The Humanitarian and Sanitary Emergency in Calais, France

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PARIS, France — For the past six years, migrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea have lived in what is called the “Calais jungle” in the north of France. The migrants wish to reach the U.K. to achieve a visa and a better life. However, many are living at the border in violent and unsanitary conditions. The Human Rights Observers declared that, in January 2021, migrants were still the targets of human rights violations in the area. To better understand the humanitarian and sanitary emergency in Calais, The Borgen Project spoke with President François Guennoc of L’Auberge des Migrants, a French association supporting and helping migrants in the area.

Migrants in Calais, France

Migrants started transit to Calais, France, in 2015 during the “migrant crisis” in Europe. Then, the humanitarian crisis in the Calais jungle culminated in 2016 when the French government decided to destroy the informal camp where the refugees and migrants lived. At that time, approximately 6,000 people lived in the camp. The French police evicted and delocalized the migrants to several centers across France.

This delocalization of migrants highlighted two issues. François Guennoc stressed the first issue. Guennoc stated, “Migrants who were delocalized quickly return to Calais because the solution offered to them is just not good enough.” Migrants returned to Calais, France, to set up camps in the center so they could quickly cross the English Channel. However, the new camps are unfit for habitation and demonstrate unsafe sanitary and humanitarian living conditions.

Doctors Without Borders reported that the accommodation and food distribution centers represented a high risk of COVID-19 transmission. The increase in COVID-19 cases challenged migrants and volunteers. Supporting migrants without creating new contamination clusters became crucial. The number of migrants in the area fluctuates depending on the season and the recurrence of police repression. Guennoc informed The Borgen Project that the number of migrants went from approximately 400 in February 2021 to 1,000 in March 2021 and will likely increase as the weather becomes milder.

Obstacles to Humanitarian Support

The pandemic combined with President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-immigration measures made local authorities stricter in Calais, France. Migrants and associations face police repression and prefecture orders that limit humanitarian support. According to Guennoc, the strategy put in place by the authorities is to make the living conditions for migrants unsanitary and uncomfortable to discourage new migrants from settling in the area. The L’Auberge des Migrants president declared that the police destroy camps and seize properties on a daily basis. Guennoc also stressed the pressure exerted on local nongovernmental associations helping migrants in the area.

In September 2020, a decree was implemented that prohibited the distribution of food to migrants by nongovernmental associations. Guennoc said the government is using the current sanitary crisis as an excuse to make the migrants’ living conditions more difficult. According to Guennoc, the “humanitarian minimum” prescribed by the French government is not enough to fix the sanitary emergency. In 2018, shortly after President Macron was elected, the French government promised to provide meals to all migrants in Calais, France. However, during COVID-19, several distribution centers closed, including the center on La Rue des Huttes. Mobile distributions that only provide a dozen meals replaced those centers. Therefore, COVID-19 made the support provided to migrants even more precarious.

Impact of COVID-19 in Calais

In November 2020, France reached a peak in COVID-19 cases. However, only a few cases of COVID-19 in the migrant population were officially listed. The lack of official COVID-19 cases could stem from the fear of being put in isolation and being unable to cross the border. Guennoc stated that the French government collaborated with Doctors of the World and the French Red Cross to set up a space dedicated to COVID-19 tests in the area. However, several associations and organizations deplored the lack of access to water and basic hygiene in the camps.

Basic human rights are equally important in the fight against the transmission of the virus, especially among vulnerable populations. Thus, the health situation is paradoxical. For example, while shelters improve the migrants’ living conditions, they can also become contamination clusters during COVID-19. The pandemic also impacted humanitarian organizations on the ground. Guennoc told The Borgen Project that there were fewer volunteers during the pandemic. Some volunteers had a higher risk of contracting a severe form of the virus, and travel restrictions implemented between the U.K. and France prevented English volunteers from coming to help. However, donations did not decrease during the pandemic. L’Auberge des Migrants was able to use the media to achieve coverage and support from the French population. The association did not report any positive cases and used prevention measures, such as gloves, masks and social distancing when possible.

Different Perspectives on the Emergency

During the interview with The Borgen Project, Guennoc stressed the severity of the humanitarian, psychological and sanitary emergency in Calais, France — a statement corroborated by several organizations. Guennoc stated, “The CNCDH, La Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l’Homme, wrote an overwhelming report on the humanitarian situation. It did not affect the government because [it]cannot force the government to do anything. These reports only represent a moral pressure put on the French government.” However, Guennoc declared that, for the local authorities, the emergency lies in the increasing number of migrants in the Calais jungle. The local government’s perspective focuses on security rather than humanitarianism. Consequently, the rising number of migrants might lead to more destruction, evictions and violence.

Finally, Guennoc deplored the lack of communication between the local authorities and humanitarian associations. The French population remains polarized on the subject of migrants traveling to and settling in Calais, France. Guennoc said that one of the reasons the local population is discontent is because of the persistence of the issue. However, as a member of an association helping migrants daily, Guennoc does not see any solution if the French authorities do not collaborate with the British government. Instead of pushing migrants away, Guennoc stressed the need for tolerance and compassion from the local populations and the governments involved in this humanitarian and sanitary emergency.

The situation in Calais, France, is critical in terms of human rights and sanitary measures. When tackling the situation, it is crucial to shift from a security perspective to a humanitarian one. To improve the humanitarian, psychological and sanitary conditions, international collaboration remains key to providing lasting and humane solutions for migrants.

– Soizic Lecocq
Photo: Flickr

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