CALAIS, France – In the so-called Calais “Jungle,” Europe’s biggest shantytown located close to the French port, police vans stand at all main entrances of the makeshift settlements. Militarized French security personnel control access to the camp. Although international authorities and U.N. organizations do not officially recognize the camp, the French police control all movement, only allowing in cars whose drivers are authorized to be there.
When I visited Calais, the atmosphere surrounding the camp was pervasively stifling. When viewed from the motorway leading to the camp, razor wire fences and thousands of tents stretched as far as my eyes could see. In front of the main parking area, police officers equipped themselves with guns and tear gas, ready for any “disturbances.”
“It feels like an open prison,” a friend accompanying me remarked.
The demeanor of the police officers creates an intimidating atmosphere – quite the opposite of nurturing a sense of security amid the asylum seekers, many of whom escaped conflict. Almost all have experienced different levels of abuse and manipulation along the route to Calais.
A closer look at the premises reveals shockingly inhumane and unsanitary living conditions – numerous dead rats on the muddy roads, waste accumulating on the ground, running raw sewage and horrendous, overflowing chemical toilets.
It is the perfect recipe for disease and general malaise.
The Jungle is a predominantly male environment. Young men dominate the lanes, schools and shops in the camp. They come mainly from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Pakistan. Some greet “Bonjour” with a smile on their faces, while others have vacant expressions. Many of them are physically injured and severely fatigued.
Speaking about refugees entering Europe, Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, says that “in escaping their war-torn homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream.” But the dream of a secure life in Scandinavia, Germany or in the U.K., and all the demands attached to such a dream, are “utopian,” Zizek claims. Eventually, refugees and migrants realize the hard truth about Europe. “There is no Norway, even in Norway,” he adds.
Similarly, the men I met at Calais were motivated by the dreams of decent lives, away from violence, conflict and destitution. But they soon discovered that their dreams of finding such safety in Europe did not correspond with their daily experiences in Calais, which is indeed on European soil.
The dream of Europe has led these people to a bitter disillusion. When refugees land on European soil, they must face the hardships of ruthless politics that render them unwanted and disposable.
Yet, despite adversities and the shattering of illusions upon entering Calais, as many as 400 people risk their lives daily to reach the U.K. (who have just begun construction of two mile-long, 13ft high walls on either side of the main road that runs to Calais port). With regular attempts to smuggle aboard (and sometimes underneath) lorries or onto ferries, refugees and migrants are exposed to death. Over the last year, several died in failed efforts to climb on to the backs of lorries, while police have shot others with rubber bullets. Official records of such deaths are scarce.
Squalid living conditions, unsafe environments, ruthless treatment and the tightening of borders have not stopped the movement of people from the Middle East and Africa into Europe – quite the opposite. In August, the total population reached 9,100, with an average of 70 newcomers arriving in Calais camp every single day. It is the highest population in the camps in recent years.
But the continued entry of people comes as no surprise, as most are aware of the legacy of abandonment and ruthless politics in the camps, which are much older than the newer waves of refugees.
Since 1999, refugees and migrants have occupied land and built informal encampments in the surroundings of the Port of Calais. The number of people living in such informal settlements has fluctuated over the course of the last 17 years, from a couple of hundred to several thousand. Their presence was invisible and their predicament largely silent to the international community. It was only due to the wider escalation of the refugee influx throughout 2015, with the Mediterranean crossing reaching a new apex, that the camp and its residents attracted international attention.
As the Calais port is the main passage between the U.K. and northwestern Europe, refugees and migrants, who aim to reach the U.K. by crossing the English Channel, naturally gather in this area.
The titles of “refugees” and “migrants” carry a stigma in Calais. Locals regularly associate them with crime, trouble and problems that must be pushed away from the city’s domain and eventually from the settlements that lie in its outskirts. Countless evictions have taken place in the past.
The last eviction occurred in March 2016, when French demolition teams destroyed hundreds of shelters and community structures in the southern part of the camp. With the help of volunteers and organizations, refugees and migrants relocated their shacks to the northern part. As a result, density in the northern half has increased, and along with it, tensions, conflict and disease.
Further contributing to uncertainty in the camps, Calais’ mayor, Natacha Bouchart, recently announced plans to dismantle the entire camp.
But history has proven that forced eviction is a perverse political strategy that ultimately reproduces the cycle of forced displacement. In repeatedly uprooting already forcibly displaced populations, authorities not only legitimize violence against people fleeing war zones and famine, but also retraumatize them.
Forced eviction is not the only form in which force and violence have been deployed on migrants in Calais. By the end of July, riot squads destroyed the communal heart of the camp when they confiscated food, water and documents from refugees and shuttered community restaurants. The French authorities even seized food from the free restaurant for children. This has led to more hungry, dejected people, adding pressure on already overburdened organizations that serve meals to them.
The community restaurants offered much more than traditional meals and hot drinks. They were safe havens for disfranchised people. These restaurants created an inviting environment, where the residents could socialize, share food and converse. In such spaces, a sense of community, normality, connection and support were present. In the face of hopelessness and conflict, social spaces enable a feeling of belonging, while sustaining at least the minimal levels of humanity and sanity for thousands who are subjected to dehumanization on a daily basis.
Besides promoting the message that refugees and migrants are unwelcome and unwanted, such strategies destabilize social cohesion and community structures. These political actions are clearly meant to tell people: “You don’t belong here.”
By weakening social ties and cutting people off from structures that allow them to feel human, the logic of disposability triumphs.
It is obvious that we must not abandon people fleeing war-torn countries and retraumatize them by deploying more force and violence. But what we must certainly abandon is the presupposition that the refugee crisis exists on a different plane, disconnected from us, and therefore, not the responsibility of the larger community, particularly European leaders.
Such a stunted view assumes that if local or national governments expel refugees somewhere else – into another city or even country – they will not exist anymore and “the problem” will disappear.
The refugee crisis exists in a dynamic, interconnected and thereby constantly interacting context. In a globalized world, there is no such thing as expelling “the problem” to somewhere else.
Dismantling the camps in Calais will not make them disappear. They will simply re-emerge, perhaps in a different space, but with the same needs.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.