On a personal initiative, Neha Batra volunteered with a grassroots organisation in Calais, France for a month in June 2018. This field note, written immediately after returning from Calais,is based on informal conversations with fellow volunteers and migrants in Calais and Dunkirk as well as further reading.
On a clear evening of June 2018, I saw the White Cliffs of Dover in the United Kingdom for the first time from a beach in Calais in the north of France. Separated by the English Channel, the shortest distance between the two ends is just 33km across the Strait of Dover. Due to this proximity, Calais has historically been a major port for trade and transport between the two countries. Even today, hundreds of ferry boats and tunnel trains operate every day on this route transporting people and vehicles to the other side in just one and half hours. Notably, this significance is accompanied with a peculiar characteristic of Calais being a transit town that most people pass through to arrive at their destination elsewhere. A particular group of migrants from countries in Asia and Africa is also living in Calais, being in transit to reach their desired destination in the United Kingdom, albeit unsuccessfully. This piece is an attempt to express my understanding of the context in which this group is struggling between two extreme forces of humanitarian care and state control.
Calais is located on the northern edge of European Union’s Schengen area which allows travelers to cross borders without systematic border controls.UK on the other side is part of the European Union but not the Schengen area. As a result, since the late 1990s, thousands of refugees and migrants have sought to enter the UK by boarding the cargo lorries in France that cross the English Channel. Majority of these people want to seek asylum in the UK for various reasons including relatives/friends in the UK and ease of finding work due to prior knowledge of the English language. Being wary of this trend, the two countries had signed the Touquet Agreement in 2003 that enabled British border officials to carry out security checks in France. In effect, this implied that the UK border was moved to Calais. In return, the UK supplies millions of pounds of annual funding for tightened security measures at the Calais port and train facilities to stop migrants on the French territory itself. Despite these measures, migrants have continued to live in informal camps scattered around the city, with an estimated number of people usually ranging between 100 and 1500. The year 2015 marked a dramatic jump in the number of migrants in Calais, crossing over 3000 by July 2015 and over 6000 by November 2015. This increase took place within the broader context of increased refugee arrivals in Europe due to intensifying conflicts in their countries of origin at the time. As French government demolished smaller camps in April 2015, most migrants moved to a new camp (often known as the “Calais jungle”) on the periphery of the city, on a wasteland of 0.5 sq. km area. After gradual evictions from this camp and its final demolition in November 2016, informal camps now exist in different parts of Calais. Currently, there are more than a thousand people estimated to be living in informal settlements in Calais and Dunkirk. The vast majority of them have Kurdish, Afghani, Pakistani, Eritrean and Ethiopian origins.
Calais was my place of residence for a month starting from the first week of June 2018. During this time, I volunteered with a British Non-governmental organisation called the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) which operates out of a large communal space in a warehouse in Calais. Currently, it serves freshly cooked and nourishing meals from specific distribution points to 600-1000 refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. My motivation to work there in the summer was two-fold. On one hand, I was eager to understand the functioning of this grassroots organisational set-up that is entirely volunteer-run and donations-based. On the other hand, I wanted to learn about the situation on ground in Calais that created the need for emergence and continuance of such a grassroots effort in the first place. While the crisis in Calais had become the centre of international media attention during 2015 and 2016 ‘migrant crisis’, it has slid into relative obscurity since the demolition of the largest refugee camp settlement in Calais in October 2016, giving the impression of the issue being “solved”. The reality that I observed myself and learnt from my fellow volunteers was starkly different.
At RCK, we worked in a well-equipped communal kitchen in Calais and supplied fresh meals to refugees near these informal settlements. During the day, a group of at least 30-40 volunteers would prepare around 1200 meals every day including a salad and main dish. On special occasions like Ramadan, small packs of dates and other sweets were also distributed. The range of tasks included everything from chopping vegetables and cooking to cleaning the facility after use, with cooking mostly being led by trained chefs. Since new volunteers arrived almost every single day, long-term volunteers on rotating basis would lead different parts of the process. A large number of these volunteers include people who come down to Calais from the UK or other neighbouring EU countries for a week or a weekend. By evening, there would be two vans ready to go out for distribution of food in Calais and Dunkirk respectively.
