The dismantling of the Calais refugee camp in northern France has not put an end to migrants’ dreams of Britain. While waiting for passage across the Channel, thousands of people – families, women, men and children – survive as they can in the forest, in terrible living conditions.

“The conditions are appalling”, denounced Didier Degrémont, president of the Secours Catholique delegation in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, in comments reported by Vatican News.

Almost every morning, Degrémont witnesses a sad spectacle: pushed by police, the refugees who have found makeshift shelter in the cemetery in the Calais forest fold up their tents, take their meagre belongings and move a few kilometres away.

Since the dismantling of the notorious Calais “jungle”, the living conditions of people waiting to cross the Channel have worsened.

On August 14, Secours Catholique and a dozen other associations such as Médecins du monde and L’Auberge des Migrants raised the alarm on the “inhumane” living conditions of migrants in the region.

Before the “jungle” was demolished, there was at least a minimum of infrastructure for the migrants, explained Degrémont, “but today we are in a situation where the State does not want any more migrants in the territory of Calais and everything is designed to push them out”.

Access to water is limited: only a hundred showers, and far away, for hundreds of people, the Secours Catholique delegate denounced.

Police intimidation and violence

Degrémont and his fellow aid workers in Calais decried “brutal evacuations” of migrants along with “physical violence, the confiscation of personal property and arrests”.

Evictions from Calais continued at the height of the coronavirus health crisis, deplored the human rights activist, who asked: “How was it proper to evict these poor people during the pandemic?”

Beside migrants’ lack of means and the violence they suffer, the associations also denounced a lack of dialogue with the authorities.

According to Degrémont, government policy regarding Calais has taken a worrying turn since French President Emmanuel Macron came to power in May 2017, and the appointment of Gérald Darmanin as Minister of the Interior has signalled the adoption of a particularly hard line on migrants.

The president of the Secours Catholique delegation in Pas-de-Calais deplored that prefects who must follow very strict guidelines are passing the buck to the government, and that there is no willingness to talk on the part of the authorities.

Associations on the ground are being asked to leave and are being replaced by State organisations, Degrémont added.

Crossings whatever the cost

Since French authorities dismantled the Calais migrant camp in 2016, the number of people trying to cross the Channel has dropped dramatically, from more than 12,000 in 2016 to a few hundred in 2019.

But the problem has only moved elsewhere and the number of Channel crossings in light and fragile boats has exploded, Degrémont lamented, adding that the people smugglers’ “market” is flourishing”.

On Wednesday, September 2, police intercepted about fifty people trying to cross when they were already in the water. On the same day, some sixty migrants were picked up on the beach at Wimereux after another failed crossing.

Crossing this sea is dangerous. It is one of the busiest maritime zones in the world, where the climate is often capricious. In mid-August, the lifeless body of a young Sudanese man was found on a beach in northern France.

(With reporting by Vatican News)

More on Novena on the Church’s concern for migrants:

Cardinals, archbishop: “Europe should be ashamed” after devastating fire in Greek island migrant camp

‘Seeking Sanctuary’ pays moving tribute to migrant life “full of hope and opportunity” lost in English Channel (photo)

Vatican official backs as possible “win-win situation” the “mass regularisation” of ‘illegal’ immigrants

“Their lives matter”: ‘People not Walls’ pleads for safe passage for migrants from Calais to UK


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.