Diary of Calais events

August in Calais – not exactly a summer holiday for some!

I went to Calais for 5 days to recruit for our Justice and Peace October Cross-channel meeting.  Staying with Maria Skobstova House gave me a unique angle on life with young migrants. 

Calais seemed quiet and lethargic with heat when I arrived at the beginning of August, though a sea breeze made it slightly cooler than London.  Many shop fronts were shuttered, due to the holiday season, and few locals on the streets.   I had come to recruit for an Autumn day of cross-Channel dialogue between volunteers and NGOs, and stayed with other volunteers at a flat rented by Maria Skobstova House, helping out with basic housework in between encounters.

MS House contin ues to offer drop-in facilities to many young men, usually Eritrean, and very importantly, a chapel where they pray in their Orthodox tradition several times a week.  One volunteer described the people she met ‘a gentle people, at the end of a deeply harrowing journey’. These polite young men – the  French volunteers call them ‘exilés’ rather than migrants – continue to jump onto lorries to the UK as their best option for a viable future.  Since that is by definition a clandestine activity, and there is no large encampment, the febrile atmosphere of the Jungle seems long gone.  Instead they go about their business of surviving, quietly and with dignity.  Most live out, under tents or awnings, in little encampments on scrubby land around Calais, which are interspersed with the many depots and light industrial factories stretching for miles around the perimeter.  I took part in two ‘Maraudes’, not raids, as the name suggests, but more a sort of soup run, where food, water, hot drinks and toiletries might be distributed.

Mariam Guérey from Secours Catholique led one, on a midweek morning, where 5 of us helped to distribute tea and water.  Mainly, however, we donned rubber gloves, grabbed black refuse sacks and did a site clearance of some of the rubbish which collects when people live hand to mouth and are moved on regularly by the CRS – riot police from other regions.  Arriving in the early morning, I was told, the police slash the tents and spray the fabric of clothing and bedding with tear gas.  Volunteers are also treated with hostility, so that opposition to these armed personnel is virtually impossible.  Mariam smiled and greeted the young migrants with huge bonhomie, playing Eritrean music loudly when we arrived at a site, with the same aim as an ice-cream van might arrive in our street:  ‘We are here, we are your friends, we bring good things’ was the message.   

The second site we visited, the ‘Little Forest’, I had heard of from the young men at the Maria Skobstova drop in house.  Sandwiched between a pleasant residential area and the Calais ring road, this long patch of wooded land seemed a haven hiding many little tents, and was popular because of its proximity to a lorry park the migrants called ‘Belgium Parking’.  This was currently a favourite place to try entering the lorries.  So close to the port, it was being well-guarded however, and I met 2 young men who failed to reach the UK during my stay.  Finally, Mariam took us to the Auberge des Migrants warehouse, where the big NGOs, Utopia 56, Calais Kitchen, Help Refugees, and the Auberge itself, work together to provide support to the ‘exilés’ still flocking to and through Calais.   Exact numbers are difficult, but can be gauged by the number of meals distributed by huge modern efficient kitchen.  Currently around 700 could be in Calais, but Calais Kitchen also supplies Dunkirk, 20 plus miles away, and points in between.  So the total on that stretch of the north coast could be upwards of 2000.  Few women and children stay in Calais but move towards Dunkirk.

Before my next ‘Maraude’, I was fortunate to be invited to a meeting of the ‘Inter-asso’, the weekly meeting of the NGOs held on this occasion at Secours Catholique.  It proved an excellent snapshot of the state of play.  Present, as well as the main players already mentioned, were Amnesty International,  Gynecologistes sans Frontieres, Caritas Italy, Medecins du Monde, and of course Westminster Justice and Peace!  Each of the points I noted had backstories that I could only guess at, representing as they did a whole history of day-to-day specialised efforts for human rights whether to clean water, health, to the proper treatment of children or simply the right to demonstrate.  

  • Feelings were high over a very recent demonstration where an English activist called Tom had been deliberately pushed in front of an oncoming lorry by the CRS. We saw Youtube videos confirming this, though he was released after 48 hours.  Other UK volunteers had been threatened by police, and lawyers were on standby.
  • One lawyer at the meeting mentioned that written guides for those on demonstrations were on their website, and suggested hard copies in different languages might be distributed.
  • Worryingly, volunteers carrying out the ‘Maraudes’ have been bothered by the police, though this is a legal humanitarian activity.
  • Many reported an increase in alcoholism amongst the migrants and this would be referred to the various alcoholism support agencies in the city.
  • Some minors are refusing to talk at all to police when stopped, even to give their names. I was not sure if this was good or bad – discussion proceeding at such a pace!
  • Victory over the Council! There was much jubilation that some small concessions have been extracted from the Préfecture:  a lump sum of 1500 euros, 2 extra standby taps, more showers, and 900 jerrycans of water (the large plastic containers I saw at the Little Forest, containing about 18-20 litres).
  • Despite this, there was no mention of the human right to water, the original demand.  What is more, the Préfecture disputes the numbers of migrants, and the boycott which seems to exist regarding Council meetings will continue, since with no common agreement on basics, some NGOs see these joint discussions as a charade.
  • Medecins du Monde had made a serious attempt by to gather all health professionals around a table for dialogue, but some NGOs had shown negativity and the recent meeting had not been a success.
  • Finally, I was given the floor for a few minutes, to extend an invitation to all the NGOs to our day of dialogue in Dover on October 20th .  Justice and Peace in Southwark and Westminster have begun planning a day of ‘Friends in Solidarity across the Channel’, just to exchange information and get to know each other in our common humanitarian concern for the hundreds, if not thousands, who suffer at our common border.  There was a gratifying amount of interest.   Véronique, a volunteer at Secours Catholique, who has carried out ‘maraudes’ along the Calais coast for the last 15 years, was particularly anxious to know what happens to the young people on their ‘illegal’ arrival in Kent.  I promised to find people with more knowledge than me to speak at that day.

