Connecting with NGOs in Calais

By Stanton Geyer and Victoria Jones

April 22, 2022

Introduction and Background

In December 2021, ELNOR staff traveled to the port city of Calais, France for the first time to meet with NGOs serving refugees and to conduct pilot research on language needs in the area. Through surveying a group of refugee adults there and discussing educational needs with NGO staff, ELNOR considered the potential of opening English tutoring services and classes to beneficiaries in the area. The surveys indicated a strong interest in learning English, as will be discussed in an upcoming ELNOR report. This post serves as an introduction to an ongoing humanitarian crisis shuffled between successive French and British governments.

Map depicting the distance from Calais to Folkestone as shown by the Eurotunnel. 

The French and British governments have long disputed and thereby protracted living conditions of thousands of refugees seeking asylum and family reunification across the channel. Since the late 1990s, refugees have continuously resided and rebuilt their communities in the Greater Calais Area despite teardowns and mass evictions. In 1994 Calais opened the Folkestone-Calais Eurotunnel and as of 1998, it has hosted numerous government-run and NGO-run refugee camps and informal settlements. Calais is located at a historically ideal place for transit over the Franco-British maritime border, given that the port of Calais is approximately 31 miles (49 km) from the English port of Dover. 

Criticism of Conditions and Relations

Prevailing differences in asylum management, coupled with poor diplomacy between the two countries, have complicated access to the British asylum system for refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. The area has seen formal camps such as the Sangatte camp (2001-02), the Jules Ferry site (2015-16) referred to as the Calais ‘Jungle’ (جنگل), and La Linière in Dunkirk (2016-18), as well as numerous informal camps built by NGOs and displaced people themselves in the surrounding woodlands. By 2016 the grossly overpopulated Calais ‘Jungle’ area hosted an estimated 10,000 people seeking refuge, far above the small camp’s capacity.

Temporary cabins and tents side by side

People living in temporary cabins and tents in the Calais ‘Jungle’ in 2016. Source: Reuters via BBC.

Moreover, the pathways to apply for asylum are not clear or viable, despite numerous calls from local NGOs to improve the asylum procedures. The local government has also implemented policies to deter welcoming efforts to those arriving. Reminiscent of the criminalization of water stations for refugees and migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, the municipal government of Calais at times has politicized food distribution. In March 2017, the mayor of Calais prohibited NGO food distribution to those surviving on the streets of the city (a decision that was subsequently overturned). Such approaches allow governments to turn efforts away from welcoming and processing asylum claims, and instead toward often more expensive — but more bureaucratically expedient — securitization of borders and criminalization of refugees’ daily lives. The delayed implementation of policies intended to coordinate migration into the EU and ease the challenges of mass arrivals, such as the series of Dublin Regulation treaties, have contributed to this humanitarian crisis in Calais, where refugees and asylum seekers must live in such conditions. The securitization and eventual closure of refugee camps in the Calais area remain a politically and diplomatically charged challenge for French and British governments

Notes from ELNOR’s Visit with NGOs

The Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) has been operating a hot meals service in Calais since 2015 and was celebrating its six-year anniversary when ELNOR visited. A quick tour of their storage warehouse showed how several organizations are coordinating meal preparation, meal delivery, and various supplies delivery to local, unhoused refugees from a centralized hub. Since a fire at another NGO’s warehouse in 2018, RCK has become the primary food and service warehouse in the Calais area, serving 1,500 meals a day.

Their services benefit people from a variety of backgrounds, including people from Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Nigeria, Chad, Libya, Morocco, and Sengal. English serves as a medium within NGOs, between volunteers and beneficiaries, and between different refugee communities, of important note for our organization.

Inside RCK’s warehouse.

In November alone, RCK served 22,764 meals. Food is prepared by approximately 20 volunteers in the kitchen, with a dedicated and experienced managerial team, and then distributed by volunteers in vans. Distribution sites are simply wherever the NGOs have determined people are gathering to rest.

Working out of the same warehouse, InfoBus volunteers discussed how their program operates to provide temporary wifi access and charging stations for people in the greater Calais area. InfoBus utilizes a vehicle equipped with charging tables, portable wifi boxes, and information flyers about other social services. They also supply some local charity centers with materials, as they welcome unhoused people during the day. Like RCK, InfoBus identifies where locals are congregating and waits just down the road out of respect for privacy. People can pass by the van to access its services and speak with InfoBus’s three to seven volunteers. They explained that many people use prepaid SIM cards with Android phones to access the internet and contact family and friends back home.

