Humanitarian crisis in Calais refugee camp needs urgent political attention

The European refugee crisis, including the attempts of people to reach Britain from Calais, has dominated the news for several months, with the main focus being on security concerns and border controls.

However, there is another humanitarian crisis unfolding in Calais, where around 3,000 people are living in conditions detrimental to their health, and which fail to meet the standards recommended by global authorities.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, supported by Doctors of the World (Médicins du Monde) and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), have investigated the living conditions in the Calais camp.

We found that the conditions in the camp have significant shortcomings, including in the provision of shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security.

The findings include:

  • Migrant residents of the camp routinely report hunger, as they are only provided with one meal a day. Food kept by migrants cannot be prepared or stored safely in the camp. Pathogenic bacteria are present at infective doses in food, and this is likely to be causing the vomiting and diarrhoea suffered by camp residents.
  • Several inappropriate water storage containers – some previously used for corrosive chemical storage and which cannot be effectively cleaned – have levels of bacteria above permitted EU safety standards.
  • The number of usable toilets (no more than 40) is extremely low for a population of up to 3,000, and far below any minimum standards for refugee camps. There is estimated to be one toilet per 75 residents in the camp. The UNHCR recommend a minimum of one per 20 people. Resultant use of outdoor spaces for toileting presents further health hazards. The few available toilets are not equipped with hand-washing facilities.
  • The lack of ability to wash and dry bedding and clothes is preventing the effective treatment of scabies, bedbugs and lice.
  • Physical injuries within the camp as a result of attempted border crossings, dangerous living conditions, and alleged physical abuse are common. There are consistent reports by migrants and medical practitioners that injured migrants are receiving insufficient treatment at French medical facilities.
  • Many migrants and refugees are suffering with mental health issues; insufficient provision exists for psychological trauma and other mental health conditions to be assessed and treated adequately.
  • Living spaces have condensation and are cold at night and prone to overheating during sunlight hours. Many informal living quarters examined are fragile and leak rainwater, soaking bedding and clothes.
  • Tents and structures used for sleeping are frequently overcrowded, which facilitates the spread of communicable diseases, pests such as lice, and parasites. Scabies is reported by migrants and is considered a significant problem by medical professionals working in the camp.
  • Extremely high levels of particulates associated with open fires used for heating and cooking were found in the air within the camp and are a risk factor for respiratory infections, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
  • There are reports of migrants being physically assaulted by police officers in Calais and also by other groups along the camp periphery at night.

There is an urgent need for co-ordinated action to address the conditions in the camp, including providing adequate shelter, toilet, cooking and washing facilities.

This is all the more pressing as winter approaches and residents face months of misery and ill-health ahead.

The solution to the humanitarian crisis in Calais cannot come from grass-roots charities and international NGOs alone, but needs a genuine political commitment from French, British and European authorities.

Dr Surindar Dhesi, Lecturer in Occupational Health, Safety and Environment, University of Birmingham

Dr Arshad Isakjee, Teaching Associate, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham

Dr Thom Davies, Research Fellow, Sociology Department, University of Warwick