Dozens of people wait outside an old parish building in the heart of Calais converted into a warehouse. Many have spent the night waiting. They are migrants waiting to get some warm clothes to protect themselves against the harsh French winter.
Even though it’s the middle of winter, there are people wearing just flip flops and flimsy clothes which are frayed and full of holes. Secours Catholique-Caritas France’s clothes storeroom offers them warmer clothes such as sweaters, gloves and scarves to help them cope with the glacial temperatures.
Over the past few months the number of migrants has grown from 500 to 2500. Secours Catholique works with them and offers material and moral support.
The conditions of the camp – known as, like other similar camps, as “the jungle” are tough: mud and piles of rubbish everywhere and no electricity.
As many of the migrants have very few possessions after their long journey, Secours Catholique also gives food, hygiene items such as soap, toothbrushes and paste, candles.
Many of the migrants have come from countries wracked by war and unrest, such as Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. They see Europe as a place of hope, where they can build a life.
In a joint letter from Secours Catholique and other NGOs to the mayor of Calais and the French Home Secretary last December, the groups said, “Those exiled have no other choice. They gather in tents near the centre of Calais, creating a giant camp of stray refugees, a type of open air Sangatte (referring to a controversial migrant centre which was closed a number of years ago).”
Calais is a dead end for many migrants. They arrive there hoping to get into Britain, where they think they will get work. Two factors which makes the migrant’s entry to the United Kingdom difficult is that the UK has signed the Dublin Regulation but not the Schengen Agreement. The former means that undocumented migrants are returned to their first country of entry in the European Union (often Italy, Spain or Greece) once identified if they do get to the UK; whereas the Schengen agreement ensures the free movement of people within certain European countries.
The migrants’ only chance is to risk their lives and hop into the back of a passing truck which is about to cross the Channel. Fifteen migrants died in 2014 around Calais as a result of jumping onto trucks and the from the cold weather.
Secours Catholique relies on the good will of volunteers to help its programmes for the migrants. Thirty volunteers help run the clothes distribution centre alone. Many more participate in other projects. Calais residents have been very forthcoming in donating clothes, blankets and other items to help the migrants.
The willingness to help the migrants sharply contrasts with the attitude of the authorities. Human Rights Watch reports that the migrants in Calais receive abuse and beatings from police. Some of the migrants interviewed reported having bones broken by the police.
The local government representative recently dismantled three informal camps, citing a scabies outbreak. However, he’s promised that the cases of those who seek asylum in France will be fast-tracked and they will be given alternative lodging.
However, as the migrant numbers grow, providing adequate lodging becomes a challenge.
“We live like animals here,” says one young Syrian student. “If France doesn’t want us, why doesn’t it just let us go to England?”