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A place of hope and despair
Pierre Kremer

Before the opening of the Red Cross centre in 1999, migrants used to sleep in the streets.

Postcript:On 15 April, a 25-year-old Kurdish man, Ali Sharif, died in a violent incident at Sangatte, in which two other young Kurds were injured. Another immigrant was shot to death on 5 June in a melee near the port of Calais.

A vast warehouse in open countryside, the Sangatte centre in northern France is home to hundreds of migrants for whom the Red Cross is the only link with humanity. Red Cross, Red Crescent offers a glimpse into the lives of these exiles and the people who care for them.

Working at Sangatte is not easy. The team of 74 people who work by turns in this transit centre run by the French Red Cross can vouch for that. It's not easy because, since the centre opened in September 1999, the population has swelled from 200 residents to the 1,500 it hosts today. "At the beginning, we could give them social support, but not any more, there are too many people," says Martine, head of the welcome service.

Hardly a week goes by without some controversy surrounding these "homeless" people, most of whom have one sole ambition: to reach the United Kingdom, on which they have pinned all their hopes of a new life. Many voices have been clamouring for the closure of Sangatte. Loudest of these is Eurotunnel, the Franco-British company that operates the Channel Tunnel, which has twice initiated legal proceedings, but have been rejected both times by the administrative court at Lille. The presence of the centre has also elicited the wrath of local residents, who regularly claim that the constant comings and goings of foreigners has led to a permanent insecurity in this region. In fact, no rise in the crime rate has been registered since the centre opened.

Strict routine

Despite the mostly false accusations of criminal acts attributed to the immigrants and despite the precarious nature of the place, the French Red Cross is pursuing its humanitarian mission on behalf of the constant flow of people who arrive every day at the centre, often after having travelled thousands of miles.

In a little under two years, some 5,000 people (representing 110 different nationalities, mainly Iraqi Kurds and Afghans) have passed through Sangatte, 80 per cent of whom are single young men. On their arrival, the welcome service provides them with two blankets (precious commodities), assigns them a tent, or a heated cabin in the case of a family, and explains the rules of communal life: strict hours for showering in the morning and evening, no alcohol, discipline at mealtimes, and so on.

On entering the centre, you have the impression of being in a huge railway station converted into a camp site, with its "village square" (which consists of a few benches and a television-cum-video), showers, canteen and prayer space. In addition, there is a heated nursery, set up for the 80 or so children in the centre. From morning to late evening, the mothers like to congregate here, care for their offspring, teach some basics to these children deprived of schooling, and forget for a while the ever-present difficulties that have become their daily lot.

A few steps away is the medical service. Here, without respite, the two nurses (assisted by a physiotherapist and eight volunteer doctors) try to respond to all the health needs, while caring for the handful of babies born at Sangatte and accommodated with their parents in a makeshift nursery. Skin problems, throat infections, bronchitis, muscular pains (caused by the cold) - the two nurses are in daily demand. "It's exhausting! We grumble sometimes, but we carry on anyway," interjects one of them.

Migrants try to enter the Channel Tunnel near Sangatte.

Driven by desperation

Food is a major fixation. From noon onwards, a queue builds up in front of the canteen, the route marked out by wire netting. The first arrivals are there an hour ahead. For the stragglers, the waiting time is around two hours. Despite these constraints, things rarely get out of hand. In the kitchen, Nadine has her team constantly on the go: collecting dishes, heating them up, serving them, returning the plates. Each day, from morning till night, 3,000 meals are distributed.

"Here, we are faced with an indescribable mass of despair, visible and invisible," explains Martine. She calls to mind several recent scenes: recognizing the charred bodies on the electrified lines, transporting the wounded to hospital, the tears of fathers at the end of their tether. "We only just managed to save a Kurd who tried to hang himself near the kitchen," she recalls.

Serge is one of four mediators, all expert linguists (including English, Farsi, Persian and Arabic) recruited by the centre's director, Michel Derr. His role is to go and meet the "residents" in their cabins or tents, establish a rapport, collect requests, sometimes listen to their problems, give advice and inform them of their rights and the procedures pertaining to their presence in the centre. "You have to predict, anticipate, feel the tensions in order to better defuse them, while remaining true to our Red Cross principles," he says. Caught up in this daily whirlwind, he takes his role very seriously, with all its ups and downs. He still has visions of the young refugees whose feet were recently amputated after an unfortunate fall. "The sight of those two 20-year-old boys, with no feet, who are smiling at you - it destroys you!" he says.

Forever temporary

Sangatte is a thorn in the side of the inconsistent European policies with respect to asylum seekers. Having failed to find a common political solution to the influx of individuals and families who squat in the gardens and public places of Calais, the French authorities resorted to a humanitarian response. They entrusted the running of this "assembly point" to the French Red Cross. A real "centre for refugees" was thus born.

In two years, the situation has improved little. The harmonization of their immigration policies does not seem to be high on the list of political priorities of the 15 countries of the European Union.

In the meantime there is Sangatte, a place without precedent, temporary yet fixed, with no real perspective on the future. Sangatte, where the hordes of sensation-seeking media have failed to convey a far more complex reality, that of south-north migration, founded on human distress.

Around 19:00, the warehouse comes to life. The hubbub intensifies and the atmosphere becomes electric. This is the signal for a new spate of departures - destination the United Kingdom. The itineraries are well known: the freight area, where the lorries congregate, the ferry terminal, or the yawning mouths of the Channel Tunnel three kilometres away. Despite the dangers involved - a dozen asylum seekers have died in the attempt, crushed, electrocuted or drowned - several groups are getting ready to try their luck once again to end their ceaseless wanderings.

A woman is sobbing in the half-light. She can't take it any more. Her husband snatches the four-year-old from her arms to force her to follow. It is 22:00 before the family vanishes into the night. For the others, there is a little smile, a wink before leaving. Most of them will be back the following morning, their bodies exhausted, their eyes lowered to disguise the hope that has once again turned to despair.


Pierre Kremer
Pierre Kremer is editor-in-chief of Croix-Rouge, the magazine of the French Red Cross.

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