Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

MIGRATION: Stateless in Calais

Matt Carr

CALAIS, Jan 13 2011 (IPS) - In September 2009 French police bulldozed the migrant encampment at Sangatte near Calais, inhabited by hundreds of mostly Afghan asylum seekers seeking to reach the United Kingdom. The destruction of the Sangatte ‘jungle’ was carried out in the full glare of publicity, and the French and UK governments hailed it as a major blow against illegal immigration.

Since then the Calais authorities have waged a less visible war of attrition against the undocumented migrants who continue to regard the city as the gateway to the UK. For the past year the local gendarmerie and a rotating contingent of riot police from other parts of France have relentlessly hounded migrants in and around the city. In June the local authorities flattened the large abandoned factory known as Africa House, where African migrants were living in conditions that resembled a bombed-out war zone.

Today between 60 and 100 migrants from various nationalities continue to live in and around the city in abandoned factories and derelict buildings. Others sleep rough in woods or under bridges.

These settlements are raided by police on a weekly and sometimes a daily basis. In most cases migrants are not charged with any offence, but held for a few hours or a day in the Coquelles detention centre outside Calais, before being made to walk back – a journey that usually takes about two hours. Some migrants have been arrested more than once in the same day and made to repeat the journey.

All this has reduced the mostly male migrant population in the city to a marginalised and largely invisible presence. Just a few blocks from the elegant town hall with its illuminated Christmas façade, I found three Palestinians living on the first floor in a former construction factory with most of its roof and walls missing. One of them was Achmed from Gaza, who came to Calais nine months ago and spent six months in hospital, after jumping onto the street to escape a police raid. Now he is back in the factory and waiting for a second operation.

Achmed and his companions have survived the winter in these post- apocalyptic surroundings by burning roof timbers in a metal bucket, and covering their sleeping quarters with a plastic sheet in an attempt to keep themselves warm – an attempt that was recently undermined when the police cut a large hole in it.

Such behaviour is not due to the random malice of individual police officers. The deputy mayor of Calais Philippe Mignonet unapologetically defines the policy of the city authorities to maintain “a certain level of pressure” to make migrants leave Calais and dissuade others from coming. “We want them to send a message back that it’s useless to come to Calais, that it’s not as easy to come here as their mafias tell them,” says Mignonet, who insists that this policy has the approval of UK immigration officers.

This is a dirty and often brutal business, and there is no evidence that it is succeeding even on its own terms. There are certainly less migrants in Calais than there were previously – a development that is in keeping with a more general fall in undocumented migration across the continent. But new migrants are still coming, and many of them have moved out of Calais itself to smaller settlements up and down the French coast.

Local humanitarian organizations calculate that there are eight to ten migrant camps dotted along the coast between Dunkirk and Boulogne near ferry ports and truck stops, though the actual number may be higher. One of these encampments is located near the town Teteghem, wedged in between the A16 motorway and slip road alongside a small lake, in a bleak and inhospitable environment that makes the squats of Calais seem luxurious by comparison.

When I visited the camp there was no shelter from the freezing wind, and the ground was still icy. Some women from the local humanitarian organization Salaam were handing out fruit and bread to migrants, watched by representatives from Medicins du Monde and UNHCR.

Many of them looked in bad physical shape. An Iranian was carrying his two- year-old daughter, who looked numb with cold. The camp itself consists of four large plastic bivouacs, with a smaller mountaineering tent nearby, where migrants sleep on the ground or on blocks of Styrofoam. Someone had planted a Christmas tree, which was still strung with tinsel, and a sign outside one of the tents wished visitors a Happy New Year. Between 30-40 people have spent the winter in these bleak conditions, most of whom Afghans and Iranians.

For these migrants, the attraction of the Teteghem jungle lies in its proximity to the port of Dunkirk a few miles away, and a nearby layby, where trucks sometimes pull over en route to the port. At night, and even during the day, migrants up and down the A16 sometimes try to climb into the back of the trucks. The isolation of the camp also provides some relief from the police repression in Calais, but the difference is strictly relative. That same morning the police had come by and arrested two or three migrants who were not quick enough to run away.

Mathieu Quinet, the coordinator of Medicins du Monde says that his work here is more difficult than when he worked in Africa. There is no social structure in the camp, and the shifting population means that his organization is constantly dealing with new medical problems and obliged to establish new contacts. The local authorities are uncooperative, if not actively hostile to MSM’s attempts to ameliorate these conditions, he says, and fearful that any public association with humanitarian initiatives might be interpreted as ‘softness’ toward illegal immigration.

These sentiments are not restricted to local politicians. The persecution of migrants in the Calais region reflects a more general attempt by the Sarkozy government to court xenophobic popularity through crackdowns on immigrants and Gypsies. The UK is equally unwilling to do anything that might be seen as ‘soft’ treatment of the migrants who seek to cross the Channel. Both governments clearly hope that their unwanted visitors will disappear, but the evidence suggests that this is not going to happen anytime soon, and that even the harshest conditions in Calais are often better than those that migrants have left behind them.

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