Covid-19 in Calais – a harsher hostile environment
05 May 2020
Displaced communities in Calais are on the frontlines of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The migrants living in precarious conditions at the UK-French border have been left without support and are facing hostility and violence from the state. I’ve been volunteering in Calais and have seen first-hand how the outbreak of coronavirus has rendered an already bleak and desperate situation far bleaker. We must stand in solidarity with migrants in Calais and everywhere.
Since the eviction of the 'Jungle' (a refugee camp with a population of 10,000 at its peak) in 2016 the situation in Calais has been largely the same. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Northern France (Calais & Dunkirk) was home to between 1500 and 2000 migrants attempting to get to the UK. Displaced people seeking a better, safer life have been living on the outskirts of town, in abandoned warehouses, the edges of industrial estates and on barren wasteland, and continue to do so.
They have been subjected to an extremely hostile environment by the French government which has been partly funded by the UK. The French and UK government’s approach has been to build longer, higher fences and carry out regular evictions in which the migrants are beaten, tear gassed and their possessions are taken. Grassroots activists, attempting to support these communities, are harassed and intimidated. The state’s approach is predicated on the assumption that it is a choice for the migrants to be here. But choice is the one thing that they do not have: it is hardly a choice to leave destitution, poverty, climate breakdown, oppression and war. People would not take such enormous risks and live under such hostility if they weren't desperate or didn’t have other options.
Over the past few years several grassroots organisations, such as Project Play and Refugee Community Kitchen, have sprung up in solidarity with the displaced communities in Northern France. They’ve provided tents, clothing, hot food, asylum information, human rights observation (observing and exposing police brutality), youth services and even play sessions with children.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown most of these organisations have had to either suspend or drastically reduce their services. This has meant that communities no longer have many of their basic needs provided for and has in some cases led to an increase in police violence. This open letter from the Eritrean community highlights eight instances of police brutality over a week-long period - migrants were beaten, tear-gassed and in several instances hospitalised. This letter is just a snapshot of the violence that people experience there on a regular basis. This violence is a relatively normal practice in Calais, but a lack of organisations and volunteers on the ground means there is far less observation and therefore nobody is held to account.
The state has been obliged to provide accommodation during the coronavirus lockdown, however this has been a slow process, it is still unsafe and unsanitary and is unlikely to accommodate all the migrants. This move to provide accommodation, ostensibly for the health and safety of the migrants, is juxtaposed with violent evictions every two days.
Responding to crisis – Calais Food Collective
There is currently a dire lack of food for displaced communities in Calais. A group of volunteers who remain on the ground have established a new organisation - the Calais Food Collective. Set up by young grassroots activists the aim is to provide dry food packs to allow displaced communities to have the autonomy to cook for themselves in a way that provides some safety from viral transmission. Aside from the need for food it is vital that these communities are shown that they are not forgotten by everyone, that they are shown the dignity and humanity that fortress Europe and the hostile environment of the UK has denied them.
Providing food for at least 1,000 people is not cheap. This isn't being funded by any big NGOs but through crowdfunding – if you're able to donate anything it would be hugely appreciated.
And to help raise awareness about the situation in northern France and to raise funds for Calais Food Collective, Global Justice Now's youth activist group Our Future Now are organising an online evening of live music, poetry and testimonies from Calais. It starts at 6.30pm (UK time) on Wednesday 6 May and you can tune in from your sofa!
Migrants are human beings, and human beings deserve food, shelter, safety, and most of all they deserve their dignity. But even this simple fact is under assault here in Calais . Thousands of people are living hand-to-mouth, frozen out of society and security during a global health crisis only 20 miles away from the UK border.
It’s time to extend our solidarity. Come to the online fundraiser and give your support to organisations making sure our migrant siblings are fed and safe. But that’s only a start. Migrant rights are being attacked everywhere as the effects of the coronavirus are felt more widely. We must remain aware of the injustices facing migrants in this era of coronavirus and stand in solidarity with them whether in the UK, at our French border or further afield in refugee camps across Europe.
Photo 1: Calais 'Jungle' before eviction in 2016. Credit: BScar23625/Flickr
Photo 2: Calais Food Collective