Aid groups try to force France to act over Calais

Aid groups who believe France lacks the will and desire to solve the refugee crisis in Calais have taken the unprecedented step of taking the government to court to force them to act. The head of an NGO tells The Local why they can no longer wait.

Aid groups try to force France to act over Calais
Photo: AFP

France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve paid his seventh visit to Calais recently and once again promised measures to help improve conditions for the thousands of migrants camped out in the mud in the “New Jungle”.

The minister’s visit came as aid groups confirmed migrant numbers in the slum-like camp had doubled to 6,000, most of whom hope to make it to the UK.

With winter around the corner, the French government has been criticized for not doing enough for those living in conditions which have been described by various NGOs as worse than a refugee camp you would see in a war zone.

France’s latest attempts at warding off those critics will see capacity at an accommodation centre for women and children doubled to from 200 to 400, with heated tents to be provided for others.

Other refugees will be offered accommodation for a month in different parts of France, while France will make a concerted effort to persuade those migrants in Calais to seek asylum in France, with 2,000 places up for grabs.

But frustrated aid groups, who are working on the ground in the desperate conditions, say the latest measures are just the latest example of “constant improvisation” in the government's policy towards Calais. 

Jean-François Corty, a doctor who heads the relief efforts for the humanitarian group Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) welcomed the latest promises but believe they once again fall short and simply don't reflect the “reality” of the crisis.

Corty believes France is still not showing enough willingness to ease the crisis in Calais.

“There are 6,000 people living in deplorable conditions. And everyone knows it. It’s a disaster.

“The minister's policies up until now have failed. France is the sixth largest economic power in the world. We have the capacity to at least provide food and water for these people.

“Some 6,000 migrants are not going to ruin the economic balance in France, even if the country is going through difficulties.

“This is not a question of a lack of capacity or know-how or means. It’s just a question of political will and them not wanting to take charge of the situation correctly.

The half-hearted efforts of the French government were highlighted on a previous visit to Calais by France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

He announced that an official tent camp housing 1,500 people would be built to replace the current shanty-town like huts and flimsy tents.

The plan was met with confusion by those NGOs working in the field, who pointed out that the thousands of refugees who are not housed are unlikely to just return home. 

Comparisons have been made with Germany and Sweden, countries which have taken in tens of thousands of refugees in recent weeks, most of whom have been housed in permanent accommodation.

Despite growing pressure from French rights groups and celebrities, France's policy towards Calais still seems to be dictated by a fear that if it improves the situation for migrants, more will simply head to the northern port town.

“They are still scared that [migrants] more will come if they improve conditions for the migrants. But the people are here, so whether they are scared or not, we have to feed and care for them.

“The only thing is to ask what can we can do for those who are here and those that are on their way.

The aid chief compared the response by the French government in Calais to what happened after devastating floods in the French Riviera earlier this month.

Many of the local authorities who were the worst hit were able to declare a state of emergency and gain access to financial aid.

“We have the capacity to declare a state of emergency in Calais that would allow us to take decisions quickly, in regards of the law. But we have not got to this point yet,” Corty said.

“There’s no point in the interior minister coming every three months to realise what’s being done is insufficient and then to take more measures that are also insufficient.”

'Of course he is not solely in charge of that but at the same time he has the means to make sure the refugees on French territory have enough to eat and drink,” Corty adds.

Which is why Corty's Doctor's of the World and other aid groups are trying to force the government to act, rather than than wait for Bernard Cazeneuve to come back.

On Monday, it emerged that the organization along with other aid groups like Secours Catholiques, have lodged a complaint with court in Lille in an attempt to force France to take the necessary emergency measures in Calais.

They say the fundamental rights of those living in the squalid camp are being violated.

Their complaint mentions the risk of flooding, fires and even explosions given the camp is next to several chemical plants.

It also refers to sexual abuse in the camp, with women and children being coerced into prostitution. Other problems cited included outbreaks of scabies and “severe malnutrition” and the “inhumane and degrading conditions” of the refugees.

Their aim is to see the camp dismantled and all its occupants given permanent accommodation around France.

If France remains reluctant, it may be forced against its will by one if its own courts.