The meeting thus provided a fascinating snapshot of what was currently going on, even allowing for the remarks in slang I didn’t quite catch!   It certainly helped me understand a little of what I was seeing in my short visit.

Brother Johannes had suggested I talk to several individuals for their perspective.  A sobering talk with Leo from Eritrea helped me understand why it can be impossible for young exilés to return home, besides the high fences of the UK border.  As a government employee involved in a pay dispute, he had been imprisoned for 15 months, and emerged to find his job taken away, and the only option forced military service*.   His family sold cattle and jewellery for him to undertake the exile.   Having survived the  perilous journey North to the Mediterranean, Leo was finger-printed in Italy, and made his way through southern Europe to Calais, en route to the UK, where he hoped, and still hopes, to refresh his qualifications, with the good English he already possesses.  He has tried for 7 months to hitchhike a lorry across the Channel, attempting another sortie the day after our talk.  Alas for him, he returned defeated and sad;  I felt my conversation with him had perhaps also renewed his sense of frustration and futility.   A gentle, kind and quiet person, he explained Eritrean pop music to me, and we checked my son’s music career on the internet.  Next day, he set out in the daytime on a recce as to the possibilities of lorry rides at Belgium parking.  Another day, new hope.  I would really like to see him get to the UK.

My second ‘maraude’ was  organised by Maria Skobstova House, a weekly Saturday event, serving breakfast at the Little Forest.  Véronique, Lise and Gilles, all Calaisians who sometimes take ‘exilés’ into their homes in emergencies, do these runs regularly.   The ‘crime of solidarity’ has been dropped, and we distributed breakfast of tea, water, hardboiled eggs, tinned sardines, cake and fruit to a small crowd, who relaxed sufficiently to play a little football in the sunny clearing.   Week in and week out, it cannot always be so pleasant.  These Calais residents have conducted ‘maraudes’ continuously since the Sangatte camp days around 2001.

The Secours Catholique approach of ‘Aller Vers’, ‘Moving Towards’, is more than just the offer of material goodies, but of a hand of friendship.   The migrants need food, water, clothing, shelter, but more than all that, they need a reason to hope for better things.  ‘We are living like animals’, said Leo, referring to their life in the open air.   Yet with welcome and solidarity, miracles can happen.   The resilience of these young migrants is astonishing.  Given a helping hand one day – a shower, a meal, a set of new clothes, even just a smile – they can get up and carry on the next.

*Forced labour and slavery  in Eritrea

The mandatory national service continued to be extended indefinitely despite repeated calls from the international community on the government to limit conscription to 18 months. Significant numbers of conscripts remained in open-ended conscription, some for as long as 20 years. Despite a minimum legal conscription age of 18, children continued to be subjected to military training under the requirement that they undergo grade 12 of secondary school at Sawa National Service training camp, where they faced harsh living conditions, military-style discipline and weapons training. Women, in particular, faced harsh treatment in the camp including sexual enslavement, torture and other sexual abuse.  Amnesty International report 2017-18 

Update from Seeking Sanctuary

14 August 2018


Despite  the holiday season important news (often overlooked by mainstream UK media) continues to arrive … not least that the recent extreme heatwave has proved a cause of much suffering, even for those used to hotter climates. The complete lack of shelter and accessible running water are just two of the problems, notwithstanding the efforts of the committed volunteers who are ever present with supplies, including fresh water and other essential goods.


Earlier in 2018 we told you about our desire to establish a memorial to those who have died seeking sanctuary in the UK. We know that the number is at least 150 since 2000 and still rising. The memorial will be a simple plaque to be placed next to the existing Chinese memorial in line of sight of the French coast. You can see the wording for the memorial here. We have now obtained all the relevant permissions and the cost is likely to be about £800. If you would like to make a donation towards this please let us know and we will let you know payment details in due course. The official inauguration is planned for later in the year, but we plan to visit the memorial at the end of following event.


As advised in July, we are collaborating with others to arrange conversations at St Paul’s Church in Dover about the situation facing exiles in Calais and in the UK, with attendance expected from people who live, volunteer and/or work there. We hope that many of you will tell other interested people and be able to join us. A flyer is attached and we will announce more details soon.


The latest report from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration indicates that from 1 January to 25 July 2018, 55,001 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea. This compares to 111,753 at this time last year, and more than 250,000 in 2016. So despite perceptions, the numbers are well down. However, the number of deaths is well up, with 2018 being one of the deadliest years on record. 1,504 men, women and children have died attempting the Mediterranean crossing, more than half of them since 1 June when Italy’s policy began to change. In Calais, the exiles stand out, huddled in small groups, seeking shade under trees at roadsides or beneath bridges, or walking through fields of long grass. In a patch of woodland next to a main road, around 60 young men from Eritrea sleep between the trees. Elsewhere, there are camps of Sudanese, Afghans, Kurds and Ethiopians (including Oromo Ethiopians). There are also people from Syria, Iraq and other African countries such as Chad and Cameroon. They are mostly men, although aid workers in nearby Dunkirk, report increasing arrivals of women and children.

For further updates from Seeking Sanctuary, see the website, http://www.seekingsanctuary.weebly.com