Calais has been the topic of quite some international news coverage over the past weeks. Here is an update, looking back, forwards and beyond recent events.
Calais: Looking back
The third week of this new year saw an eviction order issued by French authorities to everyone living within 100 metres of the motorway that functions as the “border” of the camp. Monday’s order contained no justification, but a deadline until Wednesday 13th to clear the area, with any shelter left behind supposed to be demolished. Calais’ inhabitants issued a formal statement and were split between those resigning and those wanting to stay put in peaceful protest. In a flurry of activity, camp residents and refugees managed to build hundreds of new shelters and relocate others from the endangered zone, which led to the deadline being extended to the following Monday and finally to a bulldozer bulldozing an already empty area.
The last weeks saw considerable levels of violence from police forces, with several nights of protests, clashes and conspicuous amounts of pepperspray and teargas.
Two court cases drew attention: First, Rob Lawrie, who was arrested trying to smuggle an Afghan girl across to England, was acquitted. Then, a British court ordered three children and an adult to be brought to England to join their relatives, as it was their right under European law.
The 23rd was an eventful day in Calais and Dunkerque: a demonstration took place in Calais, with participants from several different European countries bussed in for the occasion. Asylum seekers joined and around 2000 people marched from the camp into town, closely guarded by police. Things got out of control close to the ferry and a seizable number of people broke through the ranks of police and into the terminal, culminating in the hour-long occupation of the ferry “Spirit of Britain”.
The result: several short-term arrests of both asylum seekers and Europeans and media attention from all parts of the spectrum.
Only some 30 kilometres away, leader of Britain’s Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn came to visit the camp in Dunkerque. His first “overseas” visit since taking leadership of the party was covered by major British news agencies, so let us hope that his appeal “as fellow human beings, we have to reach out to fellow human beings” is acted upon.
Calais: Projecting forwards
There is a background to the evictions: since October, French authorities have been building a smaller camp made of metal containers, an enclosed million-euro project that is supposed to be an officially recognised camp in the middle of what today is the jungle. The warm and dry places come with strings attached, though: a system based on fingerprints will allegedly secure entrances to the fenced container camp, with anyone not logging in for two days losing his spot. This does not only mean hospital stays and arrests become problematic, it also means asylum seekers have to leave their personal details – something that most avoid at any cost as it would allow the UK to send them back to France if they made it across. The new, fenced off camp is estimated to house around 1500 people once inaugurated and should, according to the French decision-makers, be the only human dwelling tolerated in the area. As the jungle is a temporary home to around 7000 people, the planned bulldozing of the camp will undoubtedly be a humanitarian disaster when it happens.
It is estimated that several hundreds of people in Calais and Dunkerque have relatives in Britain and would thus be entitled to cross legally. This raises hopes for some and fears for others among the British population.
The abhorrent living conditions, arbitrary police behaviour and violence, combined with the frustration stemming from the closed border evidently breed anger and potentially violent backlashes among inhabitants of the camps in Calais and Dunkerque. Most of them have travelled for several months, have experienced traumatising events and abuse both at home and on their long journey. Finding themselves in a situation where they are forced to live without access to proper housing, work, education, health care, and being dependent on volunteer aid is a slap in the face for the majority, who is from a middle class background and paid several thousands of Euros for the journey to Europe.
Being stuck at a border, in a legal limbo, with no place to go back to, certainly has a devastating psychological impact on many (not that there were any psychologists around to provide scientific diagnoses), but it will surely not persuade them to “go away” – where would they go?
However, that seems to be what the British and French government have in mind. Bulldozing the camp, making living conditions as unbearable as possible and obstructing volunteers’ work with the aid blockade in Dunkirk point in that direction. Looking at Calais’ history and its current residents, it is very unlikely that this strategy will make 10’000 people disappear. What is much more likely are frequent riots and protests such as the occupation of the ferry – or worse.
Calais: What lies beyond?
Calais and Dunkerque and the people involuntarily living there have made it into the news several times this year already – though what is happening is hardly news any more. We know there are several thousands of people stuck at the border, stuck as they cannot get to the place where they want to claim asylum and start a new life. We know about the French and British approaches to the camps, which oscillate between ignoring and obstructing the “residential” areas. We know the living conditions in Calais, and even more so in Dunkerque, are inhumane, and likely to produce epidemics and frustration. We know about police violence and nightly fights, leading to more frustration.
We also know that France and Britain are among the most developed, wealthiest nations in the world, and notably those where ideas of human rights originated very early on in history. We know that if their governments wanted, there would be no human rights abuses in Calais and Dunkerque.
We know all of this, and we also know that everyone agrees on the view that the current situation in both of the camps is unacceptable. While part of the population believes the people in the camps present a severe threat to their security (and turn to damaging, burning and stealing volunteers’ cars and tools), a seizable part of the people on both sides of the channel thinks this is an inhumane situation and humanitarian emergency.
Whatever side you identify with, here are some questions we need to find answers to:
Why is all this violence not being investigated?
Why are the French authorities – and the British – refusing to take on any responsibility for the camps?
Why are people living in these horrible conditions in one of the world’s most affluent countries?
Why is the presence of people from a range of cultural backgrounds living so close to each other seen as a huge problem outside, but not inside the camp in Calais?
Why do these people risk their lives, trying to jump onto trucks or make their way through the tunnel, when theoretically, Europe has a legal asylum system?
Why do most people in Europe agree that this situation is unacceptable, but volunteering and donating is seen as an exceptionally „beautiful“ thing, not as an ethical duty for all of us?
Does it make sense to volunteer and send donations, seeing that that perpetuates the French and British strategy of ignoring the problem at (of) the border?
How could the situation be resolved and the camps dissolved in a way that protects everyone’s dignity and safety?