CALAIS, FRANCE – French officials took steps on Monday to improve the lot of thousands of migrants living in dastardly conditions in northern France, setting up containers with bunk beds in Calais, the largest camp, and approving plans to relocate another squalid camp outside nearby Dunkirk.
Migrants throng by the thousands to Calais and Dunkirk in a bid to sneak into Britain. But until Monday, authorities had done little to make life easier for migrants — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere — because France and Britain are trying to dissuade them from coming.
A group of 140 people moved into the white containers with bunk beds in the Calais camp. The containers can house 1,500, with children and families getting priority.
In Grande-Synthe, the mayor’s office approved relocating a camp mired in mud to another location, after weeks of discussions among local authorities and Doctors Without Borders, which led the effort. The new camp will open in four weeks, according to the prefecture of the Nord region.
Up to 2,500 people stay in the Grande-Synthe camp, known as a haven for smugglers.
Both camps ballooned with the influx of migrants to Europe, and the Calais camp has evolved into a slum with shops, mosques and a church between the tarps and tents. Up to 6,000 people were staying there in the fall, though the number has decreased recently.
Authorities are cautious not to allow housing to attract more migrants. The goal is to reduce the Calais migrant population to 2,000. Security has been tightened at the port and Channel tunnel.
“I think it’s very clear from now on that it’s impossible to get to the U.K. from Calais,” said Nicolas Pauliac of the Pas de Calais prefecture.
Not all migrants see the shiny new containers as a boon.
“To stay here or move to the containers is the same for me,” said Ahmed Alhamad, a Syrian. “I want to seek asylum in Britain.”
The migrants’ shelter made of converted shipping containers in Calais on its northern Channel coast is a bid to try to bring some order to the “jungle” camp in sand dunes near the port.
The squalid, unsanitary “jungle” hosts some 4,000 migrants from poor and strife-torn countries outside the European Union, most of whom hope to reach Britain across the Channel where a greater number of job opportunities and the more familiar English language are big draws.
Tents and shanties in the northeast of the camp have been cleared away to make space for the shelter, designed to accommodate up to 1,500 people in 125 white-painted shipping containers. The metal boxes are equipped with bunk beds, heaters and windows, but lack water or sanitary facilities.
Toilets and showers for those housed there will be accessible at an existing facility now reserved for women and children.
French authorities say the containers are a good solution because the dunes are unsuitable for traditional foundations, but even this level of permanence may be a political football.
A building in nearby Sangatte housed as many as 2,000 refugees before it was shut down in 2002 under pressure from local residents and after the French and British governments agreed it was encouraging illegal immigration to Britain.
The French government’s top official for the Pas-de-Calais region told reporters that families and individuals considered particularly vulnerable would be granted priority access to the new shelter.
“We expect to welcome around 140 people today and then around 50 daily over the coming weeks,” said regional prefect Fabienne Buccio, who hopes to be able to persuade those arriving there to seek asylum in France or elsewhere in Europe.
“We want migrants to come here and rethink their entire journey with the help of associations and authorities. They need to understand that it is now impossible to reach the United Kingdom from here.”
Security around train tracks to the Eurotunnel and around the port of Calais has been reinforced in recent months to prevent migrants from jumping onto trains and vehicles heading for Britain or attempting to walk through the tunnel. This has led to frequent clashes between migrants and the police.
Migrants will have to register to live inside the shelter perimeter fence, with access controlled by handprint technology. Some of them told Reuters they were suspicious of this set-up.
Inayat, 25, who traveled from Afghanistan, and David, 17, from Eritrea, said they would not check in because they still wanted to reach Britain as soon as possible.
“It’s like a prison in there,” Abdullah, 25, from Iraq, said, eying the green fences surrounding the center. He and his friend, Saad, plan to stay in their tents despite freezing winter temperatures and frequent rainstorms that turn the sand to mud.
“Once you are in there (shelter), they will not let you go out,” Abdullah said.
Buccio said migrants would be free to go in and out of the facility without restrictions, day and night, but that they would be asked to show a handprint for safety reasons.