Sorry, France, but razing the Calais ‘Jungle’ is not humanitarian
It’s now three days since the Calais “Jungle” turned into a war zone. The police arrived around dawn on Monday, between 200 and 300 of them, followed by bulldozers and workmen with sledgehammers and axes. After doing their best to seal off the refugee camp to keep observers outside, they began to move from shelter to shelter, ordering the inhabitants to leave within the hour or face arrest.
According to charity workers who, like me, managed to sneak past the police, anyone who refused was marched away by up to a dozen officers. The minute the homes were empty, they started demolishing them. In some cases the residents took to the roofs with placards in an attempted protest, and refused to come down. Within hours at least one home was on fire, set alight by unknown hands. Stones were being thrown. The police were firing tear gas and water cannons.
This is not the first time that refugees have faced eviction in the Calais area. Since 2002, “jungle” after “jungle” has grown up and been cleared. But this latest settlement might have been expected to last. In March 2015 the French authorities created it to house the refugees they had kicked out of a string of smaller camps in the region. At that time, the refugees were promised that if they moved to this piece of land they would not be evicted. Less than a year later, that promise is being broken.
The French authorities are determined to close the Jungle as fast as they can, whatever the human cost. A fresh wave of refugees is expected to reach Calais in April or May. This is the last chance to get rid of a huge political embarrassment before it gets even bigger. Once the wrecking crews have finished in the southern half of the camp, they will move north, leaving thousands of refugees homeless yet again.
It’s shameful and tragic, and having seen how brutally the evictions have been handled, I don’t have much hope for the future. The only thing that might help is the attempt to get an urgent ruling from the European court of human rights.
The refugees in the Jungle are not monsters or spongers. They didn’t leave their homes because they wanted a better lifestyle; they left because they had no choice and because something truly terrible happened to them. They’re fleeing war or persecution. Many are traumatised. In my work with Care4Calais, I’ve talked to people who have been jailed for their political beliefs, or seen family members killed by extremists and militias. One man told me he had seen his own brother beheaded by Islamic State and feared he had become so desensitised to horror that he was no longer human. They come thousands of miles to get here, and end up in a tiny shelter where they’ve got nothing, and then someone destroys that home in front of their eyes.
If you’re wondering why they’re not claiming asylum in France, it’s not so hard to understand. France has one of the lowest asylum acceptance rates in Europe, and terrible conditions for applicants. And their experience of France will so far have been pretty grim.
Over a third of the Jungle’s residents have family in the UK; others served the British army in Afghanistan and were forced out of their homes because of that. Many have English as their second language. And a really saddening number of them actually believe in Britain. They believe that Britain is the home of democracy, that Britain is where people are treated fairly, and that if they get to Britain and work hard and behave well they will put their suffering behind them. If people in Britain understood more, I dearly hope they’d be more compassionate.
The tension and the despair in the camp are horrible. When you talk to young people, they say to you, “I’ve done nothing wrong; why does everybody hate me?” because whenever they leave the Jungle they get beaten up. “I’m a good boy,” they say, “I work hard, I’m good at school. Why will nobody help us?”
Monday’s stone-throwing involved a small group of Afghan boys who have been brought up to be used to violence and have serious behavioural issues. That was terrible, and the police shouldn’t have to put up with it, but I would have expected more restraint from them. I saw them turn water cannons on people who weren’t doing anything wrong, and the amount of tear gas that was fired was just crazy. Load, point, aim, fire; load, point, aim, fire; load, point, aim, fire … it was almost like a training exercise.
On Monday one of my fellow volunteers was hit by a tear gas canister, and I saw another being taken away on a stretcher – and that was just the charity workers. There may be a dozen or so trouble-makers among the refugees, but there are more than 5,000 other residents, many of them families with young children. Turning their communities and homes into a war zone is unforgivable and dangerous.
There was no need for the police to go in in such numbers, or to use so much force. I’d see them standing there in their rows and rows, with full body armour, helmets and visors, shields and batons, and I’d think, “This is crazy. I walk among these people every day; I’m not scared of them.” Standing in the middle of the crowd earlier this week, the only thing I was afraid of was the police. Yet all the media want to talk about is “migrants rioting”.
As I write, the evictions continue, and the authorities continue to insist there’s plenty of room for the refugees elsewhere. That’s simply not true. Although the official figures are around 1,000 people in the south, the Jungle actually has (or had until very recently) around 3,500 there, plus another 2,000 in the north. According to the authorities, those who are displaced can move to dormitories that have been set up in converted shipping containers, or to accommodation centres scattered across France – but there are fewer than a hundred places left in the containers, and the accommodation centres are nearly all set to close at the end of this month.
According to the French, the camp clearance is a “humanitarian operation” designed to improve living conditions. But if that were the case, officials would be coming in, speaking to people, taking them to alternative accommodation, then coming back later to bulldoze the camp. That’s not what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is a massive panic to get people out of their homes then to destroy those homes as quickly as possible. This is not about rehousing refugees; it’s about getting rid of the camp. Meanwhile, the inhabitants settle where they can. Some have gone to the shipping containers; others have moved to the northern part of the camp, or to Dunkirk (although the camp there’s already overcrowded and has its own eviction date set for next week). Many are moving into smaller camps throughout northern France – in fields, in parks, sleeping rough.
Not that those behind the evictions seem to care. As soon as a home is empty, they demolish it and cart away the rubble. They don’t even wait to see in which direction the refugees are walking.
By Clare Moseley – Originally published by The Guardian on 3/3/16 here.