Wet and bedraggled on a rainswept November day, Badr is one of dozens of men who have arrived to pick up a tent and a sleeping bag from a charity operating out of a van in a car park in Calais. The 22-year-old, originally from Syria, has been in Calais over a week. His previous tent was taken by police four days ago, so he slept under a footbridge in the centre of town, huddled with six others for warmth.
It is a year since at least 27 migrants drowned when their boat capsized in the Channel, the worst such disaster for 30 years. But while the tragedy has mercifully not been repeated, partly due to better coordination between French and British coastguards, at first sight there is little other change in the wretched conditions faced by migrants in northern France.
Originally from near Aleppo in northern Syria, Badr (then 13) and his family fled in the early stages of the country’s civil war in 2013; “I didn’t want to fight because I didn’t want to kill anybody,” he says. He ended up in Iraq, with his family scattered there and in Lebanon and Turkey, struggling for money and hope. But this year he wants to join a brother in the UK and insists that, after spending four days on a boat to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, he has nothing left to fear.
“My heart is already dead. I don’t have any feeling left,” Badr says simply in his native Arabic. He hopes for better weather conditions to make the shorter journey across the Channel that he said will cost €1,500, a fee typically paid by relatives to a people trafficker back home. It is not obvious Badr has a clear plan for life in Britain, but, he says, “I want to help my family”, and that “for work, Britain is much better” than either Germany or France.
But for the moment, Badr is trying to find a coat – the red blanket around him is rain-sodden – and weatherproof shoes. The volunteers at Care4Calais, the charity giving out the tents and sleeping bags, promise to have a look in their stock and come back with something at noon. But the young man misses the connection, partly because the police have once again raided the squalid under-bridge site where he and a dozen others have been sheltering.
There are perhaps 500 migrants, mostly single men, scattered around the most makeshift camps in and around Calais, and a further 1,000 near Grande-Synthe, west of Dunkirk, where some families also stay. At Grande-Synthe, where the Guardian visited a year ago after the drowning, the tents and tarps have moved a quarter of a mile and spread out. Otherwise, little else has visibly changed.
Most are fleeing trouble spots beyond Europe, concentrating the crises of the world in one exposed place.
Kasim, 24, and Sahil, 23, are both students from Afghanistan who left to escape the Taliban, becoming buddies on the way. Kasim said it has taken them two months to cross Europe, “mostly walking”. Sahil was beaten in Bulgaria. Both complained of having been threatened by Taliban, Kasim for working as a driver for a junior defence minister under the western-backed government – “they call you and say: ‘leave your job – or pay us’” and Sahil, a journalism student, for writing articles critical of the country’s new rulers.
At the campsites there is no sanitation and no drinking water, other than that provided by various charities. Open fires provide warmth – hands extend into the centre of the burning wood – while the state provides some food in Calais, but not near Dunkirk. Yet, unless food is being handed out, the busiest part of the site is where people are charging their phones, where charities rig up dozens of plugs powered by a generator.
Each national group tends to camp together in the Dunkirk scrub. There are Sudanese escaping Darfur, willing to show videos of burning towns from their native country on their phones, although they often have no money to pay for passage. They either try to get on lorries, despite improved infrared detection – the process is called “chance” – or hope that a people smuggler will allow them to fill a place on a boat, sometimes, Calais charities warn, insisting they pilot a vessel 40 miles across the Channel without experience.
There are Kurds leaving Iraq and Iran, complaining of corruption; Eritreans fleeing national service. If the migrants can endure the conditions and claim asylum in the UK, the proportion granted at initial decision is often very high: 98% for Syria, 97% for Afghanistan and Eritrea, 92% for Sudan, although less so, at 51% for Iraq. But in France they are denied shelter and, as Sahil said, “we could not survive if it wasn’t for the charities helping us”.
The exception are the Albanians, who started to arrive in significant numbers from May this year, the Home Office says, taking advantage of the fact it has been proven possible to cross the Channel in small boats. A significant number end up working in the UK’s drugs trade, police say. But while Albanians often camp in Grande-Synthe, migrant charities say they hardly interact with them, bringing what the National Crime Agency has described as a ruthless professionalism to people-smuggling.
Lucy Halliday, a coordinator with Care4Calais, a charity that provides a range of welfare services in Calais and Grande-Synthe, said: “The Albanians get across very quickly. They’re not hanging around in the camps. And they’re very secretive, very private. They never talk to us, they never get involved in our distributions or [mobile phone] charging.” They may only stay in northern France a few days, while others prepared to pay for passage will often wait a few weeks or months.
Britain and France treat the migrant situation as a security problem, even though there are labour shortages in the UK. Over the past three years, Britain has struck four agreements with France to pay for extra policing. Rania Lefrarni, a spokesperson for Human Rights Observers, a Calais-based NGO, said that the French police take – and often destroy – tents and belongings from migrants, “sometimes as often as every 24 hours in Calais, while in Grande-Synthe it is one time or twice a week”.
It is “a deliberate policy of harassment”, she added, conducted by the French CRS riot police, who local charities say operate on a short rotation to ensure they do not go soft on the migrants. In Calais, as the police clear through a site, the migrants often move back in at the far end. At Grande-Synthe, during the summer, water bowsers were removed and the ground churned up, in an attempt to prevent charities from returning. “We just move to a different position,” Halliday added.
Yet the security effort struggles even on its own terms. The numbers of people crossing the Channel in small boats is at record levels. It was 28,526 in 2021, and 8,466 in 2020; but this year the figure is more than 40,000, fuelled by the activity from Albania – although aid groups say official talk of record arrivals exceeding 1,000 a day has little effect on their volume of work. “They say this, but we don’t see it having any impact on the demand for what we do,” Halliday said.
There is also something of a hamster wheel about the whole process. The police take and destroy migrants’ tents, then charities like Care4Calais, using tents and bedding left behind at festivals, hand them out again. “We do have to be very careful, because we could give up 400 tents today that are needed. And then tomorrow, we won’t have 400 tents when another eviction happens and we need them again,” Halliday said.
Aid agencies consistently argue there is a better way, highlighting the treatment of Ukrainians, fleeing the Russian invasion, with hotels and proper accommodation provided, even if the numbers entering the UK was not as large as in other European countries. But with little obvious hope of a policy breakthrough, some despair. One former charity worker in the field said she had been exhausted over the past year. “Sometimes it felt like nothing worked. Media would highlight problems only for governments to dig in,” she said.
Yet on the ground, despite the cold and wet November, the human spirit remains undimmed. Migrants are often remarkably good-humoured, willing to share their stories. Friendships, such as Kassim and Sahil’s, are forged on the journey and they frequently view the challenge of crossing the Channel in terms of a challenge that simply has to be overcome. “It’s a game,” Kassim said. “You have to complete each step: we got through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, we got here. It’s another mission.”