A year after 27 drowned crossing the channel, migrants still suffer in Calais | Calais

Wet and disheveled on a rainy November day, Badr is one of dozens of men who have arrived to collect a tent and sleeping bag from a charity operating out of a van in a Calais car park. The 22-year-old, originally from Syria, has been in Calais for over a week. His previous tent was taken by police four days ago, so he slept under a walkway in the center of town along with six others for warmth.

It’s been a year since at least 27 migrants drowned when their boat capsized in the English Channel, the worst disaster in 30 years. But while the tragedy has thankfully not been repeated, thanks in part to better coordination between the French and British coastguards, there seems little change at first glance in the appalling conditions faced by migrants in northern France.

Originally from near Aleppo in northern Syria, Badr (then 13) and his family fled in the early stages of the country’s 2013 civil war; “I didn’t want to fight because I didn’t want to kill anyone,” he says. He ended up in Iraq, with his family scattered there, and in Lebanon and Turkey, fighting for money and hope. But this year he wants to join a brother in the UK and insists that after spending four days on a boat crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, he has nothing to fear.

The 22-year-old Syrian migrant Badr receives a tent and bags from volunteers with Care4Calais.
The 22-year-old Syrian migrant Badr receives a tent and bags from volunteers with Care4Calais.
Badr and his cousin Mhamod, 20, cover themselves with blankets in the center of Calais.
Badr and his cousin Mhamod, 20, cover themselves with blankets in the center of Calais.

“My heart is already dead. I have no feeling anymore,” says Badr simply in his native Arabic. He hopes for better weather conditions to make the shorter journey across the Channel which he says will cost €1,500, a fee usually paid by relatives to a trafficker at home. It is not clear that Badr has a clear plan for life in Britain, but, he says, “I want to help my family”, and that “for work Britain is much better” than Germany or France.

But right now, Badr is trying to find a coat – the red blanket around him is soaked with rain – and weatherproof shoes. The volunteers of Care4Calais, the charity that distributes the tents and sleeping bags, promise to check their stock and come back with something by noon. But the young man misses the connection, partly because the police have again raided the filthy area under the bridge where he and a dozen others were hiding.

There are perhaps 500 migrants, mostly single men, scattered among the most improvised camps in and around Calais, and another 1,000 near Grande-Synthe, west of Dunkirk, where some families also reside. In Grande-Synthe, where the Guardian visited a year ago after the drowning, the tents and tarpaulins have been moved and spread out a quarter of a mile. Otherwise, little else has visibly changed.

Kasim, 24, and Sahil, 23, two migrants from Afghanistan at a camp in Loon-Plage between Calais and Dunkirk.
Kasim, 24, and Sahil, 23, two migrants from Afghanistan at a camp in Loon-Plage between Calais and Dunkirk.

Most flee problem areas outside Europe and concentrate the world’s crises in one clearing.

Kasim, 24, and Sahil, 23, are both students from Afghanistan who left to escape the Taliban and became buddies along the way. Kasim said it took them two months to cross Europe, “mostly on foot”. Sahil was minted in Bulgaria. Both complained that they had been threatened by the Taliban, Kasim because he worked as a driver for a deputy defense minister under the Western-backed government – ​​“they call you and say: ‘quit your job – or pay us’” and Sahil, a journalism student, for writing articles critical of the country’s new rulers.

There are no sanitary facilities and no drinking water on the campsites, other than that provided by various charities. Open fires provide warmth – hands stretch into the center of the burning wood – while the state provides some food in Calais, but nowhere near Dunkirk. But unless food is handed out, the busiest part of the grounds is where people charge their phones, where charities hang dozens of plugs powered by a generator.

Each national group usually camps together in the dunkirk scrub. There are Sudanese fleeing Darfur willing to show videos of burning cities from their native land on their phones, even though they often don’t have the money to pay for the crossing. Either they try to get on trucks, despite improved infrared detection – the process is called ‘coincidence’ – or they hope that a people smuggler will allow them to fill a space on a boat, sometimes the Calais charities, insisting that they take a ship control. miles across the Channel with no experience.

