This week France started the long-awaited shutdown of the notorious Jungle refugee camp outside the city of Calais. Billed as a humanitarian measure, the eviction of nearly 7,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the camp is becoming just as controversial as the camp itself as questions remain about what will happen to those who once called the Jungle home.
As the main seaport connecting France and the UK, Calais has long attracted migrants who wished to make a new life across the Channel. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 increased the number of migrants who tried to use Calais as a jumping off point, hoping to stow aboard one of the hundreds of a freight trucks that pass through the Channel Tunnel every day. But as Europe continued to tighten its borders, the situation for those trying to make it to the UK became even more precarious.
As the ability of people to cross to the UK slowed, the number of migrants in and around Calais rose. Following a particular surge in numbers, the French Red Cross opened Sangatte, a formal reception center near Calais in 1999. Quickly filled beyond capacity and politically contentious in France, the government shut down the reception center in 2002. Through a burden sharing agreement with the UK, the migrants houses at Sangatte at the time were placed in alternative accommodations throughout France and the UK, but no plans were made for how to deal with new arrivals to Calais.
A treaty signed with the UK in 2003 placed an even higher burden on French officials as it moved British border controls for the Channel Tunnel to Calais, making it even harder for migrants to cross to the UK. Thus, shortly after the Sangatte reception center closed the original Jungle camp was born in the surrounding forest as a series of piecemeal squatter villages that new migrants called home. Not an official refugee camp under international law and therefore not entitled to international assistance, the Jungle has existed in a legal gray area that many activists have likened to purgatory here on Earth.
Since that time, very little has changed. Although the location of “the Jungle” has changed over the years, conditions have always remained deplorable for those calling it home. And with little in the way of formal services or immigration options, the migrants of Calais have resorted to desperate measures to try and reach the UK while tensions have repeatedly flared between the migrants and local police. The Calais Migrant Solidarity project has documented dozens of migrant deaths in the tunnel and around the port, but given the isolated nature and high security around the Channel Tunnel, the actual number of those killed over the years is unknown.
Given all this, it is understandable that the French government would want the camp gone. But it would appear it is set to make the same mistakes it did in 2002 when it closed the Sangatte reception center.
As before, the existing migrants at the Jungle are being disbursed to alternative reception centers throughout France while the UK processes many of the unaccompanied children living in the camp who claim to have family in the country. Many of the migrants living in the Jungle likely qualify for refugee or asylum seeker status, and have been told they will have the opportunity to apply to legally stay in France once they are resettled. But there is also a serious lack of information provided to the migrants about where they are going at what will happen next. As a result, many migrants left the camp before the evictions started, therefore still remaining outside the system, while others are refusing to leave at all.
Neither the British or French government seem to have a plan for handling the long term aftermath.
This is not the first time the camp has been cleared, but each time it has popped back up again as old migrants return and new arrivals come. Without a comprehensive plan and migration policy, there is little reason to think the same thing will not happen again.
The growing anti-immigrant backlash throughout the EU also complicates the ability of officials to address the plight of these migrants. Several of the towns where the Jungle’s inhabitants are being relocated to have been openly hostile to the idea. Last month in the Paris suburb of Forges-les-Bains where 91 migrants are to be resettled, a proposed reception center was flooded by unknown assailants, then set on fire days later in a suspected arson attack, and saw 61 per cent of the town vote categorically against allowing any migrants to resettle there.
With French President Francois Hollande facing an open primary due to his low approval ratings ahead of next year’s presidential election and the UK still dealing with the fallout from its vote to leave the EU, there is little appetite to launch the reforms that are needed to address the issues in Calais. Immigration, and the acceptance of refugees in particular, are major political issues in both countries with politicians on both sides of the Channel clamoring to appear tough on migrants in the face of anti-immigration sentiments and the rise of far-right parties.
The dismantling of the Jungle is expected to be completed this week. Yet history suggests that this will not be the end of the Jungle of Calais, but rather just a new chapter in its sordid history.