As winter intensifies in its last few weeks in France, alongside Covid restrictions, many people are taking advantage of the strong recommendations to work from home and stay inside. Yet, for those fleeing from conflict or persecution in their home countries, living in the harsh cold is judged as a temporary pain that will reap its rewards eventually, no pain no gain after all.

Calais, a northern city in France that has developed a reputation as Europe’s gateway to the UK, has been a key huddle point for migrants hoping to cross the English Channel that separates Europe from its former member state. Due to the large entry of migrants in the small city that hosts around 72,000 inhabitants (as of 2020), the first notorious “Calais Jungle” was formed in 2002 and lasted until 2009, before being demolished. From 2015 to 2016, the Jungle was revived as a response to the increased number of asylum seekers coming to Europe, a crisis that sparked controversy in what was seen to be Europe’s failure to help these individuals. While the second Jungle that saw 7000 people sleeping in makeshift shelters was demolished, remnants remain as migrants continue to repeat history with the hope of eventually reaching the UK. The once humanitarian mentality incited by the opening of the Red Cross centre in 1999 to assist the growing number of migrants in the region has long been replaced with what many describe as a “cat and mouse chase”, an environment of police surveillance, violence and hatred.

The “Grand Froid” plan, imposed in early February by prefects in regions where temperatures have dropped to the minus’ and snow has taken over the streets, has the main objective of opening emergency accommodations for those in precarious situations. In Calais, for example, 170 additional beds have been created. Unfortunately, such an attempt has fallen short as Utopia 56, a French association that provides emergency assistance to migrants has estimated that around 800 individuals are sleeping on the streets of Calais this past month.

Despite the ongoing cold weather, Covid restrictions, and Brexit, migration has not halted and the number of unaccompanied minors has also drastically increased in Calais, the majority of whom wish to join family members in the UK. Brexit provoked the UK’s withdrawal of the Dublin Regulation, the European text that allowed underaged exiles to enter Britain if they came to rejoin a family member, which now forces many determined young people to opt for more dangerous routes via small boats. The approach of law enforcement regarding unaccompanied minors has been particularly contentious in Calais as French law obligates officials to report any unaccompanied minors on French territory to the ASE (L’Aide Sociale à l’Enfance) so that they can be housed and fed. Yet, in August 2020, it was reported that there were 1,500 migrants in Calais, of which 254 were minors.

The official enforcement of Brexit in January 2021 had the intention of greatly reducing the number of illegal migrants entering the UK by withdrawing from free movement between the UK and the EU. The previously common routes of migration involving hiding in trucks, ferries, and trains would no longer be possible, thus the increase of usage of dangerous routes. While 2020 saw a reduction of migration to and within Europe due to Covid, crossings of the English Channel surged with more than 8,000 people reaching Britain in 2020, a 4 times increase than in 2019, with at least 7,000 using small smalls, as noted by the PA News Agency. These figures relate to only the ones who were successful, with French authorities having stopped 5,000 people in Calais in the same year, who are rarely arrested and forced to return to the streets without a solution.

The use of irregular routes comes with great risks and dangers. 2020 saw the death of a Kurdish-Iranian family, including two children, who tried to cross the Channel via small boats. In the same year, the body of a Sudanese teenage boy was found washed up on the Calais shore after he attempted to reach the UK with a dinghy. A further 36 migrants were saved by French shipping companies in February 2021, who was attempting to cross the Channel on two small boats. Yet, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg as it is hard to get an exact idea of how many people have died crossing the Channel, as sometimes bodies are not found, and the clandestine nature of these migrants makes figures very broadly estimated.

Winter seas will force migrants from small boats and into lorry containers

Authorities both in the UK and in France try to orientate us to “the reality” of migration in these circumstances as a response to criticisms they have received. British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, as well as the prefect of Calais stated that restrictions are in place to prevent person smuggling and criminal gangs who overrepresent the case of migrations crossing the English Channel. Yet, humanitarian associations have greatly criticised this response, who face the burden of assisting the few who require genuine asylum within the legal framework to be able to continue operating, such as Utopia 56, Care4Calais, and the Refugee Women’s Centre.

While it is unrealistic to expect the UK and French governments to welcome illegal immigrants with open arms, there needs to be a human element embedded in the treatment of migrants in Calais. This current approach of stamping them out like pests and demonising them disregards human life. Work needs to be done to, first of all, change the police vs. migrant mentality that is far too present, not only in Calais but more generally in France. Training needs to be given to officials who work directly, or indirectly, with migrants, on retaining a humane element to their work instead of demonising the so-called “enemy”. Additionally, as proposed by Care4Calais, a new system needs to be adopted in the UK wherein one can apply for asylum without being on the territory.

Finally, despite the UK leaving Europe, it does not mean that cooperation is no longer needed. It is needed more than ever, particularly as asylum and immigration policies were not yet discussed in the Brexit deal signed by the EU and UK. This issue should not become the issue of one country, it is a shared responsibility that demands bilateral agreements to respond to a humanitarian crisis.

For those interested in reading more about individual experiences of Calais, I recommend “Voices from the Jungle”, a compilation of stories from migrants who experience the Jungle first-hand.


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