On February 29, 2016 at around eight in the morning, the French government undertook a “progressive evacuation” to clear out the southern zone of a refugee camp known as “the jungle” in the northernmost city of Calais. French officials had stated that the evacuation was to be a peaceful one. However, in addition to the two bulldozers and twenty workers in orange vests, the government hired various security vans and two anti-riot trucks for protection. At first the operation proceeded smoothly. Then, in the early afternoon, members of the radical group No Borders and some refugees began to hurl projectiles against the security forces. Riot police were forced to respond with tear gas and firemen were called when some of the shacks, makeshift homes in which 96 percent of refugees in the camp live in, caught on fire. By the end of the day it was reported that the homes of about 200 people had been destroyed.
The dismantling of the camp resumed on Tuesday with much less resistance. According to Fabienne Buccio, the head of the Calais prefecture, the size of the camp would be reduced in half over a period of weeks, displacing 800 to 1,000. This is another unfortunate episode in the refugee crisis that is developing throughout Europe as families from Syria, Eritrea, Libya, and Afghanistan flee instability in hopes of a better life. By destroying the refugee camp in Calais, the French government will achieve absolutely nothing because these actions do not solve nor provide any long term resolutions to the problems that fuel the migrant crisis. The French and British response to the situation in Calais will merely resemble the past mistakes of 2002 with the Sangatte camp in the same city.
Calais: A Troubled History
Calais’s proximity to the United Kingdom has made it a hotspot for refugees who seek to cross the Channel tunnel either on foot or by stowing themselves away on trucks or the Eurotunnel trains. Migrants commonly break through fences and other security measures installed by the French and British authorities to hinder their movement. In July of 2015, as many as 2,000 migrants a night attempted to break into the Eurotunnel terminal. Although the numbers have slowly dwindled throughout the months, the flow of migrants has remained steady. This has forced national and local authorities on both sides of the Channel to amplify security measures to prevent further breaches despite migrant efforts to continue breaking through.
The migrant crisis first gathered attention in 1986, when an estimated figure of two hundred thousand refugees from various nationalities travelled to the city of Calais with plans of finding work or asylum in France or the United Kingdom. In 1999, French interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, with help from the French Red Cross, opened the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais so as to provide a space for the refugees who until then had been sleeping in the gardens and streets of the city. Sangatte had the capacity to maintain about 600 people, but from 1999 to the camp’s closure to new asylum seekers in November of 2002 it held around 1,800 refugees. Conditions in the Sangatte camp were abysmal and were marked by overcrowded facilities and cramped living spaces.
Sangatte’s half mile proximity to the Channel tunnel inevitably encouraged refugees to find illegal entry into Britain. Eurotunnel authorities claimed to have detained about 18,500 refugees in the first half of 2001 alone. By late 2002, British home secretary David Blunkett and French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, reached the conclusion that the best way to solve the immigration problem was to close down the Sangatte camp definitively. The United Kingdom agreed to take in those with refugee status and to provide grants to help refugees return to their war-torn countries. In December of 2002, the Sangatte refugee camp closed and refugees were left to their own devices. Many went to Paris to seek asylum there. The same exact actions are being taken today with “the jungle” refugee camp; migrants are displaced only to be sent to another location. Both French and British authorities stubbornly refuse to address fundamental issues that could ameliorate the migrants’ plight. History seeks to repeats itself in Calais if short-term and simple measures are followed.
Legal Battles, Temporary Solutions
Judgment day came to refugees living in “the jungle” on the 25th of February. In a courtroom in the city of Lille, the tribunal administration rejected the plea of humanitarian associations to maintain the camp. With the exception of lieux de vie—places deemed necessary, such as schools, theaters and libraries—French authorities had permission to clear the camp. Groups such as the National Federation for Associations of Shelter and Social Re-Insertion and Doctors of the World argued that the decision to raze the camp had been done without proposing any immediate or long-term solutions.
These groups are partly right – only three viable solutions have been put forth so far, yet none address the refugee’s long term plight of finding a home and work. These temporary solutions range from housing refugees in converted shipping containers, which have limited spots, to putting them in marquee-type tents, to relocating them to southern cities such as Bordeaux and Montpellier. These solutions simply serve to maneuver and render the refugees invisible to the rest of society. Very little has been achieved to help the refugees establish a secure location. Regardless of what options are offered to the refugees, many will return to Calais with undeterred hopes of gaining entry into Britain.
Prior to the camp’s dismantling, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had stated that the evacuation would help provide a “humanitarian response” for migrants and that the use of force for eviction would not occur. However, as “the jungle” is razed, migrants are detained, and few options are given to those who have been displaced, the refugee crisis will remain a permanent reality in Calais.
Image Source: Wikipedia/Michal Bělka