[Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2008 prior to GlobalPost's launch.]
CALAIS, France — A mountain of trash — dirty diapers and half-eaten sandwiches, beer bottles and milk cartons, old shoes and torn clothes — piled up just beyond the improvised entrance.
In one corner, a group that includes old women and babies sat huddled around a small pit fire, some with plastic cups of steaming tea in hand on this chilly day in September 2008. An adjacent room littered with rusty equipment reveals a colorful heap of blankets and jackets. Burrowed underneath them, a mass of people lie sprawled helter-skelter on rotting floorboards on a cold, rainy morning.
Welcome to “Hotel Africa,” as the residents of this migrant camp call the squalor in which they live here on the edge of Calais.
Weeks later news broke that armed riot police descended upon the camp, detaining dozens of these migrants claiming to come from war-ravaged Eritrea and scattering hundreds of other would-be asylum seekers intending to smuggle themselves across the English Channel into the United Kingdom.
The scene is repeated over and again in this town that has served as both magnet and staging ground for migrants because of its proximity to British soil. By the time they’ve journeyed to Calais any vestige of hope they have left is focused and they are all but oblivious to the shuttered factories and businesses that have left high unemployment and embittered residents behind. Charities that cater to Calais’ citizens struggling to stretch government benefits until the end of the month are also the only lifeline for the steady stream of refugees relying on the goodwill of strangers for their basic survival.
On weekdays, students, retirees and even the unemployed help prepare, package and distribute meals to men who line up outside a small shack near the railroad tracks. The women and children form a separate line and are served first along with the infirm. The compassion of volunteers like Charles “Moustache” Frammzelle is tempered with the ability to manage chaos with a firm hand. At the lunch shack, Moustache’s gruff voice often can be heard diffusing migrant melees that break out suddenly and all too frequently now because of fatigue and frayed nerves.
The charity organizes showers, granting access on a rotating basis to the four stalls available to the hundreds who need them. Socks and toiletries are provided as well, small comforts for a marginalized group mainly ignored by the authorities and kept outside of the system long enough so no one is forced to take responsibility.
But people like Mariam Rachil, a charity worker with a hands-on approach to her job, is anything but indifferent. She attends to a man with severe burns on his neck with the resolve of a triage nurse. With the same intensity, she turns her attention to the woman who needs help getting another pair of shoes and a family inquiring about their turn at the showers.
“The most difficult part is to see the children and the pregnant women sleeping in the streets, living in these conditions,” said Rachil, a 39-year-old Moroccan native.
Everyone recognizes the approach is a band-aid solution to a gaping wound of a problem, especially now with the cold weather approaching and the number of migrants surging beyond manageable proportions, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.
“If this help wasn’t here, they would still be here but maybe they would have to resort to stealing,” said Genevieve Tirmarche, who travels 10 kilometers each week from a neighboring village to help sort donated clothing for the twice-monthly distribution. “There would be more misery if we did nothing.”
And yet that’s exactly what volunteers had been threatening to do in an effort to spur local politicians into action. Months later in December they would act on the threat and hold back charitable support to highlight to local politicians that the status quo must change. It has no apparent effect on local politicians and calls for comment to the mayor’s office were not returned.
Tirmarche is dismissive of critics who say the volunteers and the basic help they provide serves to attract more migrants. She and others look no further than 2002 when a Red Cross processing center was shuttered in the nearby town of Sangatte as proof to the contrary. Closing the center that once attracted and housed migrants by the thousands may have slowed the pace, but it did nothing to stanch the flow.
“We’ve been doing this work for six years and nothing ever changes,” said Jean-Pierre Boutoille, a priest who heads a collective of associations called C’Sur. He said while the charities bear the brunt, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has turned a blind eye. “We’ve reached a point where we can no longer keep doing this. That’s enough.”
Boutoille said the situation has reached a tipping point. He estimated that at least 700 migrants were in Calais now and predicted the numbers could reach 1,000 by year’s end at the current rate.
“We’re asking the powers that be to wake up and take matters into their own hands,” Boutoille said.