Tension grows between humanitarians helping migrants and authorities in Calais

International volunteers are stepping in to provide displaced people with basic necessities to survive the harsh journeys they undertake to find asylum

French NGO steps in to help migrants in Calais

French NGO steps in to help migrants in Calais
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In a warehouse in an industrial part of Calais, a large, hand-painted cloth sign reading “Solidarity not Charity” hangs on a wall above a stack of boxes.

Beside this are a couple of worn sofas, where any of the dozens of humanitarians who congregate here sit, eat and talk about their work.

The depot is the rallying centre of eight independent organisations that support displaced people and refugees in the port town in northern France and its surrounding areas, most of whom hope to continue to the UK.

After a lull in crossings because of the cold weather and a spate of storms, groups of migrants this week began to attempt the perilous voyage again from France across the Channel.

Since the start of the year, more than 1,500 people have reached the UK after navigating busy shipping lanes from France in dinghies, according to data compiled by the PA news agency.

A co-ordinator at L’Auberges des Migrants, the umbrella association responsible for assembling the warehouse’s residents, says the space allows the humanitarians to co-operate and synchronise their efforts in providing basic necessities for migrants living on the streets in and around Calais.

“As long as we see it necessary and the government doesn't take action, then it's up to us citizens to do the work that should be done by the government,” William Feuillard tells The National.

In this large and cold industrial building, a warm and dynamic spirit of camaraderie can be felt.

About 60 volunteers work between the warehouse and the camps, washing, packing, organising, cooking and distributing the essentials for survival — from Sim cards to wet-wipes.

One of the eight grass roots organisations is Woodyard, which, as the name suggests, provides firewood for migrants camping outdoors. In the back corner of the warehouse, a pair of volunteers wear goggles and chop wood as the classic French tune Les Champs-Elysees plays on the radio.

Our main objective is to try to reach out to everyone to put the lights on what's happening in Calais because it's a humanitarian crisis happening on the French floor ... and its completely unacceptable.
William Feuillard

It is a heart-warming scene in a heart-rending setting. The stacks of clothes, tents and baskets of dried food filling the space are evidence of a crisis that has been building in this “migrant motorway” city for decades.

More recently, Calais has been at the centre of a political maelstrom with the UK, which continues to baulk at the record number of people crossing the English Channel despite millions of pounds given to France to secure the maritime border and keep them out.

“UK money comes in but it is used to build walls and destroy forests and makes the city uglier,” laments Mr Feuillard.

The miles of razor wire woven around the Calais docks are the most obvious fortifications against those looking to hop on to containers or vessels headed for the UK.

While politicians continue to wrangle over who will keep people from entering their territory, it is ordinary civilians who have stepped up to care for asylum seekers.

“Our main objective is to try to reach out to everyone to put the lights on what's happening in Calais because it's a humanitarian crisis happening on the French floor,” says Mr Feuillard.

“It's not far away and we are here to keep yelling and saying that what's happening here is completely unacceptable.”

Activists are looking to do more as concern rises over the “invisibilisation” of the plight of the roughly 3,000 migrants squatting in outdoor encampments along France’s western coast.

Human Rights Organisation (HRO) is a group that monitors police evictions at camps.

In a bid to combat the formation of “fixation points”, such as the notorious Calais “Jungle” which was dismantled in 2016, law enforcement agents sweep areas where tents have gone up and break down the camps every few days.

Often, tents and belongings are seized and HRO says migrants have witnessed increasing intimidation and violence from authorities.

“It gives the idea that they are doing something to solve the situation here in Calais and Grande-Synthe but in reality it's a way of harassing people, because it's not solving a situation, people are not leaving the border, they're always here”, says Francesca, an HRO co-ordinator who requested anonymity.

She says this “political strategy” is dehumanising and creates more distress.

“Because when you try to make them leave a certain place and push them farther away from the city centres, it means that they have less access to water, to hygiene products, to health care, to a lot of things, so displaced people are in a very pressured and stressful situation.”

HRO data show that more than 1,200 evictions of informal settlements took place in Calais in 2021, with police seizing about 6,000 tents and more than 2,800 sleeping bags and blankets.

In December, the organisation announced that it was taking legal action against the French police for breaches of human rights through the “illegal practices” of destroying property, banning distributions and “harassment of exiled people and volunteers".

Humanitarians The National met in Calais and Grande-Synthe say they do not have a healthy relationship with the state and feel harassed by the repeated stops, car searches and ID checks they face when making deliveries to camps.

During pandemic lockdowns in France, Utopia 56, an organisation that works to provide emergency housing, was issued about 100 fines for violating Covid-19 restrictions despite having exemptions for humanitarian deliveries.

“[The authorities] are trying to exhaust us,” said Mr Feuillard. “Each month, it is harder to reach the displaced.”

Their main advocacy goal is to “not be needed”, but they recognise that history suggests it is unlikely to be achieved.

It is hard to imagine what conditions would be like in these makeshift shelters without the time, energy and amenities these volunteers provide to migrants.

At one tent encampment on disused train tracks in Grande-Synthe, a group of hardy workers dig up gravel and earth to make way for large, grey plastic tubes.

It is one of the techniques used by charity Roots to sustainably reduce waste in refugee camps. Founded in 2017 by Briton Tom Gilbert after he spent time volunteering in the Calais Jungle, Roots has been developing efficient ways to provide clean water in camps.

“Things have definitely got worse over the years but this camp is pretty bad because there isn’t even running water,” he says, standing beside a plastic water tank.

On a clear stretch alongside the long line of tents, a queue starts to form at lunchtime. Refugee Community Kitchen has arrived with hot meals.

“It’s nice, you feel like you’re giving someone a hot meal, doing something, but then you leave the ‘Calais bubble’ and go back to England and realise nobody cares,” one British volunteer tells The National.

Opinions in the UK may eventually become a concern for asylum seekers looking to cross the Channel, but now, cold and hungry in Calais, having warmth and a full stomach is most important.

Updated: March 05, 2022, 6:00 AM