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One year after the Jungle: a wasteland of misery and last hopes

People still live in the Jungle camp outside Calais, one year after the French police turned it into a wasteland. Cold, wet, constantly harassed – how much longer must they wait?

The former Jungle camp outside Calais. Futuro Berg/Instagram. Used with permission, all rights reserved.

A scrap of wasteland on the edge of a forest. The grass is sparse; litter is strewn among the mud and puddles. An electricity pylon punctures the low grey cloud. Hundreds of men in hoods and hats gather around the stark metal structure, huddling for warmth. The layers of shirts, jumpers, coats, and scarves do little to keep out the cold. The wind is sharp, biting. Today they are in luck. Today there is no rain. Their damp socks and broken shoes will have a chance to dry out.

They line up, eyes heavy with fatigue, patiently waiting for a bowl of rice and beans that will silence their stomachs for a few hours. They have come from distant towns and cities, and speak many languages. They have no worldly possessions but the clothes on their backs. They will eat, then head back to the forest to sleep, often beneath the bare sky. They will have only a few brief hours before they are awoken by riot police armed with batons and tear gas and ordered to disperse.

This is not the opening scene of a dystopian novel. This is what is happening right now, every single day, in and around Calais.

This week marks exactly one year since the camp known as ‘the Jungle’ was demolished. At the time, many observers pointed out that destroying the camp was an exercise in futility, a media spectacle designed to prove that the French government were ‘getting tough’ on migration, rather than part of a coherent strategy that would address the issue at its source. People attempting to reach the UK would continue to come to Calais, it was argued, whether the Jungle was in operation or not.

These predictions proved prescient. One year after the destruction of the Jungle, people are still coming to Calais. Organisations working on the ground estimate that around 700 people, the vast majority of them men, are still living in the town, and still desperately trying to get to the UK. In the absence of a centralised camp, pockets of people are scattered across the town, finding temporary shelter wherever they can they lay their heads; in the forests on the outskirts, on the edge of industrial parks, beneath hedges, anywhere that offers  some respite from the elements. As winter sets in and night temperatures start to plummet, these temporary ‘shelters’ will offer scant protection against the cold, rain, and frost. The situation, already critical, is set to deteriorate.

Background

(A brief note on language - I will use the term ‘migrant’ to refer to the people currently caught up in Calais attempting to get to the UK – this is the widest possible term, and includes refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants.)

Most migrants in Calais are boys and young men between the ages of 15 and 25. According to Help Refugees, the average age is just 21. The majority hail from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan. A few come from Pakistan, Iraq and Bangladesh. Other nationalities are present (Egyptians, Palestinians, Somalis) but their representatives can be counted on one hand.

The African migrants have all crossed from Libya to Sicily or Lampedusa. Many remember Libya with a shudder. Most Afghans have passed through Iran and Turkey, and then entered Europe via Greece or Bulgaria. Memories of Eastern Europe and the Balkans include mafia interventions – holding migrants in makeshift prisons and beating them to extort money from families back home – and police beatings. Several of those who passed through Serbia bear scars on their arms and wrists. Abdul, 24, tells me how he was locked in a freezing Serbian prison for a week, given one piece of bread per day and forced to drink from a toilet. Two people died, he says, almost causally. He managed to escape, and continue his journey northwards.   

Everyone has completed a Grand Tour of Europe – Greece, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands – before ending up in Calais. The constellation of places is familiar, but the experiences of those passing through them speak of another Europe, one we often choose not to see. Surviving hand to mouth, sleeping in parks or next to train stations, often going weeks without a change of clothes. Constantly chased by police, arrested, fingerprinted, released, given notice to leave a territory but no advice on where to go next.

The former Jungle camp outside Calais. Futuro Berg/Instagram. Used with permission, all rights reserved.

