Calais activists: Migrants call us from boats asking for help

Just outside Grande-Synthe to the west of Dunkirk lies the encampment. Scores of tents straddle a railway track and curve around by a canal, wedged in between a main road and an industrial estate.

People have come from all over the world to be here – searching for a way to cross the Channel and start a new life in the UK.

There is a whole community of people whose lives are bound up with these migrants on their doorstep.

Eve-Marie Dubiez, a local to the area, is one of half a dozen volunteers doling out sandwiches and hot chocolate on Friday morning. Her group provides breakfast here twice a week, armed also with rain ponchos, socks, and sometimes shoes, when they can get them.

She is confident there will be a solution to the migrant crisis in northern France. “But these are the ones paying the price for the moment,” she says, gesturing to the people collecting food from her colleagues.

Eve-Marie has spent the last 15 years working in camps like these. She says police regularly move people on, demolishing camps or pushing people further along the coast. “Everybody wants to get rid of them one way or the other,” she says.

For decades, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in north-east France has played host to thousands.

Some in Calais see the migrants as at best a nuisance, and at worst a menace. In 2016 anti-Islamic demonstrators clashed with police in a protest against them; today, you can find posters for Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party in the city, calling for “Zero immigration”.

Ms Le Pen is one of several MPs from her party elected in this region. Immigration is already shaping up to be a key issue in France’s 2022 presidential election, with many demanding tighter controls.

Michel Barnier, the former EU Brexit negotiator, is running for the right-wing Republicans party and has vowed to crack down on immigration.

But away from the politics, the human faces of this crisis are found all across this city and the surrounding area.

Ali Omar (not his real name) has been in Calais for three months. He says he fled Sudan after the Janjaweed militia, now known as the Rapid Support Forces, tried to kill him.

“For me, it’s about the language,” he says when asked why he wants to come to the UK. “I face a lot of difficulty integrating with people here.”

But even after the deaths of 27 people in the Channel last week, Ali Omar remains undeterred. “I will keep trying to go to the UK,” he insists.

That attitude shows the need for change, Marguerite Combes says. The 22-year-old is the Calais coordinator for Utopia 56, a French association set up in 2016 to give legal and practical support to migrants.

Her group regularly receives calls from people as they cross the Channel, looking for help from any number they have as their flimsy boats sink. The organization also arranges burial plots and funerals for those who die en route, as well as repatriation of bodies for bereaved families.