'My children': Some Calais locals won't quit helping out migrants

·4-min read

Clusters of mobile phones connected to a maze of charging cables emerging from multi sockets in Brigitte Lipp's garage are evidence that migrants are welcome here.

Allowing a top-up of phone or GPS tracker batteries is a lifesaver for migrants biding their time in the French coastal city of Calais, desperate for opportunities to make it across the Channel to Britain.

Lipp also throws in knitting needles, soup, toothbrushes and even brand new shirts for those who need them.

Affectionately called "Mamie" ("Granny"), she has become an institution for the community of exiles here.

For three decades, migrants from some of the world's poorest countries have flocked to Calais in the hope of crossing the Channel to Britain, often deemed more attractive than France.

The notorious "Jungle" camp in Calais --- once home to about 10,000 people -- was demolished in 2016 but hundreds of migrants remain as they seek to stow away on trucks bound for England.

While other residents of the beleaguered city have secured their properties against migrants, Lipp has always kept her home open.

"They are my children," the former restaurant owner born in Calais 65 year ago told AFP, her eyes twinkling behind butterfly-shaped spectacles.

- 'The only way' -

She says her religious faith gives her no choice but to welcome the migrants. "It's the only way," she said.

The retiree would not say how much her charity is costing her, admitting only that there's no money left over for restaurants or travel.

But what Lipp still has plenty of is determination.

Nothing, she said, could make her throw in the towel. Not what she calls "harassment" by police, not the bad behaviour of some migrants and not the thefts or the fatigue.

Even a memorable incident in January last year -- when she had to bring out a hunting rifle to restore calm outside her home -- failed to make her want to give up.

But according to a new study, Lipp is in a minority.

While the inhabitants of Calais feel empathy towards migrants crowding their city, they are also worn down by its role as a launchpad for desperate efforts to reach Britain, the study published by Amnesty International on Friday found.

"We note a tiredness with regards to a situation that the Calais people consider to be getting worse," the study said.

- 'Turns into anger' -

"This fatigue also turns into anger at being helpless before an unsolvable and never-ending problem," Audrey Boursicot, who headed the study for Amnesty, told reporters.

Of the 608 people questioned in 2021, 71 percent said they were "dissatisfied" with the handling of the situation.

"People are afraid," Lipp acknowledged, pointing to a 2.50-metre (eight-foot) high wall her neighbour built around her garden because "she didn't want to see the migrants anymore."

Social worker Kathleen Desitter doesn't blame Calais residents for being nervous, admitting that she herself became afraid when witnessing the infamous "jungle" of Calais take on unprecedented proportions in 2014.

"People in Calais don't know who these exiles are and why they're here. It's a mystery to them," said the 29-year-old, who helps minors in camps for the Refugee Youth Service.

- 'A basic need' -

Calais, once a quaint centre for the French lace industry, is now "ugly", surrounded by "walls, barbed wires and fences" and its forests devastated, Desitter said.

Yolaine Bernard, who makes daily morning rounds in her van distributing croissants and tea has a simple philosophy: "We respond to a basic need."

But her services have now been banned from the city centre by the authorities.

That ban also affected the efforts of 71-year old Philippe Demeestere, a Jesuit monk, who last winter opened a makeshift shelter for migrants sleeping rough.

But his own house remains "a place to which many people have a key."

Two of the six bedrooms are furnished with four single beds each for the use of migrants, who can also simply drop in for a shower or a meal.

"We've allowed unspeakable conditions to spread, under the pretext that they are migrants," Demeestere said.

For young people in Calais who can hardly remember the time before the migration crisis, this chapter is now an indelible part of their city's history.

Louise Druelle, a 29-year old artist who uses drawings to explain local history in schools, said "there is this great taboo, a denial of reality" when it comes to dealing with the past two decades in Calais.

"We would like to move past that and own this part of our city's history," she said.

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