Most, if not all, are ‘Dubliné’ – caught up in the EU framework (known as Dublin after the city where the agreement was signed) that obliges new arrivals to claim asylum in the state of first arrival, and prohibits them from claiming asylum anywhere else. In essence, this means that if they have been fingerprinted in an EU country, they are ineligible for asylum in any other EU state. If they are caught by police, they are returned to the country of first arrival (Italy or Greece) or the country where they have been fingerprinted. Anecdotally, it would appear that often these countries don’t want to process their cases or pursue deportation; they are simply told to leave the state territory within a specified time frame. Many speak of having been ‘deported’ back to another EU state, only to immediately recommence their journey toward the UK.

Some have even been deported from the UK after being found without papers – often after having spent months or years working ‘in the black’. Khalil*, 25, tells me he had been working in Glasgow for four years before being arrested and deported to Belgium. He is back in Calais, barely two months after being forcibly returned. He shows me his wrists. White scars snake across his skin. Police handcuffs, he tells me. A gift from Italy, from when he first arrived in Europe. 

"14. 14 dead, my friend"

Even those who might be described as ‘economic migrants’ cannot simply give up and return home empty-handed. The costs of clandestine migration are exorbitant. Some have paid over $10,000 dollars to reach Calais. Most, if not all, have been bankrolled by their families, many of whom have borrowed against property or land to pay smugglers’ fees. These debts will not be forgiven. Returning home as a ‘failure’ would not only be a source of shame, but also a cause of bankruptcy. Jamal tells me that he cannot bring himself to tell his family in Afghanistan about his current plight, ‘living’ in a wasteland behind an industrial park on the outskirts of Calais. He tells his mother and father that he is fine because he doesn’t want them to worry. He isn’t fine. He shivers despite his layers, and later tells me that he is considering suicide. He is tired of the rain, the cold, the police. He is 23 years old.

Age means both everything and nothing here. Technically, minors are afforded greater protection, and the possibility of entering the UK under the Dubs amendment, designed to grant unaccompanied minors safe passage. So far in 2017, not a single child has been brought to the UK under the Dubs scheme. Additionally, the unaccompanied minors in Calais are disqualified from Dubs as they are not registered and living in French state-run centres d’accueil.

Groups of teenagers, mainly from Ethiopia and Eritrea, stick together in clusters. They jostle, arm wrestle and occasionally break into song or jump into rhythmic dance routines. Despite their predicament, they somehow find the spirit to laugh and joke and talk about food and football. Some have been here for a few months, some over a year. One boy tells me he left Ethiopia when he was just 13. He went to Sudan, then Libya, then managed to get on a boat. His smile deserts him for a moment, and he holds up four fingers. “14. 14 dead, my friend”. He has smooth cheeks, bright white teeth and a small scar above his left eyebrow. He tells me he is 17 years old. It is possible that he is not telling the truth, but his face cannot lie; he is not yet 20. He left home as a child, and saw 14 people drown on his way to Europe. It soon becomes apparent that his story is far from exceptional.    

Police

Most of those sleeping rough around Calais manage between three and four hours sleep a night. Every couple of days, they are awoken by French riot police (CRS) ordering them to disperse. The police use pepper spray to ensure compliance, and confiscate sleeping bags, blankets and belongings. According to a recent census conducted by Help Refugees, most migrants reported having their bedding confiscated between two and three times per week.

Police violence is almost a daily occurrence. The recent Human Rights Watch report Like Living in Hell includes written and oral testimonies detailing widespread, regular and indiscriminate violence committed by police officers against migrants and asylum seekers in Calais. Reading the report, one is struck by the malice of the police officers involved: the indiscriminate use of tear gas, often while people are still asleep, and the routine confiscation of sleeping bags and blankets when night temperatures regularly drop below 10 degrees are particularly chilling examples.

Using tear gas against a raucous, hostile crowd is one thing; spraying a group of shivering teenagers, taking care to target their faces and douse their bedding to render it unusable, is quite another. To act in such a way requires the removal of context, the elimination of empathy, the recalibration of one’s mind to see some people as less-than-human. When this dehumanisation has taken place, it becomes possible to spray human beings as one might target a cockroach or common garden fly, without hesitation or moral objection. Welcome to Europe in 2017. It comes as no surprise that although most migrants speak only a few words of French, they have learnt a few key phrases by heart. ‘Allez, allez!’ ‘Degagez!’. Go. Move. Commands shouted to them at dawn.

