by Robyn Banks
On Monday, French authorities moved in to begin a mass eviction of the Calais refugee camp known as the Jungle, resulting in ‘clashes’ between the police and activists alongside refugees. Unfortunately, that seems to be about as much as anyone really knows. As my house is currently full with donations for the camp, I was pretty invested in finding out exactly what was going on. Which charities should I contact now? What do they need? Where will all the refugees go and how many of them will remain?
As I scrolled through page after page of pictures of tents on fire and riot police, every headline seemed to be ‘Clashes between police and…’ and even those that were helpful were contradictory. It seems that misinformation is rife, whether deliberate or due to the incompetency of authorities on the ground, and even long term and well informed activists in the camp have been confused.
Why are the French authorities demolishing the camp?
It’s certainly not because it’s a ‘crime ridden and squalid shanty town’. When I was in Calais the conditions were certainly inhumane, but the spirit of the refugees and the kindness of everyone who had volunteered and donated created a sense of community that Europe can only dream of, and coloured paint sprawled messages of hope across the muddy landscape. The only people the volunteers feared were the balaclava-wearing police, who certainly weren’t interested in policing crime against migrants. Many reported that the refugees there were afraid to venture in to the town, and reports of violent right wing militia were common. Volunteers were warned to travel in pairs in the town and not to wear bibs from respective charities outside of camps and volunteer spaces. The French authorities have been threatening the camp with closure for some time, which seems to be part of a plan to reduce the number of migrants there to 2000, whatever the humanitarian cost.
Why has the eviction not been humanitarian?
The French government promised that the eviction would be humanitarian, but what has happened in reality is that people have been forcibly dragged from their homes and threatened with arrest. People were given one hour’s notice to leave their homes, forcing them to leave behind their belongings. French officials said that they would enter the camp and inform refugees of their options, leading some volunteers such as Liz Clegg, who runs the Jungle school, to believe they would be allowed up to a week to pack and prepare. One family were seen being told their options as their home was dismantled. A humanitarian eviction usually doesn’t involve riot police, water cannons and tear gas. Refugees were left confused as their homes and belongings were destroyed in front of them due to poor communication, and even when things were communicated it seems to have been primarily to the press rather than to volunteers or those directly affected. A humanitarian eviction usually involves giving people other adequate shelter.
What’s wrong with the new accommodation?
The subject of how many people live in the camp has been the subject of debate, with volunteers of different nationalities all quoting different numbers from their own mass media — ranging from 3,000 to 8,000. While the authorities insist the number is as low as 800, the south-east part of the camp which is being cleared has been estimated by charities to house 3,500 people and 400 children, 300 of which are unaccompanied. As of Wednesday there were only 140 spaces left in the new accommodation. Other refugees are being encouraged to take government provided buses to refugee centres across France, but reports from the camp say there has been as little as one bus a day.
The new accommodation is also somewhat intimidating- refugees have to gain access via handprint and it’s rumoured that the facilities are somewhat lacking. Volunteers are not allowed to enter, although some report that because there are vulnerable children in the camp volunteers can only enter with a DBS check and charity pass. From a child protection point of view, this is completely fair — to many refugees however, it makes the new accommodation feel more like a prison than a home.
In the shipping containers accommodation, each small metal box houses 12 people in six bunk beds, with only enough room to sit up or lay down. Although we’ve all been assured that refugees will be allowed to leave and return as they wish, it certainly represents a segregation from the community they’ve formed. However, the biggest thing for many is that they don’t want to claim asylum in France — they’re gathered at Calais because they want to reach the UK — and handing over their handprints and climbing on to a bus or in to a shipping container on the promise of authorities known for tricking refugees in to signing their own deportation documents in a language they don’t understand, probably doesn’t feel like the safest thing to do.
So why have refugees been burning their own homes?
They probably haven’t been. Pictures of the camp ablaze have been rife in the media, but who is burning the tents has been a topic of much debate. The most reasonable explanation on Monday was that the heat of the teargas canisters easily set tents ablaze, and fires are known to spread rapidly in the camp. On Tuesday, no teargas was used, but by that time everybody had already been told the fires were set deliberately as a form of protest, and it’s likely that both refugees and activists turned to this to protest against their eviction. Some volunteers in the camp report that they don’t know of any refugees or activists who have deliberately started fires, and are still at a loss as to who is responsible. Others say that police actively prevented volunteers from putting out fires.
