Migrants: “In Calais, the burn-out of volunteers is a reality”



It was an evening last October. Kenza, 20, a volunteer in a food distribution association in Calais, was responsible for transporting six minor migrants to the police station, a mandatory protocol so that they could then benefit from shelter during the night. When he arrived, the police told him that only two beds were finally available at the home. It is therefore up to the young woman to decide to designate the four teenagers who will sleep in the cold of the Calais moor.

→ DEBATE. Migrants in Calais: is a “fixing point” being recreated?

” It was horrible, she remembers. I was bound to make a mistake. I’m 20, how do I know which kid needs a bed the most tonight? And how do I get them back to the jungle afterwards, without a blanket, without a tent? “ Quickly, the young woman takes an eye on the age, the family situation of young migrants. Then slice. “At the moment, you are in a hurry, you do it. And then these things leave a lasting mark on you. The burn-out of volunteers is a reality here. Many come out broken. “

“It’s an extreme world, with mud, barbed wire, suffering”

Kenza, face framed in blond curls, could tell a dozen similar stories, like hundreds of other volunteers who have passed through Calais over the past twenty years. She belongs to one of these small associations of young people from all over France, which coexist alongside more established structures with their local and older volunteers. We meet her in “the warehouse”, a huge hangar in the southwest of the city, which brings together a dozen associations not mandated by the State, working with migrants. In this chaotic beehive, young French people and British people move around between mountains of boxes of food, clothes … Aged in their twenties, they become politicized over the months, and sometimes go so far as to exhaust themselves. in the service of permanent emergency.

In Calais everything goes quickly, and can quickly degenerate. “It’s an extreme world, with mud, barbed wire, suffering. I no longer know if the real world is here or if it is elsewhere ”, souffle Pierre, 32 years old, volunteer in Calais for more than three years. Police dismantle migrant camps every 48 hours, their access to basic needs is never guaranteed, and at any time those attempting to reach England in small boats or lorries may lose their lives or become stranded. seriously injure. It is often the associations that they call first so that they warn the emergency services.

For the first time, five months after his arrival, Kenza requested an interview with a psychologist, in connection with his association. Few allow themselves to do so – 90% of appointments made take place at the end of missions, to ensure the transition to “civilian life”. Just as they are a minority who listen to the advice of their supervisors who tell them to take two weeks off every two months. “In Calais, volunteers are hyper-invested and operate in a vacuum where feelings of state inaction are cultivated and feelings of being misunderstood by the outside world. It is extremely weakening ”, analysis Guillaume Lecomte, psychiatrist for the Casba collective, who supports volunteers and associations on request.

“Every time I leave Calais, it’s as if I came from the front”

There is also the guilt, the feeling of being indispensable, the bonds of friendship forged with the “exiles” … Should you give your personal number? Welcoming frozen families at home for a night? Daily, the question of the limit in the commitment is all the more acute since for more than a month, two volunteers, Ludovic and Anaïs, put their health at stake, by having started a hunger strike to obtain concessions. on the treatment of migrants during the winter. An act of ultimate activism that refers each to their capacity for action, their powerlessness and their choices. And raises questions: are the associations of Calais on the verge of rupture? ” Breakage no, wear yes, blurted out François Guennoc, vice-president of the Auberge des migrants. We are pessimistic about the government’s desire to resolve the situation, which has hardened considerably. “

→ REPORT. In Calais, remembering the exiles who died at the border

Among the associations met by The cross, from the consensual Catholic Help to the most turbulent Utopia 56, there is indeed a common analysis of the situation: that of an absence of political vision which leads to the abandonment of migrants in situations of unworthiness. All denounce the authorities’ growing hostility towards them. It has never been so difficult, according to them, to come to the aid of “exiled” people. A dead end that is eating them away little by little: “Every time I leave Calais (five days a month to rest), it’s as if I came from the front and passed to the rear”, sums up Françoise, an octogenarian nun from Secours Catholique.

A radicalism that also has its detractors

For years, they have multiplied appeals before the administrative tribunal, pleas, letters to try to change things structurally. It is in this context that this hunger strike began in Calais, which marks a new cycle of protest and questioning. To the point of tipping collectively into a form of militant radicalism? “Calais has become a resort of protest, judge a senior state official. We now have young people who are passing through to live an activist experience but who always end up leaving. Their posture is all the more radical as they do not fit into the long term on the territory. “

Currently, associations are working to no longer be dependent on the emergency. Coordination is accelerating between small and large structures, which meet every week to discuss how to obtain substantive progress. “We claim the radicalism that we are blamed, but in its purest sense, that is to say to go to the root of the problems”, launches Juliette Delaplace of Secours Catholique. The association will open a new place next January, to allow migrants who wish to stay in France to start training, learn French, and take care of their administrative situation. The name of the place, not yet revealed, will have the acronym “Town Hall”. “Because we’re going to do what the state should be doing, but not doing. “

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Always more perilous crossings

In 2021, three migrants died while trying to cross the Channel from Calais.

Thursday November 11, two castaways reported the disappearance at sea of ​​three people, bringing the number of missing since the start of the year to four. In 2020, six people were dead and three missing.

On Wednesday 3 November, the British Home Office announced a new record of daily crossings with 853 migrants who had reached the coast.

According to the maritime prefect, Philippe Dutrieux, around 15,400 migrants attempted the crossing between the 1er January and August 31, 2021, of which 3,500 were “Recovered in difficulty” and escorted to the French coasts.

→ TO LISTEN.Podcast: “In Calais, migrants taught me hope”

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