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Calais five years on: Covid, Brexit and hostile policies

Guest article by Carla Laudien, Fundraising and Events Executive at Maastricht Goes to Calais

At the beginning of the last academic year, I and four other female students revived Maastricht Goes to Calais. The aim of the organisation is twofold – organising fundraisings for NGOs in Calais and raising awareness about the current situation of displaced people in Calais. Living conditions in Calais are atrocious with refugees struggling to obtain basic goods. As this situation is often overlooked this article is important as we hope that it will help to reintroduce this topic into our everyday conversations. In recent years, we have left the dire reality of these refugees, only 3 hours away from us, out of our activism and this has to change. During our recent clothes donation drive, we got the opportunity to have a chat with Dominic who is the Donations Manager for Collective Aid in Calais and has been in Calais since the end of October 2020. Collective Aid is an NGO that focuses on the collection and distribution of non-food items such as clothes, tents, and shoes for displaced people.

Since the Calais “Jungle” (as the migrant camp is often referred to) was destroyed in 2016 Calais has disappeared from the popular media outlets. Nevertheless, Refugees still make their way to Calais. Refugees come to Calais because they hope to travel to the UK and be granted asylum there. Some of the reasons why the refugees choose the UK are that they already have family there or speak English and thus feel they will be able to integrate more easily than in another European country.

Information about the reality that the refugees face in Calais every day is sparse and not easy to find. Coverage can be mainly found through NGOs, such as the Human Rights Observers organisation, who document the human rights violations encountered by displaced people in Calais. This is firstly due to the fact that the refugee crisis in general has moved to the background of media attention and consequently in the public’s awareness. Secondly, if it is discussed, its setting has moved more towards the atrocious conditions on the Greek islands.

Dominic explained that the city of Calais has taken steps to remove the refugees from the city, making them less visible to the public. Through the use of hostile architecture, such as boulders, fences and spikes, Calais has actively pushed refugees from seeking shelter in the city, forcing refugees to mostly settle in the fields and clearings around Calais. In the wooded areas which the refugees choose for shelter, many trees are apparently cut down by the city in order to take away the protection against wind and weather that they provide. Dominic further explained that roofed spaces which were used for distribution by the NGOs were also made unusable through the placement of large rocks by the city. These actions follow a continued pattern by the French state as it actively disrupts the work of NGOs supporting refugees.

It is not only the French government or the city of Calais that are taking measures to create a hostile environment for refugees. The UK also has an interest in creating a hostile environment and making travel to the UK harder for the refugees. To achieve this aim they are prepared to pay €31.4 million to support France’s border control efforts, so that France can increase controls in the channel and thus keep refugees from traversing to the UK. Examples for these efforts would be, amongst others, new detection and surveillance technology to disrupt crossings and increase border security to reduce smuggling. In Dominic’s opinion, this money should be used for other things, such as offering adequate accommodation for people without shelter, offering safe, realistic, and legal paths to immigration, and offering education for minors, as well as social services, legal advice, and clothes. All of the above would ensure basic human rights to be upheld instead of spending the money to achieve the opposite. These ideas have been under discussion for a long time, and organisations as well as institutions (such as the Défenseur des Droits) have been recommending them.

How many refugees are in Calais, waiting to make it to the UK, cannot be clearly said. According to Dominic, the NGOs in Calais estimate around 3000 persons, with that number steadily increasing. At the beginning of this year Thomas Müller, one of the authors for the blog Jungle of Calais wrote an article for Migration Control. In this article, he estimated that there are around 1000 refugees in the area. The discrepancies and general vagueness of these numbers stem from the fact that there is no official census, according to Dominic. The only way for the NGOs to gain an overview of the number of refugees is during the distribution of food and at the information points provided by the NGOs.

Although the population does change regularly, the need for constant distribution of non-food items is greatly increased by the constant police evictions that the refugees face. These evictions happen every 48 hours and often lead to the destruction of the refugees’ few belongings. Dominic says that in the beginning, the evictions would always happen in the morning which gave the refugees the opportunity to pack their stuff and move to a new location. However, the police have changed their strategy and are now coming at random times in the day, leading to more loss of materials than before. The evictions are aiming to prevent the refugees from establishing permanent camps. Adding to this, the French police have become more and more violent in the past year with the police evicting under the guise of “flagrance”. This measure, which is supposed to be used in criminal investigations, allows police to evict people from private property if there has been a complaint or if they have been in the space for less than 48h. The abusive police conduct creates a state of permanent fear about losing the most basic items and possessions such as clothing and shoes.

The constant moving around to avoid the destruction of their property adds further stress to the refugees' lives, especially since tents are frequently destroyed or left behind as it is more difficult to carry them around. Due to the frequency and severity of the evictions the organisations are struggling to keep up with the constant demand for new items. For example, in the last year Collective Aid distributed around 3500 tents while 4000 were destroyed. Besides adding stress and insecurity to the refugees' lives, the constant destruction is also very unsustainable. Tents or coverings are made from plastic and are unusable after the evictions. Thus, they have to be thrown away creating a lot of waste.

This unsustainability is often negatively commented on by donors when Collective Aid asks for donations to buy tents for the refugees. However, Dominic explained that if they want to provide the refugees with some protection against the elements, tents are the only option as more sustainable constructions would be too permanent to be a viable solution. The organisations also do not have the resources to provide tents all year round. This is why tent distribution is focused on the months where the average temperature falls under 10 degrees as hypothermia is more likely to occur then. Collective Aid is currently holding another donation drive to assure that they can provide tents to refugees in the future.

Dominic explained that these challenges have been greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 Pandemic and Brexit. Most organisations in Calais have their donor and volunteer network in the UK. Due to Covid and Brexit, it has become harder, at some points even impossible, for goods and people to reach Calais. Because of Brexit volunteers from the UK can only stay a maximum of three months which has created a lack of long term volunteers. This means that the organisations have to make do with fewer goods and manpower while also adhering to Covid-19 safety regulations. Dominic stated that in the future the organisations need to build a bigger network in mainland Europe in order to be able to continue their work efficiently. A first step to achieve this is the raising of awareness. To find out more follow Maastricht Goes to Calais and Collective Aid on Social Media. Or you can listen to the podcast published on the 6th of August where the Maastricht Diplomat talked to a representative for Collective Aid. If you want to read reports about Police Conduct in Calais go to Human Rights Observers Instagram page.

But most importantly share this article and talk about the situation in Calais!

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