Migrants in Calais celebrate Christmas despite desperate conditions

25 December 2020, 09:37

Roughly 100 Eritrean migrants are currently in Calais on Christmas Day
Roughly 100 Eritrean migrants are currently in Calais on Christmas Day. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Around 100 Eritrean people residing in Calais migrant camps are celebrating a quiet Christmas Day despite living in desperate and difficult conditions.

Thousands of people have been living in makeshift camps in northern France throughout 2020, with many hoping to cross the English Channel for a better life in the UK.

One of those includes a 19-year-old refugee named Aaron who left war-torn Eritrea where he faced high levels of violence and repression.

"Christmas is a very important celebration for me," Aaron said.

"In Calais, the celebrations will not be the same. We will not be able to share food or celebrate with fireworks as we usually do.

"I hope to share a meal with my friends here but it will not be the same without being able to give gifts and I may not be able to speak to my family which will be hard."

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He is among roughly 100 Eritreans living in the port-city who are celebrating the festive holiday in a different and more quiet way than usual.

Their home country is a majority Christmas nation that has suffered brutal repression in recent years, with many escaping due to political persecution and the threat of indefinite military service.

Looking back on Christmas in previous years, Aaron said: "Back home in Eritrea, we would join together with my family to celebrate.

"We stay up until midnight and have drinks with our family, we usually let off fireworks to mark Christmas Day.

"We share gifts with each other and sit down for traditional Eritrean food, including my favourite injeera."

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Volunteers have been helping out in Calais to provide food and aid to refugees on Christmas Day
Volunteers have been helping out in Calais to provide food and aid to refugees on Christmas Day. Picture: PA

Thousands of migrants have been living in and around Calais during the coronavirus pandemic, often with insufficient healthcare access or food supplies, which has meant social distancing is not always possible, leaving people at high risk of contracting Covid-19.

In 2020, record numbers of people risked the dangerous trip across the English Channel in unfit vessels, including kayaks, inflatable dinghies and small boats, with some tragically dying while doing so.

More than 8,350 people crossed to Britain aboard small boats this year, despite continued pledges from the Home Office to make the route "unviable".

Meanwhile, a team of 25 volunteers have swapped Christmas at home for Christmas in Calais to help the migrants living in the city.

They will be delivering vital aid to refugees on Christmas Day and are giving out chocolate bars, playing cards, pens and notepads as gifts to those refugees who mark the Christian holiday.

Imogen Hardman, operations co-ordinator for Care4Calais, is spending her first-ever Christmas in Calais.

She said: "For me, Christmas has always been about celebrating with your family and community, and I've grown so close to the refugees and volunteers in Calais, they will be a wonderful community to spend Christmas with.

"Even though lots of the refugees in Calais don't celebrate Christmas, it's still so important they get food, warmth and kindness at Christmas time, as at any other time of the year."

Clare Moseley, the charity's founder, said: "2020 has been an awful year for refugees all over the world. They have the least resources to fall back on when a pandemic hits.

"They are so vulnerable, but our political leaders still refuse to treat them with basic human dignity.

"So every donation, every trip to France to volunteer, every aid delivery to refugees in UK hotels, makes an extraordinary difference to people who have nothing."