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Refugees in France balk at pressure to move off streets

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to move homeless migrants off the streets of Calais by the end of the year. But his plan has been met with resistance. DW's Doris Pundy reports from the northern port city.

Two delivery trucks carrying lentil soup and bread drive into the empty space between warehouses, rubble dumps and the highway. Around 150 people are already waiting for lunch. They have spent the night outdoors on the dunes of Calais, a port city in northern France. One of the rough sleepers is Yaqub Wassam Degadem, a Sudanese man who has been living in Calais for the past three weeks.

"It is particularly hard when it rains at night," says Wassam Degadem. Clothes are hanging for drying from two high voltage pylons. Some of the migrants wash their face and hands in a fountain. "With God's help, I'll make it to England before winter," says the 21-year-old. The shelters that the French government has opened in recent months are not an option for him. "If I go to one of the centers, I might miss my chance to make it to England," he explains.

Wassam Degadem

Wassam Degadem doesn't want to stay in France

"The situation for the migrants here is really disgusting," says Sylvain Marty, who has been doing volunteer work in Calais for over two years now. "Everyone sleeps outdoors. Tents are gone within two days. The police confiscate them, along with the sleeping bags." Marty says politicians are trying to do all they can to prevent migrants from coming here. Nonetheless, about 700 of them, some of whom are minors, still want to stay.

"To put it mildly, the government has gone to great lengths to persuade people to go to the new camp and apply for asylum in France," says Marty. Many of these people, however, have relatives in the UK and can already speak English. "The announcement made by Emmanuel Macron that all migrants will be accommodated in state institutions by the end of the year frightens me," says Marty. He fears that authorities could take even tougher action against migrants.

Watch video 02:14

Migrants camp out in heart of Europe

For some, France is the last chance

One of the two new refugee shelters is located in the former monastery of Belval. What were once nuns' bedrooms have been furnished with metal bunk beds. Two migrants usually share a room. The dream of Britain dies here, at the monastery, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Calais.

"Most of the people here come from Calais. Just last night, two new people joined us," says Claude Picarda, who runs the new Belval refugee shelter that can accommodate 100 people. About 60 migrants currently live there. "It takes time for people to decide to stay in France and apply for asylum here," says Picarda. The migrants stay in Belval until they find out whether they have been granted asylum. Then, they are a distributed to refugee shelters all over France. In the meantime, they have a roof over their heads and access to medical care, says Picarda.

Belval monastery

The monastery in Belval has become a shelter for refugees

"France is my last chance. If it doesn't work out here, then I don't know what will happen to me," says Michael Mihirka. The 28-year-old Eritrean man applied for asylum in Denmark and was rejected. He slept on the streets of Paris for his first two months in France, and then he went to Calais. "The conditions there were so bad that I came here after a week," says Mihirka. Volunteers in Calais told him about Belval. Now he is waiting for the French authorities to decide on his asylum application. "I really hope that this will work. I am praying for it. Then I can finally start living again."

For some people here in Belval, France is not a new beginning, but instead, the end of the road. "I give up; I am going home," says a young man from Afghanistan. He is drinking tea with two other men in the dining hall. Last night, the police brought him here from Calais. He says he doesn't own anything except for his clothes. Hoping to make it to Britain, he spent six months and two weeks in Calais. "He is also flying back to Afghanistan," he says, pointing to another man in the group. "He already has his plane ticket."

Michael Mihirka in his room in Belval monastery

Michael Mihirka hopes he'll be able to start his life again soon

Preparing for winter

Aid workers in Calais are preparing for winter. In the warehouse of the organization "L' Auberge des Migrants," volunteers sort donated winter clothes, blankets and sleeping bags. France needs a welcoming refugee policy, says Marty. But politicians seem to just deny that the situation exists.

Fabien Sudry, prefect for the Pas-de-Calais region, plays down the issue. He finds that the government shelters are a good solution, as migrants could live there in humane conditions, adding that in case there is not enough space, plans for new refugee shelters have already been drafted.

Blankets and duvets in a warehouse

Aid organizations are getting ready for winter

Setting up a refugee center in the city of Calais, however, is out of the question. "History has shown us that as soon as there is a refugee center in Calais, hundreds or even thousands of people will come here immediately," claims Sudry. That is why the new shelters are located further away from the coast. An emergency plan is being drawn up for those who cannot be persuaded to seek asylum in France and prefer to sleep outside in the winter, Sudry says. But he did not want to offer further details.

"It is not true that more people would come if there were decent shelters in Calais," says Sylvain Marty. "The conditions are terrible, yet hundreds of people are still here. And they won't just disappear again." Marty reckons he will stay here for a while. "We expect to spend this winter here – and probably the summer and winter after that."

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