Yves Dransart spends his retirement working with the Collectif de Soutien d’Urgence aux Réfugiés – known as C’SUR. The local group volunteers to help feed and clothe the refugees.
Yves said that many of the refugees have a false vision of Britain.
“They imagine Europe as a haven for refugees and with the disappointment they find with every country, they imagine the next will be better,” he said.
“So they say, Britain or Belgium will be better than France, France would be better than Italy. It is a journey filled with false hope.”
Yves said that civic associations and church groups where the last call for many of the migrants. A fellow aid volunteer was guarding the food distribution centre.
He shook his head as he looked at the line of 250 people waiting for the bowl of rice, bread and fruit.
“Today is not good. There are not many here, this means the weakest couldn’t make the journey. It is very bad,” he said.
The aid workers were wary of British journalists and angry following sensational tabloid headlines in the British press about “Sangatte II”.
The original Sangatte centre was a facility for refugees run by the Red Cross. The converted warehouse housed over 1,000 migrants outside Calais.
It became the focus of British government anger which claimed that the centre was a stop off point for refugees sneaking into Britain.
Following pressure from the British government, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s minister of the interior, closed the centre in December 2002.
The logic of closing the Sangatte centre was that if life for the refugees in Calais became too hard, they would not come – or they would accept a £1,500 payoff to go home.
But the closure of Sangatte simply pushed the problem elsewhere and made life more dangerous for the migrants.
Refugees built temporary accommodation or lived under bridges and in the woods a mile outside the town.
Outside Calais is a small cluster of scrubland they call the “jungle”.
Yves took us to the edge of the forest and warned us to tread extremely carefully as it has become a battleground between rival groups.
“The tension is very bad,” he said. “This is a very difficult situation.”
In his late 70s Yves cuts an unlikely figure as peace keeper and go-between among the factions.
He said that for the refugees this seclusion had provided relative safety.
But as life in the town became more unbearable, ownership over the meagre shelters triggered confrontations that reflected the old animosities the refugees were attempting to escape – pitting Kurds, Arabs, Iranian and Afghans against each other.
We met a group of refugees returning from collecting their food rations. We were allowed to follow them on the condition that we did not take any cameras.
Inside the woods we found a collection of hovels that provide some refuge from the weather and random violence of the town.
Temporary shelters were patched together out of blankets, coats and plastic sheets. Beds were raised wooden boards.
Along the path we were stopped by three Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. We asked if we could speak to them about their life and if we could photograph some of the shelters.
They refused saying that people in the woods are nervous following several police raids. “They came when we were collecting our food and destroyed the camp,” they told us.
The battle for the shelters has compounded a problem that will get worse as the winter draws in.
Earlier this year the Communist Party-run council in Calais proposed opening a day centre where the refugees could have access to showers, shelter and toilets.
The British newspapers whipped up a campaign against what they called “Sangatte II”. John Reid, who was home secretary at the time, protested to the French government, who scuppered the plan.
Yves said that the aid workers were furious at what they called “interference by the British ambassador” .
“It is to my great shame that France is unwelcoming to the refugees and that our police are brutal. But to bend to the will of the British government is terrible. This is France, and it is for France to decide.”
He said the council did receive permission to open an indoor shelter for January and February – the harshest winter months – but it was not enough.
“We face a terrible winter,” he said. “My fear is that as this rain and wind gets worse many more will die.”
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