Calais? Small town on the French coast around a ferry terminal leading to the UK.
“Jungle”? What residents call the unofficial refugee camp there, made of tents and improvised huts, its own infrastructure with church, mosques, little shops, restaurants, volunteer-run schools and donation warehouses for food and clothing, and mud and rats. As of October 2016, it “housed” almost 10 000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
Why? Long story. The UK shut its borders because it can. People seek asylum because they have to (alright here is a more graphic argument). There is no legal way to get into the UK any more – not even for those who legally should be able to.
What do people do there? Survive. Mostly. Some die trying to reach the UK. Some go missing with traffickers, get abused or sexually exploited. Others have set up a business, started learning English and French, sometimes avoided the French riot police’s eager use of teargas.
Why is everyone talking about it now (October 2016)? Because the French and British government are “evacuating”/”evicting”/”demolishing” the entire camp. President Hollande termed it a “humanitarian” effort and promised to bring all residents safely to asylum seeker accommodation centres around France.
Where are they supposed to go? A massive registration process is under way, to send residents off to official asylum accommodation centres across France. Reports from refugees in my network report good conditions of these new shelters, where they will be formally processed as asylum seekers, thus accepted or deported. French authorities have dismissed plans to put every refugee resisting eviction into detention due to a lack of detention centre capacity, but that will mean the remaining refugees will be left to their own devices without shelter.
What is the situation currently like in the jungle?
Monday 24.10.: Mainly confused. But, to my great relief, more peaceful than previous demolitions of the camp (yes, this has happened every few months, people have just rebuilt it every time). That might also be due to an enormous amount of journalists covering the events – hopefully they stay. Almost 3000 residents bussed off.
Tuesday 25.10.: Still confused. Some queues for registration were no longer as peaceful. French authorities began dismantling huts. That night, many huts burned down, including an information point and safe spaces for women and children. The fires are blamed on either migrants or European activists protesting the evictions, no one really knows.
Wednesday 26.10.: Fires continue, obliging the last aid organisations to pull out. The last buses leave for asylum accommodation centres and the regional Prefect declares the evacuation completed. However, there are still a large number of people in the camp as half of the huts are still standing. Several hundred minors are waiting in the containers, and about 100 children sleeping outside of them.
What about the kids? Prior to the demolitions, a campaign was run to allow access to the UK for the 387 children identified by the Home Office as having relatives there, thus a right to enter. About 100 of them arrived in the UK last week, some under 13-year olds left this week. The arrival of the first group of children caused huge uproar from the usual suspects in the media and population, as they were seen as too old. Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced on Monday that several hundred more would be received, but local councils are reluctant to take them in and the transfers are paused for the duration of the demolition. French authorities started registering and temporarily accommodating minors in containers in the camp, but stopped on Tuesday and turned several hundred away on Wednesday. The unaccompanied minors are thus left alone for now, which obviously makes them vulnerable to smuggling activities and abuse.
So yes, great, people in the camp are – in large numbers – on their way to real houses, away from the mud and the rats. Let’s hope the remaining days of “evacuation” remain at low levels of violence. Let’s hope there is indeed a place in accommodation centres for everyone who needs one. Let’s hope the rights of both minors and adults are respected in this process. Let’s hope no one gets deported who faces grave risks at home. Let’s hope no one gets left alone in the streets of France without shelter or support.
That’s a lot of hopes already. But this whole action misses the big elephant in the room.
The “jungle” will vanish within days. But the people won’t. Neither the ones who are boarding buses now nor the ones that will come in their footsteps over the coming days, or the ones that, according to rumours which are the only real source of information in the jungle, have left before the evictions to come back and rebuild the camp afterwards. They are not going to Calais because they fancy a stay in tents at the cold coast, but because they need to reach a place of safety. The jungle wasn’t exactly safe and pretty, but it didn’t get bombed and it allowed them to keep control over their own future.
Calais is a symptom of a gigantic problem which European governments have failed to tackle or find solutions for over many months and years.
The problem is a legal system that makes countries on Southern/Eastern borders of Europe responsible for larger numbers of asylum seekers than they can register, accommodate and treat according to international legal standards, that is adhered to only where it suits the respective governments, that has too many loopholes resulting in human rights abuses.
The problem is a complete lack of legal routes into Europe, making thousands of people pay their entire family’s wealth to smugglers, to face tremendous risks on their illegal land and sea routes, to die in large numbers, to suffer abuse by smugglers and border guards, when they could just come on a relatively cheap plane ticket if governments were willing to recognise their need for protection through humanitarian visas.
The problem is a complete lack of political will and direction – if governments and civil society organisations had spent as much of their time and efforts looking for constructive solutions to this crisis as they did on blaming one another, arguing about teeth checks and building random walls, we would not be looking at this massive mess of dead ends for asylum seekers now.
We need to overcome this massive gap between the pro and anti immigration camps, acknowledge that we may both have good reasons and intentions for doing what we do and bad ones, acknowledge that the current system is not working for anyone, be they asylum seeker, EU citizen or government, and work together to find a better way.
Because yes, in the end, no one of us ever wanted Calais to exist. No refugee would have wanted to stay there if there was a chance of them reaching their destination. No volunteer would go spend their time in warehouses or the dusty camp (not to mention the portable toilets) if it wasn’t necessary.
I volunteered in Calais twice, and watched with horror today as so many of the places I knew as the brighter spots of the camp burned down and our school, a place of safety, laughter, and hope, was left deserted. While I just hope everyone over there will be safe, I can’t get rid of the thought that we’ll be back to a similar situation in Calais much sooner than the authorities expect.