if they had encountered problems with the inhabitants of the squat.
At the time of La Voix du Nord’s visit, the inhabitants were mostly men, although occasionally a few women and minors might also stay. The activists had managed to get the water running in the two kitchens and two bathrooms and the toilets but not the electricity. One of the activists, calling themselves Oliv, told La Voix du Nord, that the local townhall and the electricity company had cut the electricity in the street "which is illegal," Oliv claimed.
In the meantime, the activists had installed batteries to charge mobile phones and provide a bit of light in the evenings. "When we showed a film the other day, we plugged in at the neighbor’s" declared Oliv to La Voix du Nord.
A chimney sweep had also visited, allowing the collective to light fires in the fireplace. "That’s the only way we are able to heat the house," explained Oliv.
Plans to keep chickens and grow an allotment
Some food is provided by NGOs like the Calais Food Collective and Salam, but little extras, like peanut butter and ginger are bought from the kitty that the collective managed to raise from appeals. One of the activists, calling himself Tom* said he was hoping to get some hens to provide the migrants and squatters with eggs.
Other squatters told reporters they were hoping to grow their own vegetables in the house's garden.
On March 29, the court case to decide whether or not the squatters should be evicted was pushed to May 10. The squatters claim to have funds to defend their action in the courts, reported La Voix du Nord.
Also read: Tales from the Border podcast in Calais
According to another French news source, actu.fr, Oliv claims that one in ten buildings in Calais are vacant, or a total of 2,891 buildings. Although the building is large, after two days, they were reportedly no longer able to accept more people. A woman sitting next to Oliv explains to the actu.fr journalist that they had to begin operating a "first come, first served" policy.
The activists know that most of the squats are evicted eventually. As well as losing a place to sleep, evictions cost the activists money if arrests are made. They then need to fight those court cases as well as finding finances to support the next squatted community.
Oliv told the actu.fr reporter that local people were helping them survive, bringing food and drinks whenever they could. Oliv said he was "touched by the generosity of local people," and assured the reporter that things were working well in the squat, even if everything was "informal."
*Not his real name