Calais after Sangatte: The migrants 'worth less than cattle'
- 17 November 2012
- From the section Magazine
Ten years ago, French authorities decided to shut down the Sangatte Red Cross asylum centre near Calais because they said it had become a magnet for illegal immigrants hoping to come to Britain. But it seems migrants in the city are as keen as ever to cross the English Channel.
The seagulls bicker and squabble in the open yard of the soup kitchen, impatient with the migrants who - crouched on the concrete, mechanically spooning pasta - rarely flick them a crumb from their rations.
It is a damp, dull day and the sun and sky seems to have sapped the colour from everything beneath it.
The huddled men in their dirty hooded tops and jackets make a solid block of drab misery. Even the seagulls are granite, grey and greasy.
A young Afghan man is begging the elderly woman handing out small plastic pots of pasta, for more. There is not enough, she tells him firmly, shaking her head.
He is not the first to ask for more today and he will not be the last.
The pasta, in a watery tomato sauce, is woefully insufficient to feed the 300-or-so migrants who come to the soup kitchen every day, and the charity workers know it.
But for the last 10 years, ever since the Sangatte centre closed, it has been up to just a handful of volunteer groups to look after all the migrants who come to Calais in the hope of crossing the Channel to England. And they do still come.
All the charity workers I talk to agree that Sangatte needed to be closed, but all insist that some other infrastructure should have been put in its place.
Near the port I meet Anwar, an unkempt, sallow Syrian man in his 30s who tells me he fled in terror from his home town near Damascus after his younger brother was tortured by supporters of President Assad's regime.
I learn that he is unmarried, is very close to his little brother and that he is an industrial chemist. He has only been in Calais for six weeks but he has already tried more than 30 times to climb into, under and above lorries in his bid to get to England.
"Why England?" I ask. "You speak fluent French, why not claim asylum here?"
He looks at me for a few seconds before saying: "Come with me, come and see where I live."
In the next street, directly opposite some private houses, I see a row of makeshift tents fashioned from patched tarpaulin, rubber sheets and supermarket carrier bags.
Anwar lifts one of the tarpaulins and shows me a filthy mattress littered with damp blankets, odd shoes and some mouldy bread. It smells as acrid and rotten as a sick room and I have to withdraw my head quickly.
"Seven of us sleep here. But in the night the police come," he says. "They spray everything with gas so we can never use it again and then we have no cover from the rain and no more clothes.
"In Syria," he continues, "we see television programmes about France - we learn it is the country of freedom, of human rights and solidarity."
He looks at me closely and asks: "Do you think this is a country which respects human rights? I have nothing here, Madame."
In the queue for the minibus to take the migrants to nearby shower blocks, I chat to Pierre - an elderly local man, with very pale, watery blue eyes who used to volunteer at Sangatte and now helps out at the soup kitchen, despite an obvious illness that makes him shake.
His account of the last day of the asylum centre has biblical overtones.
"It was five degrees outside and raining so hard that everywhere was flooded," he says quietly. "And when these exhausted men came looking for a bit of shelter they were just turned away and the door locked on them."
He lifts his trembling hands. "That night the local farmers brought their cattle in for the winter because they said the weather was too harsh."
He nods his head towards the group of migrants and gives me a lopsided smile. "Are they really worth less than cattle? Our police hound them and hunt them down like plague victims."
The town hall is reluctant to provide more permanent shelter in case, like Sangatte, it should act as a magnet and swell the migrant numbers further.
Just outside the town, on the edge of an industrial estate, two small portacabins make up the migrants' shower block.
The men push one another in their haste to get in, snatching the phials of medicated shampoo and shower gel offered by the hassled charity workers and clamouring for clean clothes and underwear.
At the door, a handsome, clean-shaven man with gelled-back hair is trying to catch my eye. I go over to him with a smile, offer my hand and introduce myself.
Only when he fixes me with a look of reproach do I realise I have met him before.
"Madame," he reminds me quietly. "I am Anwar, the industrial chemist from Syria. You were a guest in my house."
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