This winter has been particularly harsh in Calais, northern France, where more than 1,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are living in makeshift camps while they wait to cross the English Channel to the United Kingdom in search of a better life.
Calais has been a central point of transit for people on the move for decades, particularly for those seeking to reach the UK. Today, most are from countries where war or dictatorships have made life unfeasible, such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Iran.
"When it stops raining, we'll leave,” said Mohammad, a 17-year-old who fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He has been living alone in Calais for several months living in poor conditions as he waits for another chance to try reaching the UK, where he has family.
Mohammad is among the many young migrants, including unaccompanied minors, that Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have met while providing medical and psychological care to people on the move in Calais. Since starting operations in Calais in April 2023, our teams have seen people’s health deteriorate as a result of desperate conditions in makeshift camps and strict deterrence policies that have only made migrants’ journeys more dangerous.
"People are physically and emotionally exhausted”
In 2016, a sprawling slum hosting about 9,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers on the edge of Calais called “the Jungle” was dismantled. Since then, dozens of small temporary camps have sprung up on the outskirts of the town—along roads, within industrial zones, and inside vacant buildings.
Today, the scene in Calais is much the same: people living in flimsy two-person tents pitched around bonfires fed by scrap wood and rubbish to keep warm. Some of the tents are raised on pallets to avoid the puddles, mud, and litter that fill the surrounding area. There is no running water; no showers or toilets.
Every two weeks, the police come to carry out violent evictions, dispersing people and confiscating their tents, blankets, and personal belongings. This scene is the result of France’s “zero point de fixation" (anti-fixation) policy that has aimed to prevent people from settling in Calais since 2016.
"The police came at four in the morning,” said Ahmed*, a teenager from Sudan. “People were forced onto buses. We still don't know where they took them. I escaped." Ahmed had gotten little sleep and was distraught because he didn’t know where he'd find shelter that evening. “I don't have a tent anymore and it's very cold," he said. "I don't understand why the police are doing this."
This particular eviction took place on November 30, 2023, when the police arrived at dawn and ordered more than 600 people, including unaccompanied minors, to leave their tents. This scenario has become part of the daily lives of people in Calais.
Despite being presented by authorities as “sheltering operations,” migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers regard the evictions as forced deportations. After being forced from their tents, people are often herded onto buses and taken to reception centers far from the coast, sometimes in other regions of France. Usually, they return to Calais a few days or weeks later, hoping to attempt the crossing to the UK.
To keep people from returning to the same sites, authorities sometimes close off the area using large blocks of stone. After the evictions of November 30, they dug a trench to prevent vehicle access for civil society groups and charities, including MSF, which previously ran a weekly mobile clinic in the camp to provide people with essential health care.
Most of the health conditions MSF’s mobile clinic team sees among patients are linked to their living conditions. "People are physically and emotionally exhausted by the authorities dismantling the makeshift camps," said MSF nurse Palmyre Kühl.
The consequences of deterrence policies
In recent years, French and British authorities—with support from the EU and aerial surveillance by Frontex border guards—have made Calais bristle with barbed wire and surveillance cameras rigged with the latest technology. Yet they have not succeeded in deterring migrants. Instead, they have fostered human trafficking, making people’s journeys even more dangerous.
"On the pretext of combating human trafficking and networks of smugglers, these policies have only encouraged their development and increased risk-taking, amplifying the suffering of those who risk their lives to reach the British coast," said MSF head of mission Michaël Neuman. “People determined to seek protection, reunite with their families, or claim asylum have no choice but to board makeshift boats or hide in trucks, risking their lives to cross the English Channel because they have no safe and legal route."
On the night of January 13, five Syrians died in a tragic shipwreck in Wimereux, south of Calais, as they tried to board an inflatable dinghy. Mohammad was on the same stretch of shore that night, himself planning to board a small boat and make the crossing.
“That night, I made another attempt to cross," he said. “The water was up to my chest. The other passengers and I were trying to get the dinghy's engine started. That's when I saw the helicopters flying overhead. I knew there was a problem."
After the dinghy was unable to launch, Mohammad returned to the beach. "I saw several bodies lying on the sand with sheets on them,” he said. “Another person was lying down and someone was trying to resuscitate him. I looked at his face, his mouth was open. I can’t help thinking it could have been me."
