CALAIS UPDATE – February 2019
The Confraternity is often asked if it is safe to walk through Calais. The answer is emphatically yes – it is as safe as any port city, as long as the usual safety precautions for any city are observed. The pilgrim heading for Rome, whether south down the coast to Wissant, or inland to Guines, is unlikely to come across any migrant encampments.
But for the refugees themselves conditions are appalling. One of our members has recently spent a week working with Help Refugees at the Auberge des Migrants. Here she reports on her stay:
The week was bitterly cold, and marked by an increase in clearances by the police. I will take a little space to explain the current situation, and then the work done by Help Refugees at the Auberge des Migrants to mitigate this.
There is currently a humanitarian tragedy in play in Calais and northern France. Currently there are around 500 “exiles” (so named as to avoid any contention over the definition of “migrant” or “refugee”), but probably a thousand or so spread along the coast between Calais and Dunkirk. This figure doubles in the summer months.
The spread of nationalities among the (almost exclusively male) refugees.
In the week I was working for Help Refugees at the Auberge des Migrants there was deep frost with sub-zero temperatures persisting during the day, snow, mud, rain and gales. The stress the weather causes to those who are living rough is equalled and compounded by official policy: there has been an increase this month in the clearances (a word which should give some cause for thought to those of us born in the first half of the 20th century) – the dismantling and destruction of tents, sleeping bags and personal possessions, often with violence. Young Eritreans and Ethiopians sleeping under a particular bridge for shelter have had their belongings destroyed, and a three-metre wall has quickly sprung up near a service station. Walls, fences, barbed wire, CCTV, drones, dog patrols, violence, tear gas, the persistent dehumanising of those who seek refuge…
If the British public are scarcely aware of what goes on here, then they are probably even more in ignorance of a new cooperation deal on 24 January under which the UK will pay the French government £6 million to support its plan of tightening border controls in France. Just over half of the investment will come from the £44.5 million already allocated under the Sandhurst Treaty on UK-France cooperation signed by Prime Minister Theresa May and President Macron in January 2018. However, an additional £3.2 million of new funding will be given for equipment and measures to combat migrants using small boats including CCTV, night-vision goggles and number plate recognition technology. Moreover, foot patrol across beaches and coastal areas in France as well as air and boat patrols in the channel will be reinforced. At night, by the beach, I heard helicopters going to and fro along the shore.
This new round of measures will make it difficult for people to make crossings in the future, which can in turn lead to more dangerous attempts by refugees to reach UK given their precarious living conditions in Calais.
Whatever people’s views on admittance to the UK it cannot and must not be denied that these people are human beings, forced to live like animals, herded up, moved on, burying their meagre possessions to prevent their being destroyed.
In Calais, Help Refugees, the Auberge des Migrants, the Refugee Community Kitchen, Refugee Youth Action, the Info Bus, and other aid organizations work every day to bring warmth, clothing, bedding, wood, food and information to those whose journey across continents has been forced to end here.
In addition to the hot meals (as in the illustration), clothing, tents, sleeping bags, blankets and shoes are regularly distributed, two tons of wood goes out each day in 13kg bags, and the Info Bus goes out with relevant information, WiFi, and phone charging facilities.
We should like to encourage members to spend some time at the Auberge des Migrants, maybe even a day or two working in the warehouse, the kitchen or the wood yard – or consider a donation to help those who have no choice but to be on the move.
CPR and Calais
Pilgrims on the Via Francigena walking from Canterbury to Rome necessarily pass through Calais. Few of us will ever set eyes on a refugee, and – in answer to the repeated question – personal safety is no more at risk there than in any other port or city.
But as we head for Rome with our packed rucksacks, new boots, and electronic gizmos, we are passing by one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time.
Conditions for migrants in Calais are appalling, as our editor, Mary Kirk, witnessed first-hand in January 2018 when she went there with a carload of donations – warm and waterproof clothes, tents, blankets, sleeping bags, tarpaulins – and stayed to volunteer a week at the Auberge des Migrants.
The Auberge des Migrants
This organisation, in partnership with Help Refugees (a UK charity which covers the daily management of the warehouse and volunteers), works in Calais as well as offering aid in the Grand-Synthe refugee camp at La Linière, near Dunkirk. The Auberge des Migrants provides daily meals, firewood, and material aid to people who have fled their own countries. Every day between 30 and 70 volunteers work in the warehouse in Calais, preparing hot meals and sorting material donations to be distributed in the camp and on the streets of Calais. There is also a School Bus (mobile classroom and counselling unit), and an Info Van where migrants can connect to Wi-Fi and charge their mobile phones.
This work is desperately needed as, despite President Macron’s assurances that France would henceforth ensure that refugees are fed and that the police would respect human rights, this is not happening. French police are still systematically destroying or confiscating refugees’ belongings, depriving them of any means of shelter.
The day Mary Kirk arrived a teenage migrant lost an eye when a CS gas canister hit him in the face. It was one more skirmish in the war of attrition waged by the French authorities and police with the regular use of beatings, CS gas, and pepper spray aimed onto migrants’ clothes, sleeping bags, tents and even water supply, often in the early hours of the morning.
One result of this police action is that the Auberge des Migrants and other agencies have to work doubly hard to replace the goods destroyed. These questionable tactics do not remove the migrants from Calais, but they do make their desperate lives more miserable, and only inflame a volatile and unsafe environment.
How can pilgrims help?
The obvious means of help is financial. The CPR has recently donated to the Auberge des Migrants, and would urge pilgrims to do the same. There is a link for donations at the bottom of this page.
Every donation can make a difference. The Auberge des Migrants depends on private donations to pursue its humanitarian work independently. Money received is invested solely into their day-to-day operations, to pay the rent of the warehouse in Calais, the salaries of their three permanent employees, and the fuel needed to drive to and from the Dunkirk refugee camp.
But why not add a few hours – or more – to your pilgrimage and go and participate in the work of the Auberge des Migrants? Whatever time you can give will be welcome, and so will you be. A hot lunch will be available to you, and there is a safe area for your rucksack. The only stipulation is to email first firstname.lastname@example.org and they will tell you the address of the warehouse.
Link for donations
Update June 2018
The conditions for the 600+ exiled persons in Calais and the surrounds are worse than ever, despite the advent of summer. Watch this video https://www.facebook.com/AubergeMigrants/videos/10156105059245339/ to see how things have progressed, and please give if you can.