(AFP) – Pubs in the French port of Calais might be packed with Brits on a Friday night, but the traditional tourists and truckers have all but disappeared, replaced by activists wanting to help refugees.
“Business is good tonight, but this is not a long-term solution for this town,” said a waiter picking his way through a full house of muddy-booted volunteers, aid workers and journalists in the Friendly Pub on Calais’ main drag.
“We need tourists, and they’ve all gone.”
Calais is just a 90-minute hop across the Channel from Dover in southern England, and used to be a popular stop for British holidaymakers stocking up on cheap cheese and wine, and spending a day or two on its picturesque, windswept coastline.
But since the migrant crisis went into overdrive last year, thousands of refugees have found themselves trapped in a grim shantytown on the edge of Calais as they desperately try to sneak across the short stretch of sea.
The media obsession has all but destroyed the town’s image, say locals, with the tourist trade drying up and transport companies looking for alternative routes.
“There are a lot fewer British and Belgians,” said Sophia Dans, who runs the Nuit d’Ailleurs hotel in central Calais.
“People phone to ask: ‘Is it safe to walk around? Will my car be stolen?'”
The reality is that the thousands of migrants and refugees in Calais are rarely seen in the town, and apart from a couple of protests over police aggression, there has been hardly any increase in crime.
“We don’t have any problems — no thefts or anything,” Dans said. “But having police everywhere gives a terrible image for tourists. It’s a shame — there’s huge potential in this area and it’s going to waste.”
– ‘Absolutely no support’ –
The tourists have instead been replaced by a steady stream of British volunteers, who have come to help out in the grim migrant camp on the edge of town, nicknamed the “Jungle”.
“We were sat around in the pub at home, talking about this huge influx of people desperate to reach our country but receiving absolutely no support from our government, so we decided to come and see what we can do,” said Conrad Fielding, who runs his own catering company in southwest England.
With a group of friends, he has made three trips to help build shelters and deliver food supplies in the Jungle.
It is a relationship that works both ways, since Fielding has picked up a few recipes from some of the makeshift cafes and restaurants that have sprung up in the camp.
“I got a few cooking ideas from the Afghan guys here last time that have been very popular back home,” he said.
Running a clinic in the camp, 23-year-old Emma Weinstein-Sheffield, from Somerset in southern England, said the presence of so many volunteers was starting to raise much-needed awareness of conditions in the camp.
“It’s a horrible situation here — it doesn’t feel like Europe, it feels like a slum in a country far away from Europe,” she said.
“But luckily we are getting people who want to help. We have doctors, clinicians, lots of people coming over for the weekend and a few who stay long-term. I spoke to my dad the other day, and he’s decided to come help too.”
– ‘Too many activists’ –
But back in Calais, fear and anger have fuelled xenophobia among some locals, with many frustrated at the presence of the activists.
“There are too many (activists) — they keep the problem going,” said Bruno, a 53-year-old stood at the counter of a local cafe, who gave only his first name.
He said lorry drivers and tourist buses were afraid to travel through the town, and complained that migrants did not have to pay taxes on their cafes and restaurants in the Jungle.
“People have had enough. I’m not saying we should kill them, but we have to be a bit severe,” Bruno said.
For the Brits in the Jungle, the answer is not violence — they say the government in London must allow migrants to apply for asylum from Calais, thus making it unnecessary for migrants to camp out in the Jungle and try to cross the Channel illegally.
“Every time we come there are improvements thanks to all the support from volunteers,” said Fielding. “But the sad reality is we could still be coming out here every month, three years from now.”