What about those awful ‘No Borders’ anarchists who are encouraging the refugees to riot? Were the police not right to expect trouble?
No Borders has been easy to scapegoat because it’s not a group of people, it’s an idea. People might think they’re defending refugees when they say they didn’t initiate any clashes themselves, but to blame everything on western volunteers denies the agency of refugees to act according to their own interests. To deny that they are capable of rioting is to either deny they are fully autonomous, or to deny that there is anything for them to protest against, and it’s the latter which seems to be most emphasised. As evidenced by the Iranian men who have sewn their lips shut, residents of the camp are quite capable of protesting their conditions without a white saviour to guide them. To acknowledge that people might defend themselves is to acknowledge that they are being attacked, plain and simple.
Continually talking about violence from No Borders activists diverts attention from the violence carried out daily by the French police and the border regime. Saying that No Borders ignites violence is to obscure the fact that borders don’t just ignite violence, they claim lives. Of course many volunteers are angry — in the past few years the attention focused on the Calais camp has encouraged a flood of charity and allowed people who care to help make the jungle a bearable place to live.
Across the UK and France, ordinary people have been weighing up whether they really will ever use the tent in the attic again, church groups have held bake sales and knitted hats, and families have parted with well-loved children’s toys and books confident that they will be put to better use. It is this kindness that the authorities are bulldozing, and it’s a massive middle finger to all of the time and money and effort well-meaning people have poured in to it to then use taxpayers’ money for this kind of mindless destruction.
To complain however that No Borders activists could be inciting violence because they “don’t have the refugees best interests at heart” assumes that the people who most want to protest against the conditions these people are living are people who don’t live there, and that what is in the refugees best interests is to stay quiet and do as they’re told.
But if volunteers have a right to feel angry, refugees certainly do. It’s not their spare tents which is being demolished, it’s their only home in the world and all of their worldly possessions, and this after months of misinformation, confusion and lies. An eviction was planned to go ahead in December, and then was held off after it was pointed out that the state would be required to provide adequate accommodation for minors. An eviction was due to go ahead in late February, and the express reports that on the 20th February refugees were given a far from friendly warning threatening imminent bulldozers, but again the government u-turned.
The French courts promised nothing less than a humanitarian eviction, where people would be given their options, given time to consider them and moved in to more comfortable accommodation to be properly processed and aided. On Monday, as police moved in with tear gas and water cannons, a spokesman for the Calais prefecture denied to the press that a mass eviction was underway, saying “There is a reinforced police presence today to allow those officials to enter and talk to people. But this is a gradual process which will take place over several days and weeks. There will be no bulldozers”. On Tuesday, bulldozers rolled in.
Where will the refugees go now?
Nobody is quite sure, as there isn’t adequate shelter for them elsewhere. Many have simply moved to the northern part of the camp, others have scattered. It’s expected that those who want to go to Britain will eventually return to the major ports. On Facebook groups, worried people are asking where all of the unaccompanied children have gone, many from as far out as the USA — a reminder that the world is watching. Volunteers assure them that the unaccompanied children are in good hands but that they are not advertising their location for the children’s own protection, a far from reassuring response given the authorities human rights and competency track record.
Meanwhile, over at Grand-Synthe where 2,500 sleep rough in muddy and flood prone fields, the charity Medicines Sans Frontiers, or Doctors without Borders, are using money donated by people who care to build a new refugee camp. 500 winterised and fire retardant tents will house 5 people each, there will be hot water showers, people will be able to come and go without registering a handprint and MSF will provide constant medical care. The council at Grand-Synthe says it turned to MSF after the French government refused to provide financial help to aid people in ever worsening conditions there. It will be a camp which really has the best interests of the refugees at heart, unlike those provided by the authorities, and it won’t cost the taxpayer a thing.
That is, unless we bulldoze it.
Featured image © Carl Court / Getty