Teargas, cold, no toilets: plight of refugees in Calais revealed

As woods in northern France once again house hundreds of people, many report police aggression and sparse supplies

The woods around Calais and Dunkirk have once again become home to 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. Many of them are travelling alone, some as young as 12.

The water supplies were due to be installed by Friday, although the local administration would provide no details of how many were to be installed or where.

Graffiti sit beneath a sign saying ‘Refugees Welcome’ in Calais, France.
Graffiti says ‘Refugees Welcome’ on a sign in Calais, France, but the industrial zone where refugees sleep is not a welcoming place. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

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.

Ismail Roble, 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.

Iranian family (l-r) Sahid Rebaz, Yousef Rebaz, three, Amal Muhammed, Deia Rebaz, 10 and Sardan Muhammed, 22.
Iranian family (l-r) Sahid Rebaz, Yousef Rebaz, three, Amal Muhammed, Deia Rebaz, 10 and Sardan Muhammed, 22, say police slashed their tent. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Amal Muhammed, an Iraqi woman, is travelling with her Iranian husband, Sahid Rebaz, their two children, Deia, 10, and Yousuf, three, and her severely disabled younger brother, Sardam Muhammed, 22, who is unable walk or speak. She said police had slashed their tent while they were sheltering in a clearing in the woods on Monday. 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. “If they don’t let us cross, will they just let my brother and the children in?” Muhammed asked.

“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.”

Sarbast Amin, from Iraq, spent more than 10 years living in St Ives, working for a picture 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”.

Mobile Refugee Support volunteer Charlie Whitbread, 31, pictured with refugee Mohammed, four, from Kurdistan
Mobile Refugee Support volunteer Charlie Whitbread, 31, pictured with refugee Mohammed, four, from Kurdistan, says police have been known to confiscate baby milk. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Charlie Whitbread, 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 Human Rights Watch 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”.

But because Calais is known to be the closest crossing point to the UK, these official attempts to make it an unattractive destination for refugees have not worked and people continue to arrive.

The charity Help Refugees, which has worked in the area for two years, conducts monthly headcounts and estimates that there are at least 600 migrants in Calais, around 300 in Dunkirk and another 200 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 2,500 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.

Volunteers prepare food in a Calais warehouse shared by six charities including Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen.
A Calais warehouse is shared by six charities including Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen, which is distributing 2,500 meals a day. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

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, Gérard Collomb, said this week that 17,867 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.

Refugees from Oromia, Ethopia seen in Calais, France.
Refugees from Oromia, Ethopia, in Calais. Despite attempts to encourage refugees to stay in France, many still come to northern France to attempt a crossing to the UK. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

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. In Dunkirk, families are forced to hide in more remote woodland spots, further from food distribution points, making it harder for charities to make sure they have the food and provisions they need.

All volunteers say conditions have deteriorated significantly. Maddie Skipsey, 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.

A volunteer sews the seams up on a pair of jeans at a Calais warehouse shared by charities.
A volunteer sews the seams up on a pair of jeans at a Calais warehouse shared by charities. Donations have dwindled since the migration crisis has slipped off the political agenda. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

On Monday, 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. Around 45 went from Calais and 30 from Dunkirk, 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. Last week a 22-year-old man from Eritrea was killed after falling from a lorry on the motorway near the port.

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. In June, a Polish truck driver was killed after refugees blockaded a motorway with three trunks, causing a crash in which his vehicle caught fire.

The Muslim section of Cimetiere Nord, where refugees are buried in Calais, France.
The Muslim section of Cimetiere Nord, where refugees are buried in Calais, France. The roads around the city are becoming dangerous again for migrants and truck drivers. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

In a field behind the chemical factories near the port, refugees were washing their clothes with a canister of water and washing-up liquid, pummelling T-shirts on a black plastic binbag ripped open to make a clean surface, and hanging the clothes to dry on the bushes. Some said they could not remember the last time they had been able to wash properly. “I think it was a month and a half ago,” said West Justnui, 25, an Ethiopian who would like to study political science in the UK. Others said they washed in the sea by the port, but found the salt water left them feeling dirty.

A long-term Calais resident, Sylvie, who asked for her full not not to be printed, has been offering showers in her home to teenage refugees ever since the camp closed last year. “I feel beyond ashamed at the mayor’s approach. Now the camp has gone, people have no shelter, no way of washing themselves. I couldn’t bear to see the conditions they were living in, so now I let people come three times a week to shower in my home.” She said most people in Calais were unmoved by the refugees’ situation. “People here have become very hard.”

A refugee washes his clothes at a camp in Calais, France.
A refugee washes his clothes at a camp in Calais. Refugees have few opportunities to wash. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian


Amelia Gentleman in Calais. Photography: Alicia Canter

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