Calais: The French migrant transit point that never ceases to be

© Denis Charlet, AFP | Migrants wait on the roadside along the ring road leading to the port of Calais, in northern France, on June 21, 2017.

Eight months after France’s notorious “Jungle” camp in Calais was dismantled, migrants desperate to make it to Britain are once again flocking to the northern port town. But this time around, they’re without basic needs like running water and tents.

On Friday, France’s new Interior Minister Gérard Collomb headed to Calais to meet with local authorities, police, associations and business owners. The reason: An increasing number of migrants are defying the French government’s attempts at shutting the city down as a main transit point for those looking for a better life across the Channel.

“I’ve come to see for myself what is going on here,” Collomb was cited by AFP as saying upon his arrival on Friday morning. He also announced that within the next two weeks a plan would be presented to improve France’s reception of asylum seekers and to differentiate more between economic migrants and those fleeing war and unrest, mostly hailing from sub-Saharan Africa.

“We have to deal with the problems, but given the past, this can’t be done in Calais,” the minister said, rejecting the idea of potentially opening up a new migrant reception centre in the area. “Because every time we open a centre [here], it’s like blowing wind on the fire.”

According to local aid groups, hundreds of mainly Eritreans, Afghans and Sudanese are again wandering the streets and sleeping it rough in the hope of hitching a clandestine ride to Britain. Local aid groups currently estimate the number at between 400 and 600, but say it’s quickly swelling.

Fears of a new ‘Jungle’

France’s new centrist government has insisted it will not allow a new camp to spring up in the area, and at one point, the city’s Mayor, Natacha Bouchart, even tried to ban local charities from handing out food to scare off the migrants, but an administrative court finally struck that measure down.

Earlier this week, a Polish lorry driver was killed after he crashed into a makeshift roadblock set up by migrants trying to slow cross-Channel traffic in a bid to climb aboard. Poland responded by calling on France to “take actions to guarantee the security” of its drivers.

Although it was the first truck driver to be killed in such an incident in the area, it was hardly the first casualty in, or near, the port of Calais – dozens of migrants have already perished after being crushed in the heavy traffic or after falling off the trains leading under the Channel.

In October last year, French authorities dismantled the “Jungle” migrant camp near the city after its population spun out of control, growing into a giant shantytown that provided serious health and sanitary hazards that authorities said they could neither control nor keep safe. The camp also weighed heavily on some of the city’s businesses, whose owners said the sprawling tent city was scaring off tourism. At the height of the crisis, some 10,000 people were estimated to live in the “Jungle”.

‘Not filth’

When the camp closed, its near 7,000 inhabitants were relocated and resettled in some 450 reception centres across France to alleviate the burden on Calais.

But for many, the city’s proximity to Britain – where many migrants already have friends or family and where they see better opportunities because of their language skills – remains a temptation too difficult to resist. Even if that means a lack of basic necessities such as free access to running water, washing facilities or designated sleeping areas.

“There are no taps for us to drink water or to wash ourselves. We have nowhere to sleep. At night, I sleep without a tent, on the hill,” 24-year-old Djamal from Afghanistan said in an interview with AFP.

Rights activists have slammed authorities over the current condition for migrants arriving in Calais, calling them inhuman.

“They’re not some kind of disease, or some kind of filth, they are men and women who have experienced a very difficult journey in fleeing their countries for reasons we all know about,” Hicham Aly, a spokesman for the Secours Catholic charity said.

Britain remains restrictive with the amount of migrants it takes in. It has put substantial pressure on France to stem the flow of people coming through and has funded a steep increase in security measures around the port in Calais. When the “Jungle” camp closed, Britain committed to receiving a share of the camp’s unaccompanied minors, however, saying it would open its doors for around 700 out of the camp’s 1,600 unaccompanied children, but France has accused Britain of reneging on this deal.