Image: A traditional dessert called “ Seviyan Kheer” being packed for distribution on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr on 15 June 2018 (Picture taken by the author)
Located half an hour away from Calais, Dunkirk has also witnessed a rapid rise in the number of migrants in 2015. After a large camp housing over 1500 people was burnt down due to a fight between the Afghani and Kurdish residents in April 2017, there are about 250-400 people living there now in temporary camps beside a national highway. While migrants in Calais are mostly young men, there are some women and children living in Dunkirk. There is a centre for women and children in Dunkirk, but it is not sufficient to provide for all families. Migrants usually stay in the region for a few days upto an year with some people staying even longer than a year. On many of my distribution visits, I would often be asked the question, ‘Hindustani (Indian) or Pakistani?’. After my response as ’Hindustani’, many of them who spoke Urdu would stop by and chat. As much as I was curious but cautious to know about them, they were also eager to know about me and talk about their problems to me. After this regular exchange, the conversations would often turn to the subject of reaching their dream destination ‘UK’. At that time, I would sense both despair and determination. After my first few visits, I also realised how these conversations were rather refreshing for them in an otherwise mundane and isolated life in the camp. In one instance in Calais, an Afghani person told me that he doesn’t speak English or French and it was the first time that someone who speaks his language (Urdu) has come to the camp for distribution.
Now going back to my initial enquiry- why are these organisations needed in France in the first place? They are needed because the state authorities are not providing the critical basic humanitarian aid in the form of safe accommodation, nutrition and health for the migrants. Even a French court ruling on 31st July 2017 concluded that the living conditions of migrants (in Calais) reveal a lack of action on the part of public authorities, which can be said to expose the persons concerned to inhumane or degrading treatment and therefore constitutes a serious and unlawful breach of fundamental rights. While some support in the form of water taps and toilets has been provided by the state, living conditions for many people remain precarious especially during the cold winter season in Calais. They continue to rely on the local NGOs to fulfill the basic needs. Besides, the migrants live under constant surveillance of different French police forces. On all my visits to the camp sites, I saw at least 5 to 15 CRS officers (French Riot Police) parked near the camp. They regulate the activities of the people in the area and frequently use violence in the process. NGOs have found them to regularly destroy people’s encampments and personal belongings such as blankets and mobile phones. The tear gas burns on people’s faces, bruises and injuries on their body are proof of the brutal acts committed by the police. Eviction of people from these informal camps is a constant process, happening 1 to 3 times in a week. Beside these physical acts, a long-term volunteer also mentioned several instances, like when one shoe of a migrant was stolen by the officers. This particular occurrence baffles me even now. What is a police officer trying to achieve by stealing a worthless object from a person to whom it is especially valuable in that time and context? Furthermore, the police also try to interrupt the activities of the NGOs and even intimidate the volunteers involved.On my second last food distribution visit to Dunkirk, the police did not allow us inside the camp, giving several absurd reasons such as only French organisations are allowed inside, despite the fact that such distributions had been taking place every day for months till then.
Image: French Police at a refugee settlement in Calais (Picture taken from help refugees.org
This volunteering experience has left me with more questions than answers.While the media coverage of the region has faded, the problem is nowhere near solved. On one hand, the NGOs and volunteers are working tirelessly to support the people and keep up their resilience. On the other hand, the policy or the state has failed to manage the situation and protect the fundamental rights of the migrants. Along-term solution for the situation in Calais thus remains unanswered.
Cover image: A Ferry departing from the Calais port towards a port in United Kingdom (picture taken by a fellow volunteer at RCK) on 13 June 2018
Neha Batra is a Masters Student in International Affairs, The Graduate Institute, Geneva. She can be reached at email@example.com.