Refugees in northern France - recent developments

Makeshift shelters in a river of mud

Makeshift shelters in a river of mud

Weather in the Nord-pas-de-Calais region has been wet and windy for several weeks, turning the ground in refugee camps into a swamp and damaging tents and shelters that have only a precarious anchor to this ground. Even if there were sufficient places to wash and shower, it is almost impossible to remain clean, warm and dry. In January, daytime temperatures have been below zero for successive days and lower still at night.

Numbers on the ground at Calais have dropped, with officials claiming that over 1,900 have promised to abandon plans to reach the UK and been given shelter for periods in various parts of France. Also, some have moved elsewhere, including many Kurds who have helped to swell the number now encamped at Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk from about 800 in October to around 2,500 in December. (Kurds from various nations arrive after persecution by the majority populations and prefer to keep together rather than live cheek by jowl with those who they have cause to fear.)

The mayor of Grande-Synthe has long deplored the deteriorating conditions, especially the significant presence of people smugglers. In December he proposed that residents should move to a different site and receive services that meet international standards. On 23 December he met the Interior Minister who promised to support him in getting vulnerable people into safe shelter. Media comment interpreted this as a "new permanent Sangatte" and Kent MPs spoke of "creating a new waiting room for those wanting to reach the UK illegally".

The regional Prefect was soon announcing opposition to the proposed new site on the grounds of safety and security, while Médecins sans Frontières was ready to supervise the move. After several weeks of negotiation the Prefect withdrew his opposition to revised plans for the originally selected site - though without announcing "approval". (Cue headlines: "French government approves major new camp".) MSF will supply and erect five-person heated tents taking 2500 residents on a temporary basis, along with numbers of toilets, taps, showers, a medical centre and kitchens to meet international standards. Anti-dazzle screens will mask nearby road and rail lines. This should be up and running within four weeks of the mid-January announcement and cost some €1 million to €2 million.

Developments were more ponderous and controversial in Calais. On August 31 the Prime Minister announced that a new camp to take 1500 would be formed from 125 modified cargo containers. By October, the contract to operate this had been won by "La Vie Active" which runs the Jules Ferry Centre. (Providing day facilities, along with overnight accommodation for a number of women and children that has recently risen to 400.) The containers were supposed to be in place by Christmas, but after delays, only the first few were ready to occupy on 6 January. The cost was €20 million (up from the forecast €18 million), including a €5 million EU grant. Priority places were to be offered to the 500 people moved for installation of the containers and next to vulnerable people and families.

Clearance - plans

On Friday 8 January, with the first new containers ready to be occupied after the weekend, the Calais sub-Prefect suddenly announced that he intended to clear a strip of land along two sides of the camp and would provide more details on the Monday. It emerged that the idea was to remove all tents, shelters, trees and scrub to create a security zone where people could not hide whilst waiting to board a lorry on its way to the port. And there was more: rather than a "strip of land" a corner of the camp accounting for around 30% of its area is to be cleared, with work stating in two days! This would involve displacing over 1000 individuals, including around 300 women and 60 children, with no obvious new places for shelter. Commentators wrongly assumed that they could go into the containers, but few of them were yet ready for occupation and many places are reserved for others. In fact, no shelter places were offered to newly displaced refugees.

Clearance - reality

The official information and frightened rumours both changed several times a day - not helped by officials ignoring a list of questions put by the group of elders. Some residents promised to stay and resist bulldozers. Eventually it seemed that an extra 3 or 4 days grace might arrive if there were signs of action. A new area within the "Jungle" was cleared ready to receive tents and shelters moved from the threatened zone, plus new replacements. Dwellings were - literally - manhandled on to trailers and hauled to their new positions by refugees and scores of largely foreign volunteers.


The team estimates that relocation involved moving around 25 caravans, 300 tents and 247 shelters - not counting the very many more moved by the occupants themselves. The total of people safely re-homed ended up at approximately 1300, including 280 women and 40 children. The remaining unoccupied shelters are rescued for future use and some 80 new shelters added. All this In icy conditions, along with the first winter snowfall and the continued arrival of more people needing shelter, warmth, food and clothing.


Media commentators say that ungrateful migrants have refused places in the new containers. Untrue: none were offered! However, the fenced compound with rigid lines of blank white containers is not attractive, strongly resembling a detention facility. Access is to be controlled via digitised hand-print scans, causing fears of fingerprints being recorded, despite assurances to the contrary. Vulnerable people have been rendered more fragile by the badly-handled sequence of events leading up to this move and by the threatening frequent riot police patrols who happily create teargas clouds wherever they expec trouble, without consideration of nearby families, Residents have become even more mistrustful of government officials and politicians. "Who knows", they say, "when they will announce changed conditions, record our IDs and demand that we either leave France at once or apply for asylum there?" Admittedly the containers have some windows and are insulated, with heating from large-area towel rails, individual lockers, six bunk beds and power point for phone charging. But each dormitory caters for 12 people in just some 14 sq m of floor area. Outside there is a block of portable toilets, and - soon - an exercise zone, a children's play area and three larger containers for socialising. But there is no drinking water, no washbasins, no showers, nor provision for cooking! These facilities are situated over 150 m away in the Jules Ferry Day Centre where breakfast and one other daily meal will be available. Apart from promising a clean and dry bed for the night, the prospect is not eally all that eniticing.

"Officials put the number of places in Jules Ferry Centre and the container dormitories at Calais as 1900 in total and state that their aim is to reduce the population to below 2000. The same sources put the current population at 4500, while others suggest over 5500. Where are the extra people going to settle, and when? And will they have to be coerced to leave?"

If you would like to volunteer or make a donation to one of the groups/charities helping the refugees in northern France, see:

Phil Kerton is one of the founders of Seeking Sanctuary - a Kent-based charity that supports the refugees in France. See:

Tags: Calais, Dunkirk, Grande Synthe, migrants, Phil Kerton, refugees

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