In Calais more than 1,000 refugees and migrants living in dire conditions without access to toilets, running water, showers or shelter.
Police regularly confiscate sleeping bags, bedding and possessions, and refugees complain that CS spray is often used during early morning raids on people sleeping. Reports of police harassment of refugees have risen as officials from both towns attempt, without success, to stop refugees from settling in the area.
But some kind of new camp now looks inevitable in Calais after a court ruled that the city government must provide showers and water supplies for the rapidly rising population of asylum seekers, who are mostly teenagers from Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The water supplies were due to be installed, although the local administration would provide no details of how many were to be installed or where.
Because Calais police remove tents immediately, hundreds of refugees are sleeping in the open on wasteland behind an industrial zone near the port. Some camp on a heap of asphalt, others in the woods, where the area is littered with abandoned clothes and large quantities of human excrement. Even in August, the weather in northern France is stormy and cold. Someone has written “Refugees Welcome” on a nearby wall, but it does not feel a welcoming place.
A biology teacher from Ethiopia, from the Oromo minority group, has been in Calais for eight months and is hoping to join family in the UK. He said police had taken his bedding again early that morning. “I can’t count how many times it has happened. They spray your eyes when you are asleep,” he said as he queued for food. “It’s very stressful living in these forests. We have no shelter, no hygiene, no sanitation, no water. It’s very cold at night. The French have given us nothing.”
In Dunkirk, refugees complain of a much more aggressive approach by local police, who arrive most weeks urging people sleeping in the woods to move on and destroying tents.
An Iraqi woman, is travelling with her Iranian husband, their two children, Jeia, 10, and Hussain, three, and her severely disabled younger brother, Jiyad, 22, who is unable walk or speak. She said police had slashed their tent while they were sheltering in a clearing in the woods. She showed cuts in the fabric of the tent, which they have now abandoned.
“They came when we were asleep and shouted ‘Get up, get up!’ The children were frightened. I was frightened,” she said. The family hope to make it somehow to the UK, where they believe they will have better job opportunities, but they appeared to have no understanding of border policy.
“My brother needs to cross to the UK. He needs medicine,” she said, asking another Iraqi refugee to translate for her. “We really need someone to help us. There is no water here, no toilets. It’s not a suitable place for children to live.”
Sabar Amin, from Iraq, spent more than 12 years living in St Ives, working in framing company. But this year his wife, Viyan Sadeeq Abdullah, was sent to Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre and then deported to Italy after her asylum claim was rejected. He is also staying in the woods, hoping to find a way to return with his wife to the country they consider home. He described conditions as “very hard”.
Charlie, a volunteer with Mobile Refugee Support, which helps distribute tents and phone-charging facilities for refugees, said the attitude of police officers varied from week to week. “Some weeks they are quite aggressive and confiscate everything, including baby food and milk. This week it wasn’t quite so bad,” he said.
A report published late last month, titled Like Living in Hell, documented frequent use of CS spray, routine abuse of asylum seekers and migrants and regular disruption of food distribution sessions, concluding that the behaviour appeared to be driven “by a desire to keep down migrant numbers”.
The charity Help Refugees, which has worked in the area for two years, conducts monthly headcounts and estimates that there are at least 500 migrants in Calais, around 400 in Dunkirk and another 300 in small camps along the coast. The Refugee Community Kitchen, which cooks food for people living in small groups in wasteland around Calais and Dunkirk, says it is distributing meals a day (feeding people twice a day). The Calais prefecture said in an emailed response to questions that it believed there were 450 migrants in the Calais area.
The local authorities’ reluctance to install basic facilities for refugees reflects a familiar tension for officials, who are at pains to discourage any return of a large-scale or permanent camp by the port with the provision of any services that they believe might attract migrants to this area of northern France.
The French interior minister, said that 17,869 attempts to breach port and tunnel security had been detected so far this year, along with 12,349 attempts to stow away in trucks. He promised that mobile toilets would be provided in Calais but said it was important to “avoid doing anything that resembles fixed infrastructure”.
When the Calais camp was demolished last October, thousands of refugees were driven in buses to hostels around France. They were encouraged to seek permanent residency in France, or to return home.
In March local authorities attempted to ban charities from distributing food to people sleeping in the woodlands around the city, but the ban was overruled by the local courts. Aid workers say the ongoing attempts to disperse migrants have made their work much more challenging. An English teacher from London who has helped distribute food and clothing during the school holidays over the past 18 months, said: “The camp was absolutely disgusting – the facilities, the way people were treated – but at least people had some kind of home and shelter. Now they have nothing.”
Since the migration crisis has slipped off the political agenda, donations of clothes and bedding have dropped and the warehouse is low on sleeping bags and men’s clothes, particularly underwear. Last month volunteers sewed socks out of old clothes because refugees urgently needed socks and supplies had run out.
France’s migration service sent buses to take refugees from Calais and Dunkirk to two new reception centres in towns further inland, to allow them to take stock of their options and consider applying for asylum in France. But volunteers said there were no translators available and there was confusion about the purpose of the bus trip. At least some returned to the port towns later the same day.
For a few months after the demolition of the camp, migrants disappeared from the streets of Calais. Now groups of young men can be seen waiting at roundabouts near lorry parking spots or walking along the edge of the motorway that leads to the ferry port. The roads around the city are becoming dangerous again both for migrants and truck drivers.
After a short period without deaths of migrants on the roads near Calais, two more plots have been added this year to the migrants’ area in the cemetery, where basic wooden pauper’s graves are allocated to dead refugees.