The Calais Jungle: The Shame of Europe
“I want to take down one of the homes,” shouted a young man at the line of CRS riot police, as they blocked the path to the southernmost end of the camp. The officers ignored him, standing alert, with no hint of reaction from their scarf-covered faces. The scene was eerie, thick black smoke from multiple burning shelters drifted across the landscape of mud and debris. Behind the police line, bulldozers and trucks worked to remove the smashed remains of structures that, until that afternoon, had been people's homes.
One group of people had loaded a wooden shack onto a trailer, its small wheels wearing flat tyres that made balancing the structure precarious. Refugees stood around the trailer, pushing at the home as it wobbled along the muddy pathway through puddles filled with old clothes, litter, and lost shoes. A small child rode a bicycle over the terrain, led by a man carrying a sack of belongings from the destruction. There were frequent bangs as new structures burst into flames. No one seemed to know who was starting the fires. The two towers of the local church, itself a temporary structure, were visible through the smoke. Its twin crucifixes provided a melancholy backdrop to the devastation.
Welcome to Europe, 2016. The events described above were part of the French state's "humanitarian" operation to dismantle the southern section of the camp, known by its residents as the Jungle, which until recently housed around 5,500 refugees. French representatives walked through the camp wearing black bomber jackets carrying the national slogan, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." Among them, rats -- some of the largest I have ever seen -- scurried away from their nests. It was bitterly cold.
“Life here is hard,” said Mohammed, a Kuwaiti Bedouin, “the Jungle is hell.”
Deep pools of polluted water punctuated the muddy landscape, people queued to use water troughs to wash. My first experience of using the portable toilets left me retching over the diarrhoea-coated seat. There was no toilet paper or soap to speak of. Outbreaks of scabies and worms were common.
Rafi, a 30-year-old man from Afghanistan, was sitting by the entrance of the camp on a mound of earth, watching teenagers play cricket. He welcomed me, as most of the residents do an outsider. “I would never have made my journey had I known this,” he said. “Even the war is better than this. In war, you live or you die—here you never die, but you never live either.”
There was certainly a desperate need for something to be done to improve the conditions of the residents, in lieu of a lasting humanitarian response. Shipping container-style shelters had been constructed nearby, but there were far too few to accommodate everyone. Other residents would be transported to locations around the country.
But the motives for this destruction seem far from humanitarian. In many cases, people were given just an hour's notice to pack their belongings, everything they owned, and move on to an uncertain future. The charity Help Refugees has estimated that until recently there were 5,497 people living in the Jungle, 3,455 of them in the southern area marked for destruction. Authorities have said that there are just 1,156 spaces of alternative accommodation across France.
The forced movement of these people was reminiscent of how one might treat vermin. Rather than creating new living quarters for residents to move into, their homes were destroyed in front of them as police watched, ready to step in should anyone attempt to enter the clearance area.
“It’s not the proper way they are doing this, dismantling the camp,” said Rafi. “They should first make sure everyone is accommodated and then they can do what they want. At the moment, it’s not proper.”
The range of nationalities represented in the Jungle was staggering. Syrians and Afghans seemed to be the most represented, but there were also communities from Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Somalia, and these are only some of those I met. A main road connects the different areas, complete with shops, restaurants, barbers, mosques, churches, and first aid points.
The camp is an hour's brisk walk from the town centre, most of which is along a long, straight road lined with industrial sites and a disused railway line. Refugees sit along the rails, trying to get a mobile phone signal, resting, or just hanging out. Police and security guards walk along the road near the ferry terminal, peering into bushes and woodland. I met two young Syrian men, perhaps in their late teens, by the side of the road before dawn on the day of my arrival.
“We just tried to go under the fence,” one of them told me. “But the police grabbed me and hit me with sticks,” he pointed to his face and shoulder. We said our goodbyes and they went back to try again. They would have to get through several high metal fences, covered with barbed wire, and avoid further police beatings if they were to get anywhere near a lorry on which they could stow away. This is the daily life of hundreds of people in their situation.
The vast majority in the camp are men and boys. There are around 450 unaccompanied children as well. The UK has legal obligations to accept child refugees if they have parents in the country, but it seems to be doing everything it can to stall the process. They must first register for asylum in France, a process that can take more than a year, before entering the next stage in the bureaucratic process that may take them across the Channel. During that time, they are left largely to fend for themselves.
Many of the children have severe psychological problems. One evening, a fire broke out near the children’s centre. The police turned a blind eye, and the two fire trucks I could see on the scene were busy elsewhere (where else in France would such limited resources be allocated to such an event, I wonder?). It was left to residents and volunteers to tackle the blaze before it spread. As I helped carry a plastic bucket of water, a boy of around 10 years ran over and began to hit it with a wooden stick with a nail sticking out of it. This is the sort of story you might see in the right wing press, of feral children, perhaps. But is it any surprise that a child who has fled war and travelled across Europe without his family might be psychologically damaged? Many of the fires are said to have been started by such youngsters (others by residents who would rather their homes be destroyed on their own terms than by the state, and others still are said to have been started by the police themselves or gangs of fascists). Demonise these children if you will, but to do so would wilfully ignore the reality of the situation.
I was in the camp during a period of relative calm. Just days beforehand, a pregnant woman attempted to prevent the destruction of her house by climbing on the roof and threatening to slit her wrists. The CRS pulled her down and beat her with batons. The illusion spread by France is that these riot police, who have often employed tear gas and water cannons on these desperate people, are there to help the refugees. They are apparently nowhere to be seen at night, however, when gangs of fascists descend on the camp to attack residents and lob firebombs. The fact that savagery is so readily employed on refugees yet racists are allowed to operate freely seems indicative of the attitude of the French state.
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité… for who? For me? Bullshit,” said Abu Omar, a man who might be considered the community leader for the camp's Syrian population. “There are no human rights here because there are no human beings.”
Without anywhere else to go, new camps are springing up around the area. What else was going to happen? Speaking to some of the young people in the camp, no one knew what they would do next. Most were unable to return to their home countries, in some cases having spent thousands of pounds on traffickers to get them to Europe in the first place. Many others cannot return because to do so would be to face being turned away at the border, or even death.
“If the Jungle closes, I think I will go to Paris, but I don’t know,” said Luke, a 21 year old Ethiopian, who left his family to come to the UK in an attempt to get an education. “I’ll sleep in the street. I don’t have anything.”
While there was widespread disgust at the actions of France in the Jungle, it is the British government who should perhaps feel the most shame. Rather than open its borders to alleviate this suffering, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged £17 million toward extra security to keep refugees where they are. Cameron has said that the UK will take in just 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years.
The scenes I witnessed in Calais chilled me. The town is perhaps best known to British people as the point at which the ferry and Eurostar arrive from Dover. It has pubs, cafes, and huge wine warehouses catering to those on “booze cruises.” And in the midst of that, this place of horror and desperation.
A piece of graffiti under the bridge at the entrance to the camp perhaps sums up the situation most succinctly: “Maybe this whole situation will just sort itself out.” As European leaders erect walls and barbed wire across the continent and set armed police on people desperately searching for a better life for themselves and their families, people are suffering and dying on our doorsteps. If only our leaders had the same desire to help the victims of war and poverty as they do to cause them. This time the bitter fruit of their actions can't be ignored as something happening half the world away – it's right here staring us in the face.