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Caught between hope and despair on the other side of the Channel

19 November 2021

Giacomo Sini, Dario Antonelli, and Alessia Manzi report on the plight of migrants in Calais

Giacomo Sini

An entrance to the port of Calais. The road is surrounded by high metal fences, topped with barbed wire

An entrance to the port of Calais. The road is surrounded by high metal fences, topped with barbed wire

THREE French citizens were on hunger strike for up to 38 days in the church of Saint-Pierre à Calais in protest at their government’s treatment of refugees camped on the border with the UK.

Between the end of October and the start of November, four people are known to have died while attempting to cross the Channel, three of them by drowning. During the previous month, there were two more deaths: a young man — his age, nationality, and name not yet known — was hit by a lorry on 21 October; and, on 28 September, Yasser, a 16-year-old from Sudan, was run over by a heavy-goods vehicle in the Transmarck logistics area of Calais.

A few weeks after Yasser’s death, on 11 October, Anaïs, Ludovic, and Philippe (two activists, one a chaplain) began a hunger strike in Saint-Pierre à Calais. Philippe, who is 72, stopped his hunger strike on 25 October, but continued to support his two companions, whose strike has now been suspended.

They have three demands, Anaïs explains. The first is “the suspension of the expulsions and the dismantling of the camps during the so-called ‘winter truce’, which has never been respected for the refugees in Calais”. The second is “an end to the confiscation of tents and refugees’ belongings, which is taking place illegally and systematically during the evictions”; and the opening of a “real dialogue” between the Prefecture and the associations not delegated by the authorities.

Ludovic says that the hunger strike has already achieved one result: “to awaken a solidarity movement, taking a clear and unequivocal position facing what is happening”. The goal, Philippe says, “is to stop the repeat of the same horrors”.

But the three have stopped their strike now. The state has not listened to their demands, but it is difficult after 38 days for them to continue. Nevertheless, they continue their battle in the streets with demonstrators and associations.


AFTER the demolition of “the Jungle”, an unauthorised camp in Calais, in 2016 (News, 5 February 2016), a kilometre-long wall — dubbed “the anti-migrant wall” — was built to prevent refugees’ jumping on to UK-bound lorries and trucks at the port. It has not had the intended effect, however. Last year, at least 9551 asylum-seekers reached the English coast by boats, the latest data from the Calais prefecture suggests. This year, the UK has counted more than 20,000 already. During the night of 9 October, as reported by the news agency ANSA, about 1000 people were rescued or intercepted boarding small boats as they left France.

Giacomo SiniThe French hunger strikers Anais, Ludovic, and Philippe, and a supporter inside Saint-Pierre à Calais

In July, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, agreed tougher measures to prevent Channel crossings, using drones to monitor the 70-kilometre coastline over Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk; more police officers on the French coast; and investment in infrastructure to block access to the Channel border.

Emma is a spokeswoman for Human Rights Observers (HRO), an NGO that monitors human-rights violations in the Calais area. “The English Channel is very dangerous, but, despite this, every day there are people trying to enter the UK by sea,” she explains.

Consequently, between Calais and Dunkerque, more than 1800 people live in slums, awaiting leave for the UK. They travel up to five kilometres to obtain drinking water, despite a stipulation by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that a water supply should be not more than 500 metres from a refugee’s place of residence. Their plight was worsened when the Mayor of Calais banned volunteers from distributing food in the city centre.

“Slum residents are subjected to physical and psychological abuse,” Emma says. “Those who are deported are assigned a serial number. Evictions are carried out in an intimidating and violent manner by the Gendarmerie in Calais and the CRS in Dunkirk.”


IT IS almost midday, and, in Grande-Synthe, in a garage used as a kitchen, volunteers from the Salam Association are finishing preparing lunch for the refugees who are living in the “Dunkerque Jungle”.

“Here, many children and people come mostly from Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and Vietnam,” explains Tita, a volunteer who emigrated from Calabria and arrived in France many years ago. “We can’t let all those people starve to death.”

Giacomo SiniNoleen, a British doctor and field coordinator of FAST (First Aid Support Team) in Calais, treats foot injuries of a young Sudanese boy near “Old Lidl”, the largest tented settlement in the city. 

As people line up for a hot meal in a square near by, a boy sings a song in Sorani, a Kurdish dialect. “I left Sulaymaniyya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, a year-and-a-half ago,” he says. He reached Greece, Turkey, Calabria, and, finally, the French-Italian border in Oulx, before reaching Paris and Dunkirk. “Now I just want to join my family in London, study, and become a doctor.”

A dirt road full of puddles leads from the square to an expanse of tents. Some people set up a barrack or cook kebabs, while, in the mud, a little girl imagines herself as dancer.

“I was rejected twice by the British border police,” recalls Abro (not his real name). He fled from Kabul. “The first time I was sent back to Afghanistan, but then I came back to Europe. I lived for a long time in Germany. There I left my ex-partner and my daughter. She is only nine months old. If I will not reach the UK tonight, I will go back to them and ask for asylum.”

At the “Old Lidl” the largest settlement in Calais, close to the Transmarck car park, where about 400 people live — Noleen is treating a burn on the leg of an Eritrean boy. “We often find ourselves treating wounds caused by police violence,” she says. “A few months ago, a man was bitten on the limbs and head by a police dog.”

The charity First Aid Support Team provides basic care for many people in the camps. Ali, a Sudanese man who arrived in Calais a few days before, helps as a translator. He studied medicine for two years in Ukraine. “Now, I can be a doctor,” he laughs.

Giacomo SiniThe warehouse of the Auberge des Migrants, an association working with refugees and displaced people in Calais and northern France since 2008

Kiev had felt like “a prison”, he says. “People are violent, and there is a lot of racism. I try to think that I’m just going on a trip — after all, I can always come back.”

Mohannad, a Syrian refugee in his forties, prepares a fry-up in his small Lebanese-Syrian food restaurant, Falafel de Damas, in Grand-Synthe. “Little Amal”, a giant puppet of an unaccompanied child refugee (News, 5 November), has been welcomed to Calais. “Little Amal’s story is a good one,” Mohannad says. “She comes from Syria, like me; she goes all over Europe as a refugee. But I don’t remember: she has to meet her parents in England? Do you know if this is a true story?”

While waiting for an answer, he warms up his falafel: “I came here to escape the war. I spent many months in the Calais jungle, then I decided to stay and tried to realise my dream, open a restaurant.”

Without shoes, huddled in their shoulders, a group of young Eritreans gather around a volunteer. They were shipwrecked: “We sailed from Boulogne, but, after 18 kilometres, the dinghy engine broke down,” one of the group says, showing a video on his phone. “The sea was full of currents. We called for help, but no one came to rescue us. We rowed back. It took five hours.”

They reached the beach on their own, and then walked more than a kilometre, barefoot, on the asphalt, before reaching the Collective Aid van in Coquelles, a commune near Calais which is distributing clothes and shoes.

Giacomo SiniA collection of tents used by Eritrean migrants in an area to the north-east of Calais

“This morning, the police arrived,” explains Emma of the HRO, “but someone hadn’t woken up [in time] and they pushed them out of the tent and took everything away.”

One boy pulls off his jacket to cover the shoulders of a friend whose teeth are chattering. “We were the ones who were pulled out of the tent this morning.”

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