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We have seen demolitions of this nature before. Last week, the author returned from a spell at the ‘Jungle’ spent on tasks such as the endless disposal of used tear-gas canisters. These were left over from the last French camp clearance – which was dubbed as a ‘humanitarian operation’. Indeed, the authorities described this clearance – the full-scale demolition of the camp’s 3,450-strong South zone, in March – as a humane operation to improve living conditions for the camp’s then roughly 5,500 residents. These residents hail from across Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria. The official plan was that 1,500 of those residing in the South zone would be moved to a fenced ‘container camp’ on part of the site, and the rest to ‘reception centres’ across France.
The plan was poorly conceived and its execution always destined for failure. The clearance occurred without many South zone inhabitants being fully informed of their rights or options. Many simply moved to the North zone, exacerbating already dismal conditions there; only a small number left on state-provided coaches for centres elsewhere. A massive police presence, a heavy-handed approach to evictions, and excessive use of rubber bullets and tear gas spoke volumes about the attitudes of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) riot-police, which has long been accused of excessive use of force.
Nor was the fate of the Jungle’s hundreds of unaccompanied minors properly considered. No assessment was made of their needs and no systems put in place to assure their safety. In Calais, no official registration system exists for these children, the youngest of whom is eight years old. According to Help Refugees UK, an NGO, 129 minors disappeared after the last demolition, likely joining the ranks of the estimated 10,000 missing refugee children in Europe.
Since March, camp conditions have worsened. The latest census by Help Refugees UK, puts the population at an unprecedented 7,037 – all crammed into a much smaller space. The camp now houses 761 children, 80% of them unaccompanied. Conditions fall well short of internationally agreed standards for provision of aid and protection in refugee situations. Documented shortcomings in shelter, sanitation, water safety and security continue to go unaddressed, with likely long-term health consequences for residents.
This year’s sorry events form part of a longer pattern. Since the early 2000s, camp after camp has grown up in Calais only to be demolished with little concern for residents’ safety or wellbeing. In March 2015, the authorities established today’s ‘Jungle’ for those evicted from a range of smaller camps, promising that if they moved to the area (which is suspected of being a toxic former landfill site) they would not be moved on. That promise now looks to have been abandoned.
In mid-July, officials from the Direction Départementale de la Protection des Populations (the specialised entity within the local French département), flanked by 150 CRS, raided a range of small businesses that had grown up along a street in the North zone. Forcing the closure of shops, kitchens, cafés – including a not-for-profit kitchen feeding unaccompanied minors – has further restricted the meagre options open to residents, and increased already intense pressure on the few, majority-British, volunteer-run grassroots initiatives working against the odds to provide basic services in the absence of the UN or of major NGOs apparently reluctant to engage with an ‘unofficial’ camp.
Ignoring these failures, last week Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchard announced that what remains of the camp will ‘very soon’ be destroyed. Such a demolition would mark the final stage of the apparent plan to clear the Jungle completely. No reassurances were offered that the disastrous consequences of the South zone clearance would not be repeated. To the contrary, they seem destined to be replayed – this time on an even greater scale.
Addressing Symptoms, Not Causes
The authorities appear to hope that destroying the camp will simply eliminate the problem. Yet recent weeks have seen an average 47 new arrivals a day – including growing numbers of women and children.
Destroying the Jungle will do nothing to stop them arriving. Instead, politicians and policy-makers seem to live in a world of make-believe, convinced that withdrawing services or rescue facilities – whether in Calais or the Mediterranean – will stop suffering people making perilous journeys. This not only defies common sense, but also directly contradicts all evidence. Any amount of policing, detention or visa restrictions will not work when the forces driving the flight to safety are so strong.
Instead, as long as the deeper, systemic factors driving today’s migration crisis go unaddressed – and the EU’s asylum and immigration system remains broken – there will always be a camp in Calais. The planned closure wilfully ignores this fact, and the individuals stranded there will pay the price.
Their reasons for being there are numerous; France has one of Europe’s lowest asylum acceptance rates, and poor conditions for applicants. Many view the UK as the ‘home of democracy’ – a place where rights and protections extend to all. Over a third of Jungle residents have family in the UK; many speak English as their second language. Hundreds of children in Calais have a legal right to reach the UK, under family-reunion laws or the so-called Lord Dubs amendment, named after the Labour peer who was himself a child refugee and who forced the British government to pledge a higher rate of acceptances for children. Last week, a damning Lords committee report accused the British government of shirking its responsibilities to these children. This week, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee decried an ‘unacceptable lack of preparation and planning that must be addressed immediately by the French and UK governments’ and asserted that unaccompanied children in Calais with family across the Channel ‘should already have arrived’ in the UK.
In Calais, however, ‘tough cop’ measures continue to rule the day, and a duty to alleviate human suffering is repeatedly trumped by investment in ramped-up security. The French and British governments have embraced ever-stronger measures: the port and surrounding areas are now protected by metres-high, high-security fences topped with razor wire and CCTV, with gates and exterior guarded by heavily armed CRS.
As for humanitarian relief, in the ‘Managing Migratory Flows in Calais: Joint Ministerial Declaration on UK/French Co-operation’ issued last year, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and then-Home Secretary Theresa May noted that Europe ‘will always provide protection for those genuinely fleeing conflict or persecution’; that ‘both governments retain a strong focus on protecting the most vulnerable’; and that both ‘are particularly concerned that women and children should be protected properly’. Yet it is hard to see any trace of these sentiments in the forced evictions, the regular dosings of tear gas, the closure of charitable endeavours, or the neglect of minors in Calais’ recent – and likely forthcoming – demolitions.
In stark contrast, as the Jungle falls between the cracks of official neglect and ignorance, residents offer a show of humanity. On a large white sheet pointed up at a fenced-off and guarded motorway, camp inhabitants responded to the recent attack in Nice. ‘We the people of Calais Jungle say from our hearts … that we stand with the families of the victims and support you. Terrorists are our enemies too. We are one family French and refugees. We are so sorry about your loss in Nice. We feel your grief. ... Any time the French want our support we want to offer it. #lovefromrefugees’.
France and the UK must step up to ensure the safety of these individuals, particularly the hundreds of unaccompanied children for whom the Jungle provides a provisional home. If the closure goes ahead, the result will be the same: Politicians will order another show of force, the CRS will deploy their teargas, the bulldozers will go in, and once the storm has abated, people will return to erect makeshift shelters, either there or on another plot nearby. France and the UK have a moral duty to prevent such an outcome. They must learn from the past and do much, much better.