Calais: Eighteen Months On

by Elisa Sandri

Calais has frequently made the headlines in the last two decades. The history of this border as a focal point for migration dates back to the 1990s, when hundreds of refugees from Kosovo, Kurdistan and Afghanistan camped here, waiting to cross the Channel. In 2015, the town witnessed fast-growing numbers in the makeshift refugee camp called the ‘Jungle’, which reached a population of nearly ten-thousand people in the summer of 2016. The ‘Jungle’ was never officially recognised as a refugee camp, hence standard international norms for refugee protection and camp management, including sanitation and safeguarding, were absent.

Due to the absence of official support offered to refugees, grassroots organisations and charities, run by volunteers, increasingly took on the responsibilities of informally managing the ‘Jungle’ and other nearby camps. Volunteers travelled from all over Europe to Calais to provide basic humanitarian aid, such as food, shelter and clothes and to help with different tasks. Most of the volunteers had never worked with refugees before and for many of them this was the first time they had engaged in humanitarian work. This volunteer humanitarianism has served an example of how refugees and grassroots humanitarian actors can find alternatives to the formal ways in which international humanitarian aid is normally administered.

At the end of October 2016, the camp was dismantled and its residents evicted with the use of bulldozers and teargas. A year and a half after the evictions, refugees, including unaccompanied minors, are arriving in Calais daily and hundreds are sleeping rough. Some volunteers are still in the area too, but they are being heavily monitored by local authorities and have to follow prescriptive regulations in the provision of aid. According to new rules put in place after the eviction of the ‘Jungle’, volunteers can only distribute aid in an industrial area, away from the town centre, and at restricted hours of the day. After those ‘working hours’ it becomes illegal to provide aid to refugees, and the police are allowed to confiscate goods from charities. Volunteers have been threatened multiple times by the Gendarmerie and have reported episodes in which the authorities blocked the provision of aid without any explanation, despite being distributed at the designated time.

Donations and belongings are often forcefully taken away from refugees too. The Refugee Info Bus reported that at the end of May 2018, police officers destroyed tents and tarpaulins donated to refugees, as they were classified as ‘abandoned belongings’ that needed to be cleared. The charity also reported that Gendarmerie officers stole a single shoe from each member of a group of refugee young men, leaving them barefoot. These violent evictions are reportedly taking place multiple times a week, often without clear legal validation.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report titled ‘Like Living in Hell’, based on interviews with refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. The report found that the police in Calais, on top of appropriating possessions, routinely use pepper spray on refugee children and adults while they are asleep or on their food and water. They described this as ‘an abuse of power, violating the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment as well as an unjustifiable interference with the migrants’ rights to food and water.’ (Human Rights Watch, 2017). Refugee Rights Europe stated that 94% of minors in Calais reported experiencing some form of police violence in France, including tear gas, and physical and verbal abuse. This constant abuse has had the effect of discouraging refugees, minors and adults, from applying for asylum in France, and from accessing statutory services available to them, such as children’s services.

Volunteers in Calais are constantly battling authorities to provide the most basic humanitarian aid, having to adapt to ever-changing anti-refugee municipal regulations. However, for now, there is no resolution in sight. French and British authorities are reluctant to provide a humane and sustainable solution to the situation in Calais. Volunteers have taken on the responsibility of providing humanitarian aid, but this aid has limitations. Volunteer organisations and charities are stuck in a cycle whereby donations are delivered and shortly after confiscated by authorities. This pattern is unsustainable for charities on the ground and, in the long term, it might discourage donors, as donations consistently end up in the skip. In Calais, as in many other parts of Europe, authorities have turned a blind eye to widespread reports of human right abuses, and have perpetrated violence and intimidation which have led to refugees’ exhaustion and loss of hope. Eighteen months on, it is urgent to find a long-lasting solution to guarantee the human rights of refugees in Calais and prevent the continuation of this humanitarian crisis.


Elisa Sandri is a ADST alumna (2016). She has written about volunteers providing humanitarian aid to refugees in JEMS, British Journal of Sociology and Humanitarian Action and Ethics (Zed Books). She is a long-term volunteer and trustee at the Hummingbird Refugee Project.
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