Calais and coronavirus: how fear stalks the border city

Riot police forces are at work as part of an operation to shelter migrants on a voluntary basis in a

Riot police forces are at work as part of an operation to shelter migrants on a voluntary basis in a bid to combat the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. Picture: DENIS CHARLET / AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Even before coronavirus, Calais was a place of tension. Now, as migrants wait in cramped, unsanitary conditions for a chance to cross the Channel, the fear is ratcheting up. CONSTANCE KAMPFNER reports.

'It's a bit of ritual, the evening maraude. We often see the same people and normally, we stop and chat for a bit with them. Some of them we've known for a long time. But we've had to stop all that.'

Léah Njeim works for Utopia56, one of the last charities still standing in Calais. The team has had to scale back operations. Only the most experienced and physically healthy volunteers remain. Every night they distribute food, equipment and information to the migrants. But now the maraude is rushed. Volunteers wear masks, keep their distance and limit conversation to the essential.

'I'm not really concerned for my own health,' Léah tells me. 'What scares me is the risk of being a carrier, transmitting the illness to far more vulnerable people with terrible sanitary conditions.'

It's been over a month since the French government imposed lockdown, ordering everyone to stay at home. But, according to volunteers' estimates, nearly 1,000 migrants are still living outdoors, in the camps or in the streets of Calais. Of those, less than 300 have been put up in the government emergency shelters that opened at the start of the month.


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For those left outside, it's hard to comply with the recommended sanitary measures. The only free and reliable access point to water is a small tap outside the toilets of one camp, a 15-minute walk away for some. There isn't enough soap, let alone sanitiser, masks or any other protective equipment.

Calais was once famous for its 'Jungle' encampment, at its peak home to 10,000 migrants from all over the world desperate to cross the 20-mile stretch of water to get to the UK. Over the years, a makeshift town emerged with its own cafes, mosques and market stalls. Then, in October 2016, the government destroyed the camp and evicted the occupants. Some were sent to 'welcome centres' throughout France. Others scattered across the city. Even with the pandemic, more keep arriving.

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Local authorities say that five migrants have so far contracted coronavirus; two have recovered while the rest have been placed in quarantine. The real number is likely to be much higher. All the premises where people might be able to charge their phones are shut, and there's no longer time to use the generators that used to come with the meal vans. As a result it is harder to keep tabs on people, or for those with symptoms to phone an ambulance.

In normal times Utopia56 used to provide carpools to take people to the doctor, but fear of the virus has led them to be cancelled. 'In the first week of confinement, we counted 60 people who were deprived of medical attention. Everything from someone with a cut that needed disinfecting, to someone who'd broken their leg,' Léah says.

The local authorities continue to handle the situation with a very small carrot and a large stick. Evictions still take place every 48 hours, part of their policy of 'no fixation points' to stop another large camp from forming after the demolition of the Jungle'. It is a daily war of attrition as migrants' belongings are confiscated and water is poured on their sleeping bags.

There have been multiple allegations of police violence, before and during the crisis. The legality of these evictions is heavily disputed in regular times. A volunteer for Human Rights Watch who is on the ground, says it is 'unacceptable' that evictions are continuing during confinement, exacerbating the already vulnerable situation in which migrants find themselves in.

The volunteers suspect that the curfew imposed on them is nothing more than an attempt to stop them witnessing evictions, which take place in the early hours of the morning. In Calais, the only area in France where such restrictions are placed on volunteers, relations with the authorities are tense.

In 2017 the right-wing mayor tried to ban distribution of food to migrants and last year she issued a decree to stop them from gathering in the centre of town. During the lockdown period, police have so far issued 22 fines to individuals from several organisations. The newly-passed laws are applied arbitrarily. To leave your house during lockdown requires a form stating a reason. Voluntary work passes that test, but Léah tells me that police regularly claim the certificates are not valid.

'The most incomprehensible thing,' says Antoine Nehr, another volunteer at Utopia56, 'is why at a time where the government is calling for solidarity, so much energy is being put into policing volunteers just trying to fill the gaps that the authorities have left'. People like him would rather be elsewhere, not risking their health, 'but we feel we don't have any choice'.

For many of the people stuck in Calais, getting to the UK is all that matters, whatever the dangers. This month alone, aided by good weather and calm seas, at least 336 people made the trip across the channel, the highest monthly total so far.

Their reception on the other side of the Channel has been far from warm. The MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, has denounced tests for Covid-19 being carried out on migrants, insisting that they should be reserved for frontline workers. So far, 155 people have been sent back.

British charities are also attempting to patch up the holes left by the government, but they too are struggling. A volunteer from the Kent Refugee Action Network, a group that supports young migrants, told me that they have had no contact with the recent arrivals. A lack of internet connection in accommodation provided for 16- and 17-year-olds makes homeschooling impossible.

The quarantine centres near Calais are so far functioning on a voluntary basis, but there is growing worry among the migrants that they could soon become compulsory.

Conditions vary, with reports from one centre of nine people to a room. Self-isolation, some claim, is easier in a tent.

So far, nearly 100 of the people have left the centres. Is fear of contracting coronavirus motivating them? That may be one reason, say volunteers. But the most likely cause is a fear that after the crisis isolation camps could be turned into detention centres. For many, coronavirus is just the latest in a string of threats to their survival. As Antoine reminds me, 'There is no normal in a place like Calais'.

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