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Remembering Sangatte, France's Notorious Refugee Camp

As the French port city of Calais plans to open a new shelter to deal with an influx of migrants, VICE News interviewed an activist who worked in the city's infamous Sangatte refugee camp.
Photo by Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve unveiled plans Monday for a new migrant center in the northern French port city of Calais. Natacha Bouchart, the city's center-right mayor, has been pushing for a new center to respond to the sudden increase in refugees, whose numbers have soared from 1,500 at the end of the summer to 2,300 in recent weeks.

The proposed center, which is on track to open by Christmas, will be housed in the repurposed Jules Ferry recreational center. Cazeneuve has estimated the costs of running that center at around 3 million euros per year, a budget that he claims, "Will be mobilized by the State with help from the European Union."


In addition to this new migrant center, French authorities have also pledged to reinforce the police presence in Calais, increasing the number of officers and gendarmes in charge of securing ferry port to 450. The city is a popular gateway to England, and migrants frequently try to stowaway on trucks leaving the country. The police will also be tasked with ending clashes between migrant groups, which have multiplied over the past few weeks, along with reports of locals attacking migrants.

The lack of a longterm solution to the refugee crisis dates back to the '90s, when migrants first started flocking to Calais. In 1999, Jean-Pierre Chevènement — then interior minister in Lionel Jospin's cabinet— went forward with plans to open a refugee camp in the Sangatte area, inside a former Eurotunnel factory.

Opened in 1999 and administered by the Red Cross, the center was closed in 2002 under pressure from David Blunkett, then the UK's interior minister. The migrants relocated to a makeshift camp in the woods near an industrial area that was known as "the jungle." The area was subsequently cleared in 2009, forcing migrants to settle in squats and makeshift shelters scattered throughout Calais — or sleep in the streets.

Jean-Pierre Alaux, an activist with GISTI, a French human rights non-profit that specializes in immigrant rights, maintains that the conditions in Calais today mirror those that forced the opening of Sangatte in the '90s. In an interview with VICE News, Alaux recounted what life was like in France's notorious refugee camp.


Riot police break up clash between migrants in France. Read more here.

VICE News: What brought you to Sangatte?
Jean-Pierre Alaux: I was working for GISTI, where I was in charge of urban issues. For this reason, I was instantly interested in Sangatte. I had never been to Calais. What brought me there was the announcement in 1998 that the Sangatte refugee camp was going to open. The city was full of refugees from Kosovo. In fact, the residents of Calais still call migrants 'Kosovars.' The expression stuck.

Before Sangatte, it looked a lot like the current situation. It was the height of the crisis in Kosovo — 60 percent of foreign nationals in the street were from Kosovo, the others were Afghans and Iraqi Kurds. They were living in the city's public parks, for lack of a better option, in plastic shacks or in huts made from bits of wood.

Various organizations would bring them soup and blankets. The interior minister at the time was under the same pressure that exists today. He thought to himself, 'We have to hide them,' take them out of the city center.

What did the camp look like?
It was a warehouse that had been used for storage during the construction of the Channel tunnel. It belonged to the Calais chamber of commerce and was requisitioned. The warehouse was as big as a football field, it could have accommodated 15,000 people. But the area that was repurposed by the Red Cross could only house 200 people. Within three years, 2,000 migrants were living in Sangatte.


'It was an inhumane place… In the winter, you couldn't heat it, in the summer, it was like a furnace.'

What were the living conditions like?
It was an inhumane place. Imagine, if you will, a steel warehouse. In the winter, you couldn't heat it, in the summer, it was like a furnace. The migrants had no intimacy, they were housed in trailers that could fit up to eight mattresses. It was an emergency housing center in a building that had been built for machines. Imagine the noise, the echo in that space. And you had to stand in line for everything; for the infirmary, for meals… In the long run, it really takes its toll. People went crazy, they got anxious, they were drained by the constant proximity to others. And there was fighting among the people smugglers who lived inside Sangatte, over the migrant market.

Britain's Border War. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

What were you able to do, as an activist, inside Sangatte?
I sometimes helped with asylum claims. GISTI would support local organizations who didn't always know much about asylum.

We wrote and published a pamphlet in several languages, explaining the procedure for claiming asylum. We even obtained financing from the European parliament. But we were told we weren't allowed to distribute it. The French authorities did not want migrants applying for asylum; they wanted them to go to England.

Did all the migrants want to go to England?
Not necessarily. Sociologist Smain Laacher showed that most foreign nationals headed to Europe without knowing what country they wanted to end up in. All European countries are hostile to these people. So they always move forward, they always push on toward the West. Calais is the first geographic obstacle they come up against. In a way, Calais is a trap.

What did you think of Sangatte closing down?
At first, we thought it was a good thing. In exchange for their insistence that the camp be closed, the English had said, 'We will give a residency permit to all those who want to come to England.' France did the same for those who wanted to stay in France. For the migrants who were in Sangatte when it closed down, it was good news. Sarkozy said that once Sangatte closed its doors, there would be no more migrants. But today, the situation hasn't changed, and the conditions mirror those that precipitated the opening of the camp.

What do you think of Bernard Cazeneuve's project to open a new drop-in center?
I acknowledge the fact that he is taking into account what this serious humanitarian wound [the current situation in Calais] and that instead of leaving it exposed to the air, he is putting a band-aid on it. That way at least, flies can't land on it. But it would be good to go to the source of the wound: to let people travel around freely. Most of the migrants are people who should be granted asylum, because their countries have been torn apart. The proof is that the nationalities vary with each crisis. There isn't a single Kosovar in Calais today. And until three years ago, there were no Syrians.

The migrants are going to figure out that approximately 400 of them can be housed in this center, and the others will build slums around it. It is doomed from the onset. In a few months, there will be so many people that Bernard Cazeneuve himself will close down this humanitarian hub.

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho