MSF returns to Calais to provide medical and psychological assistance at the French-British border

Calais, 15 May 2023 – On the French-British border, hundreds of people are trying to reach the UK every day, risking their lives for lack of prospects in France or to join relatives in the UK. In Calais, they face a lack of support from authorities, isolation from local communities, and language barriers between them and providers of health services, further weakening people who have frequently suffered violence and psychological trauma on their journeys. Faced with a lack of provision of healthcare for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by the French government, international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has launched activities in Calais to provide people with medical and mental healthcare.

Between 400 and 600 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are currently living in Calais. This is a low figure compared to previous years, due both to an increase in crossings and to the ‘zero-fixation points’ policy, which dispersed people across the northern coast of France.

n April 2023, Médecins Sans Frontières re-opened a project in Calais to offer medical and psychological care to migrants in transit at the French-British border. ©Mohammad Ghannam
Systematic evacuations by the police, sometimes enforced using violence, the confiscation of personal belongings, marginalisation, obstacles imposed by the authorities and targeting of volunteer organisations have all led to an increasingly precarious situation for people on the move and have contributed to the deterioration of their health status.
Pauline Joyau
MSF project coordinator in Calais
Every day, migrants at the French-British border are confronted with repressive policies implemented by France and the United Kingdom (walls, barbed wire, barriers, surveillance cameras, daily expulsions, police harassment). The only aim is to dissuade them from staying in Calais area and going to the UK. After a long migratory journey, punctuated by violence and traumatic events, migrants arrive in Calais weakened and vulnerable. They need medical assistance and psychological care. ©Mohammad Ghannam

To help meet the health needs of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers dispersed across informal settlements and to help them overcome obstacles to accessing healthcare, the MSF team visits the areas where they live, including settlements, day centres and shelters. Team members raise awareness of mental health issues, identify the most vulnerable cases through psychosocial activities and refer them to free medical centres (Permanence d’accès aux soins) or to hospital, in a cooperative approach with public health providers.

In the first round of consultations, the most frequent medical conditions were respiratory problems linked to exposure to the cold and a lack of treatment of infections, and pain from injuries received falling from lorries while attempting to cross the English Channel. The MSF team also provided care to people who had suffered physical violence on their journey and people who had gone through traumatic experiences, such as surviving shipwrecks in the Channel.

The association's activities aim to improve access to healthcare for migrants through outreach activities. A team composed of a nurse, a psychologist, a social worker and two cultural mediators visit the different living areas (camps, Secours Catholique day centre, the Maison d'Entraide et de Ressources) in order to raise awareness of mental health issues among migrants, promote referral to mainstream services (PASS, hospitals) and accompany the most vulnerable cases. ©Mohammad Ghannam

The reduction of safe and legal routes to the UK only increases the number of tragedies on this border. According to the Observatoire des migrants morts à Calais, more than 350 people lost their lives in France, Belgium, the UK or at sea while trying to reach England between 1999 and 2023. Thousands more live with physical and psychological injuries as a result of French and the British governments’ policies.

The MSF team works with volunteer organisations that have been operating in the area for a long time.

It is thanks to them and to the generosity of supportive citizens that migrants are able to meet their basic needs. However, the obstruction of the work of volunteer organisations has increased and, despite complaints and legal appeals, the practices of the police and local authorities have not changed.
Pauline Joyau
MSF project coordinator in Calais

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