There are Kurds who leave Iraq and Iran complaining about corruption; Eritreans flee conscription. If the migrants can tolerate the conditions and apply for asylum in the UK, the percentage granted in the first decision is often very high: 98% for Syria, 97% for Afghanistan and Eritrea, 92% for Sudan, although less, at 51 % for Iraq. But in France they don’t get shelter and, as Sahil said, “we couldn’t survive if the charities didn’t help us”.

Refugees in Calais: ‘It’s psychological warfare’

The exception is the Albanians, who started arriving in significant numbers from May this year, the Interior Ministry says, taking advantage of the fact that it has proved possible to cross the Channel in small boats. A significant number end up in the British drug trade, police say. But while Albanians often camp in Grande-Synthe, migrant charities say they have very little contact with them, which the National Crime Agency has described as a ruthless professionalism for people smuggling.

Lucy Halliday, coordinator of Care4Calais, a charity that provides a range of welfare services in Calais and Grande-Synthe, said: “The Albanians are coming over very quickly. They don’t hang out in the camps. And they are very secretive, very private. They never talk to us, they never get involved with our distributions or [mobile phone] charge.” They may only stay in the north of France for a few days, while others willing to pay for a passage often wait a few weeks or months.

Ibrahim, 26, a Syrian student volunteering from Germany, holds an umbrella for migrants from Sudan as they shave their hair as Care4Calais, a volunteer-run refugee charity, provides hairdressing supplies for migrants.
Ibrahim, 26, a Syrian student volunteering from Germany, holds an umbrella for migrants from Sudan as they shave their hair as Care4Calais, a volunteer-run refugee charity, provides hairdressing supplies for migrants.

Britain and France are treating the migrant situation as a security issue, even though there is a labor shortage in the UK. In the past three years, Britain has made four agreements with France to pay for extra police work. Rania Lefrarni, a spokesperson for Human Rights Observers, a Calais-based NGO, said French police snatched — and often vandalized — tents and belongings from migrants “sometimes as often as every 24 hours in Calais, while in Grande-Synthe it is once or twice a week”.

It is “a deliberate policy of intimidation,” she added, carried out by France’s CRS riot police, who according to local charities work on a short rotation to ensure they don’t treat the migrants softly. When the police clear a site in Calais, the migrants often retreat to the other end. In Grande-Synthe, cisterns were removed and the ground turned over during the summer in an attempt to prevent charities from returning. “We’re just moving to a different position,” Halliday added.

Yet the security effort is struggling even on its own terms. The number of people crossing the Channel in small boats is reaching an all-time high. There were 28,526 in 2021 and 8,466 in 2020; but this year it’s more than 40,000, fueled by activity from Albania — though aid agencies say official rumors of a record number of more than 1,000 arrivals per day have little effect on their volume of work. “They say this, but we don’t see it having any impact on demand for what we do,” Halliday said.

There’s also something of a hamster wheel to the whole process. Police confiscate and destroy migrant tents before charities such as Care4Calais distribute them using tents and bedding left behind at festivals. “We have to be very careful, because today we could give up 400 tents that are needed. And tomorrow we won’t have 400 tents if there’s another eviction and we need them again,” Halliday said.

The France-UK Canal from the town of Wimereux, Northern France.
The France-UK Canal from the town of Wimereux, Northern France.

Aid organizations consistently claim there is a better way, drawing attention to the treatment of Ukrainians, fleeing the Russian invasion, with hotels and good accommodation, even though the numbers entering the UK were not as great as in other European countries. But with little clear hope of a policy breakthrough, some desperation. A former field charity worker said she was exhausted over the past year. “Sometimes it felt like nothing was working. The media would only highlight issues so that governments could dig into them,” she said.

But on the ground, despite the cold and wet November, the human spirit remains unaffected. Migrants are often remarkably good humored and willing to share their stories. Friendships, like those of Kassim and Sahil, are forged on the journey and they often see the challenge of crossing the Channel as one that simply has to be overcome. “It’s a game,” Kassim said. “You have to complete every step: we got through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, we got here. It’s a different mission.”

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