The French coastal city was home to the infamous makeshift village of migrants seeking to cross to the UK. The 'Jungle' was dismantled less than a year ago, but immigrants are now back in town.
CALAIS — The French city of Calais wakes up slowly. All is peaceful. A few cars cross the Mollien bridge, which lies just a stone's throw away from the imposing red-brick city hall and its belfry that dominate this city. Under it, some 20 Eritreans have taken shelter for the night. They're trying to get a bit more sleep despite the late summer sunshine. At least, the sun helps dry their belongings, which had been soaked in a recent shower of rain.
There were three times as many people as the previous day, when police intervened to destroy their camp and push them away from the city center. Some allowed the police to take them to one of the two new reception centers created by Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, where migrants can be registered and receive guidance. But they have now decided to return to the bridge.
"I refused to get on their bus," says Oumar, a 20-year-old from the Central African Republic. "They would have sent me back directly to Italy where I had my fingerprints taken." Oumar has been "Dublined." It means that, under the so-called Dublin Regulation, he should be applying for asylum in Italy, the EU country where he was first registered. But despite his tired face, Oumar is determined not to go.
Migrants have returned to the city center in Calais, despite the unyielding posture of both the mayor and the interior ministry. A recent ruling from France's top administrative court, the Conseil d"État, ordered authorities to provide migrants with drinking water and sanitary facilities but also acknowledged that they shouldn't return to the city, less than a year after the infamous "Jungle" was razed.
The lopsided court decision didn't please anybody. Not the town hall, which simply refused to abide by the ruling, and preferred to pay a daily 100-euro penalty. Not the government either, eager to avoid the nightmare of another "Jungle". Finally, the associations and NGOs that support the migrants are also unhappy and consider this minimal aid disgraceful for those who are still sleeping in horrific conditions.
The balance between firmness and humanity is difficult to strike. Between 450 and 700 migrants roam along the A16 highway, which leads to the Channel Tunnel. According to L'Auberge des migrants, an NGO that has researched the migrants, 97% are men, aged 21 on average, and mostly come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Somalia.
The police constantly intervene to remove them and seize their camping equipment. Volunteers call it "roundups' (a clear reference to the Vel" d'Hiv Roundup, which took place under Nazi German occupation), an appalling reference that twists a complex reality.
"I've never seen such thing, we can't even give them tents anymore because they are immediately destroyed," says Christian Salomé, president of l'Auberge des migrants. "We only give them ponchos and tarpaulins now, and that's how they sleep..." And yet, these living conditions don't deter migrants. Those who refuse help from the French Office for Immigration and Integration regroup in well-defined areas. Afghan migrants usually gather around the hospital, whereas Africans go further north, to the industrial park near the harbor.
This is where the association La Vie Active installs two water taps and portable toilets every morning. The showers haven't been set up as yet. The group describes it as a "mobile" system but that's misleading: The equipment is removed every evening and reinstalled the next day — in the same place. This is also where l'Auberge des migrants and the Refugee Community Kitchen give food to migrants three times a day, and where Help the Refugees gives them clothes.
"It's terrible, my commercial activity is pretty much non-existent. They rush by the dozens on any truck that stops here," says Patrick Carpentier, the manager of a nearby gas station. Earlier, a Polish truck driver witnessed this first hand. While he was nervously filling gas, a group of about 20 Eritreans surrounded his vehicle, testing the locks, the canvas, and the chassis, looking for a way to get on the truck. "I'm not mad at them and it pains me to see them like this, wandering outside," Patrick Carpentier says. "But the government doesn't realize the impact their presence has on us, here in Calais... And it looks like it doesn't care either."
The number of migrants intercepted in the harbor or inside the trucks is nothing compared to what it was before the demolition of the "Jungle". But it has gone up significantly since the spring. In August alone, 1,250 migrants were caught inside trucks, compared to 1,000 in July and just 190 in April. The police also fear that migrants may resume blocking the road with tree trunks. In June, a Polish driver died due to this.
As winter approaches, President Emmanuel Macron's goal to no longer have people sleep on the street will be hard to meet, at least in Calais. The interior ministry's emergency shelter solutions can work for the migrants who want to, and are able to, apply for asylum in France. But for those who want to reach Britain, whether it's the migrants who've been "Dublined" or for those whose asylum application in another EU country was rejected, Calais remains the only possibility in sight.
"From the moment migrants turn down what we offer them, we should draw the consequences and move on to harder procedures," says Gilles Debove of the police union SGP.
Out of the 22 migrants who agreed to get on a bus to be driven to a center one-hour's drive away, 15 of them returned by train to Calais the following day. When nine minors from Eritrea were handed over to the border police, they refused the shelter they were offered, and were later released.