Finally, ELNOR staff met with volunteers at the Secours Catholique activity center in Calais to discuss the educational needs of their beneficiaries. Secours Catholique, also known as Catholic Charities, is the French branch of Caritas International. In Calais they open their community center doors to a capped number of refugees three days a week. They offer an indoor and courtyard space with tables and chairs, air conditioning, some device charging stations, basketball and card games, and a modest collection of movies on VHS. Some of their films include Arabic subtitles, important given that our quick survey found the majority of beneficiaries were Sudanese. While we were at the center, they were showing the film Persepolis on repeat. Volunteers there also help distribute basic clothing like warm jackets and shoes. The Red Cross also offers a service here to help people make calls and access wifi. When we arrived, the center was bustling but was preparing to send people out for the night. The center is unable to accommodate people spending the night, but offers some regularity to whomever comes in the afternoons.

Secours Catholique posters at their indoor activities center.

Conditions in Calais

Several people we spoke with mentioned inhumane and problematic practices by the French and British governments that take place in the greater Calais area. Though ELNOR did not specifically ask partners and beneficiaries to elaborate, stories that were shared align with those found in previously recorded narratives. We heard much about pushbacks, police harassment and brutality, the violence endured during mass evictions of camps and informal sleeping grounds, and the politicization of basic human rights and access to resources. In August 2017, a survey found refugees were generally sleeping 3.5 hours per night, due to constant disruption from police attempting to move them. To this day, their makeshift tent sites are reestablished weekly, because police patrol sites after identifying and clearing them. Clearing often consists of waking up the unhoused people using flashlights and pepper spray, then cutting through their tents or other informal structures and confiscating cell phones. We were told that without a centralized camp, and with rampant police activity day and night, it is hard to offer any stability or regularity to refugees here.

In the aftermath of mass camp evictions by French authorities, and as trade and travel between the two countries has decreased during the pandemic, the UK Home Office has responded offensively to a stark increase in small boat crossing. When we visited, 27 people had recently died attempting to cross on November 24. Though the British government had just rolled back plans to criminalize independent life saving efforts, the authorities on either end of the channel had avoided jurisdiction over the dinghy and the passengers’ pleas for help amidst emergency for 12 hours. ‘Pushbacks’ are a common practice by maritime border authorities in Greece and Australia whereby migrants are intercepted by authorities and either delivered or set adrift back in the opposite direction, generally without formal documentation. This unofficial practice violates both the EU’s ECHR Article 4 on “the prohibition of collective expulsion of aliens” and the principle of non-refoulement, a procedural safeguard and fundamental principle of the 1954 Geneva Convention ensuring that anyone with an asylum claim will be heard. Importantly, France and the UK are both signatories and have ratified the 1954 Geneva Convention.

The ‘pushbacks’ policy sees British authorities turn their backs on refugee emergencies at sea, which is similar to the policy seen in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey and in Australia. Pushbacks allow the British government to avoid processing asylum cases of people seeking refuge. Under UK rules, applications for asylum can only be made once applicants are on U.K. soil, as the British government has ignored cases rising in Calais altogether as a foreign issue. Whether sending refugees across the world to Rwanda or back over the channel, the UK government is creating policies that deeply call into question its violations of international law. 

Additionally, many people we spoke with on our trip mentioned the issues of police violence in the wider Calais area. Alongside formal mass evictions and the routine elimination of informal encampments, police violence takes the form of confiscation and destruction of personal property, harassment of NGO workers, and people’s living places. It is common for refugees in Calais to reside in tents while awaiting asylum processing, asylum decisions, or just while considering moving elsewhere of their own accord. ELNOR was told that police slash and burn people’s tents daily, allegedly to deter people from remaining in the region altogether. On a wider scale, we were told that various levels of the French government contract private construction companies to bulldoze campsites.

Protests against these types of evictions have been ongoing for years, with NGOs, locals, visiting advocates, and refugees themselves uniting to stand against such practices. In October 2021, a hunger strike was organized by some to halt evictions and open a dialogue to reconsider possible solutions. From ELNOR’s conversations in Calais, it seems that people considered this undertaking fairly successful. Nevertheless, as of the publishing of this article the crisis is ongoing. These multinational communities of refugees and the largely British and French volunteers working and advocating on their behalf continue to demand that their two governments take action in accordance with a basic conception of human rights. Future articles will cover ELNOR’s goals and progress of providing language education to people in northern France.

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