France has been in lockdown since 16 March with strict rules limiting movement outside homes but what does this mean if you haven’t actually got a home?
There are around 1200 refugees living rough in the pas-de-Calais region. They are in constant fear about their health and supplies of food and water as COVID-19 takes away much of the support they had.
Care4Calais (C4C) is a volunteer run charity delivering essential aid and support to refugees across Northern France and Belgium. It is a charity well known to many staff and students at Edge Hill who have raised funds or worked for the charity as volunteers.
These refugees live in very poor conditions, exposed to the elements with a poor diet and a lack of readily available medical care. They are now living in constant fear of the virus due to the lack of running water and soap.
An emergency appeal by Care4Calais recently resulted in a fast response from three companies, The House of Botanicals (a gin distillery in Aberdeen), International Water Solutions in Romford and L’Oréal Paris. However, there is a constant need to replenish supplies as the French authorities deny access to running water for washing.
Since the start of the lockdown, many of the NGOs who previously provided essential support to these already vulnerable people have made the difficult, but understandable decision to suspend their operations. One of these, Refugee Community Kitchen had provided hot meals to refugees in the area every single day since December 2015.
Recently, C4C surveyed 150 refugees across Calais and Dunkirk to gather data on the impacts of Covid-19. The results are interesting.
Almost half (48%) of those surveyed have been in Calais for three months or less. This is a reminder of how transitory the population is. It contrasts with ideas of a ‘permanent’ unwanted presence in the region.
Coronavirus was a primary concern for only 14 of the 150 refugees who responded. Nearly three times as many said they were most fearful for their most basic needs of food, sanitation, shelter or clothing. How can this be? Perhaps when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, a potential illness no matter how threatening, becomes secondary.
As the lockdown has continued, C4C has had to focus almost entirely on supplying food. The regular distribution of clean clothes and supplies of washing facilities more or less ceased resulting in many refugees having to survive wearing the same dirty clothes for weeks.
This has resulted in a rise of conditions associated with a lack of basic hygiene. The need for clean clothing including footwear is a major concern for the refugees while C4C’s ability to meet this need has been compromised by the difficulties in obtaining donations and the lack of volunteers needed to deliver them.
C4C’s survey also showed that most people (86%) had serious reservations about using the shelters set up by the French authorities. This was mostly because the refugees knew this would mean abandoning their dreams of reaching the UK but also because they feared heightened exposure to coronavirus in confined spaces.
The refugees are in more need than ever before.
Dr Mike Stoddart is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and a member of the Action For Refugees Network at Edge Hill University.