According to the Observatoire des migrants morts à Calais, at least 369 people have died on this border in the north of France since 1999.
"In winter, with the water at eight degrees and strong winds sweeping along the coast, the risks of shipwreck, drowning, and hypothermia increase dramatically,” said MSF project coordinator Ali Besnaci. “And yet, at the French-British border, the security approach continues to dominate."
Young migrants continue to risk it all
The number of small boats embarking from Calais has boomed in recent years, largely as a result of the increasing inaccessibility of the port of Calais and the Channel Tunnel to people on the move. It has become more complicated and dangerous to stow away on trucks, although many migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who cannot afford the cost demanded by people smugglers for a boat crossing still take the risk.
"I hid under the axles of a refrigerated truck, but I realized that the truck wasn't going to the UK," said Souleyman,* a 14-year-old boy from Sudan. When the truck stopped, Souleyman found another one with a UK registration plate, tore off part of the tarpaulin, and crawled inside.
It turned out that truck was not heading to the UK, either. After arriving in Brussels, Souleyman returned to Calais. Tired and unsettled, he took a few hours of respite at MSF’s day center for unaccompanied minors in Calais. "Souleyman tells us that, for him, hiding or jumping onto moving trucks has become routine,” said MSF specialist educator Margaux Caron, who works at the center. “We try to make him aware of the danger, but he tells us that [in the moment], he’s too focused on getting to the UK.”
When Mohammad saw the bodies of the young Syrians lying on the sand at Wimereux, his immediate concern was for their families, “waiting impatiently for news that they will never receive,” he said.
Confronting the traumas of migration
Too often, the migration journey comes with traumatic experiences like facing violence, shipwrecks, accidents, and failed attempts to cross the channel, adding to the challenges of life on the move, particularly for unaccompanied minors and other young people. From April to December 2023, MSF’s team provided 310 medical consultations for unaccompanied minors, nearly one-quarter of whom reported experiencing physical violence either on their journeys to or in Calais.
On January 25, at a breakfast distributed by the Salam association—an organization that provides assistance to migrants including training and language courses and legal and psychosocial support—a group of young people share their experiences over cups of hot tea. "The police pierced our boat and threw tear gas at us to disperse us,” one person said. “One of our friends was shot in the hand with a Flash-Ball [a hand-held projectile launcher used by riot police]."
In the line at MSF’s mobile clinic, another young man reported being hit by Flash-Balls in his right arm and leg. "He couldn't explain why he had been shot," said nurse Kühl. "We tried to find him accommodation where he could regain his strength and avoid infections, which would be inevitable in the conditions in the Calais camps."
Mohammad’s journey from Afghanistan has been punctuated by violence, and he has continued to suffer physical and verbal abuse in Calais, particularly at the hands of people smugglers on his five unsuccessful attempts to cross the sea.
"You have to help inflate the boat, often for several hours, and then you have to carry it to the sea, which is a long way away, with dunes and sand to sink into,” he says. “If you don't help, you can get into trouble with the smugglers, who get angry and insult you."
The young Sudanese people seen in MSF clinics often mention having been imprisoned and tortured during their time in Libya. The young Afghans talk about violence experienced in their country of origin and at the hands of authorities at the border between Serbia and Bosnia. "How can young people, some of whom are still children, who have been through so much, find themselves alone in the mud and cold of Calais?" asked Besnaci.
Failing the duty to protect
Since MSF opened the day center for unaccompanied minors in July 2023, our multidisciplinary team, comprised of a psychologist, a nurse, a social worker, and two intercultural mediators, has helped 231 young people, mainly from Sudan and Afghanistan, who fled their countries because of war and insecurity.
Many of these young people had asked authorities for shelter and protection but were turned down. "We find that when a young person wants to be sheltered, all too often they are refused," said Besnaci. Despite MSF’s efforts to relay requests for protection and shelter to child protection services, our teams have recorded 103 refusals to provide shelter.
To compensate for the shortcomings of local authorities, MSF has made available 20 emergency accommodation places for unaccompanied minors and families until the end of March.
"The state is failing in its duty to protect,” said Besnaci. “Without shelter, young people find themselves prey to bad weather, violence, and criminal networks. This is completely unacceptable."