Coronavirus as a pretext for detention? On the latest disconcerting developments in Calais

By Luke Buckler 

The recently reelected mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart has proposed the state repurpose a disused military base near Calais as a place to confine the displaced people in the region.

This plan might be presented as a helpful measure to support people who otherwise don’t have shelter, or a way for them to confine themselves because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, Bouchart’s indication that the detention centre will involve “health care for migrants in Calais and Grande-Synthe” is only a small part of the proposal – and, one might fear, simply a ruse to implement a long desired plan to lock up migrants.


Underlying Motives

Bouchart’s concern is arguably not the wellbeing of people especially vulnerable during a pandemic. It’s “public order and sanitation” – specifically, her concern is to remedy the disruption she sees resulting from the presence of migrants around Calais: “an increase in intrusions and roadblocks on the port ring road as well as on the sites of the port of Calais and the Channel Tunnel, an upsurge in inter-ethnic brawls, … accumulation of waste …, an increase in disturbances of public order disturbing the tranquillity of local residents”. And, of course, this is nothing new to Bouchart and Calais, the citizens of which are allegedly “already severely affected by the trauma of the migration crisis experienced between 2014 and 2017”.

Bouchart has, she says, informed the state “on numerous occasions” about the situation in Calais, expecting “concrete responses” – responses, presumably, like her proposal to forcibly detain migrants. The wellbeing of migrants is an add-on (she wants to “quickly arrange to accommodate in good conditions of confinement – but also of humanitarian support – the migrant population”): a reluctant add on, the cynic might justifiably suppose, considering Bouchart’s history of banning food distributions to homeless people around Calais (she did so in 2017 and 2019). Additionally, the add-on of “humanitarian support” can be a useful tool, coopting humanitarianism as a cover for ulterior motives. Say you’re doing it for the wellbeing of the people who will be disadvantaged by your actions and those watching will let it slip, perhaps even give approval.


Crises as pretexts for harmful change

Humans have a history of using crises to force harmful political and legal change. Politicians across the world are using public health concerns about the coronavirus pandemic to pass draconian laws and as an excuse to take an even harder stance towards migrants. It appears the pandemic is a lever Bouchart has also been waiting for to finally force the state to detain the migrants in her area. “Since the adoption of the ‘Emergency bill to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic’, Title 2 of which states that a state of health emergency may be declared, the State has the legal means to implement my proposal. I therefore call for a rapid response by the State”.

Photo: Human Rights Observers

If the wellbeing of migrants was a real concern, locking them up in a disused military base near Calais wouldn’t be a consideration. Locking people up under any regime would most likely be ineffective at keeping the detainees safe from the pandemic. Covid-19 is spreading through prisons. Countries across Europe are releasing people from immigration detention – Iran has released prisoners (the UK might, too) – because of the risk to inmates of contracting and dying from covid-19 whilst locked up. France itself is releasing people from immigration detention, so opening a detention facility near Calais would be a backwards step. Presumably Bouchart and politicians joining in her call are aware that the French state has released people from immigration detention, and the reasons for doing so, and yet they still implore the state to detain migrants in northern France. Either they believe they can do better, or they don’t really care about migrant wellbeing. It’s the forced detention of migrants that they’re after.


Awaiting the state response

So far, the state hasn’t responded to Bouchart’s proposal. It may yet. Or it may do nothing. Ignoring the question of the general morality and efficacy of leaving people homeless and of locking people up, both options are terrible in the face of a pandemic. Denying people liberty in detention centres would expose them to a great risk of contracting covid-19, as does leaving people without shelter: you cannot confine yourself to your home if you don’t have a home; you cannot wash your hands if you don’t have soap and running water. Locking people up is not a solution to either the so-called “migration problem” (as Bouchart calls it) or the coronavirus pandemic. Local aid associations are advocating for non-authoritarian and local solutions. And there are more humane ways to support homeless people through the pandemic. Some people have been housed in hotels, for example. France has done this for a number of migrants who were living rough in Paris. Longterm solutions are in reach, too.

When there is a crisis, we need to keep an extra-watchful eye on policies authorities seek to pass, for all our sakes, and not be fooled when draconian measures are coated in humanitarian language.


The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.

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