It should be pointed out that the CRS officers are not acting on their own initiative; they are agents of the state, obeying orders, implementing a policy designed to create a truly hostile environment for migrants. Though abuses undoubtedly do occur, the dawn raids, the periodic prohibition of food and clothes distribution, and the confiscation of bedding are not merely the actions of a few over-zealous CRS agents. They are inscribed in the policy of the French state.

The former Jungle camp outside Calais. Futuro Berg/Instagram. Used with permission, all rights reserved.

Since its unofficial inception, the Jungle was a political headache; after its destruction, the second stage of the treatment has focussed squarely on making life as uncomfortable as possible for those remaining in Calais. In practical terms, this entailed clamping down on humanitarian organisations, prohibiting food distribution entirely, then restricting it to just one hour per day, refusing to provide access to running water, toilets or showers. Tear-gassing minors. Confiscating bedding.

These are not the actions of a state overly concerned with respecting human rights. Indeed, the migrants of Calais seem to be somewhere beyond the supposed universality of human rights. In academic terms, these people are the homines sacrii of Giogio Agamben, “the part of no part” of Rancière. They are outside the protection of the law, subject to its excesses and the violence of its representatives, but not afforded its protection. They are illegal, irregular, not part of the communal ‘we’ that makes up a citizenry of a state.

Weather

As well as the police, migrants have to reckon with the weather. Most are from warmer climes, and struggle with the bitter wind blowing in off the channel. Khaled, 22 from Ethiopia, shows me his clothing. He is wearing eight layers on his top-half and two on the bottom. He is wearing a hat but doesn’t want to start wearing gloves before the frost arrives – otherwise he will have no way of warming his hands when it gets even colder. His under-trousers are tucked into a pair of thick socks, but they are clearly wet through. His shoes are light sports trainers, designed for gentle park jogging or a gym workout. I ask if he could get something more substantial for his feet from the NGOs distributing clothing; he shakes his head. Sturdy boots might mean dry feet, but they also mean he won’t be able to run from the police. For the moment at least, he has chosen practicality over comfort.

Not everyone makes this choice voluntarily. HelpRefugees and Auberge des Migrants, the NGOs responsible for distribution, report a shortage of sturdy shoes in small sizes and thick socks. Socks are almost single-use at this point; once they are wet, it is almost impossible to get them dry. Trench foot, unheard of for almost a century in this patch of Northern France, has returned with a vengeance. Medical aid agencies have been distributing talcum powder and dry socks, but these will only work if feet are kept dry. Sleeping rough in Calais in November, it is impossible to keep anything dry for long.

Why Calais?

Given the appalling conditions, it is tempting to ask why people choose to remain in Calais and to continue attempting to jump on the back of a lorry heading to the UK. Are conditions in Britain really that much better than in France? The short answer is no. There is no major advantage in being in the UK in terms of asylum acceptance rates, welfare payments (whilst applying for asylum), or access to the labour market. For many, there are two major pull factors that attract people to the UK. The first is the family network. Many of those stuck in Calais have a brother, aunt, uncle or cousin already in Britain. The family link should not be underestimated; having someone you can trust, someone who can help you get on your feet is a massive pull factor for a single man a long way from home. These familial connections have structured migration routes for centuries. The second is language proficiency. Many of those in Calais have studied English at school, and are able to converse with some degree of fluency. This is a huge benefit when trying to find work, and generally when navigating a new country. Anecdotally, it is also easier to work in the black in the UK than in France – it is difficult to know if this is indeed true or merely rumours spread by smugglers hoping to squeeze a few more dollars from their desperate clients.

As well as these rational motivations for trying to reach Britain, there is another reason people congregate in Calais, desperately trying to reach the UK. Hope. Not some abstract or quasi-religious notion, but the very real hope that the UK might be somehow better than the continent they have spent months, sometimes years, being chased across. The UK is the setting for the dream future, where all hope is projected. The bitter present, the police harassment, the cold, the absolute precariousness, can be tolerated because of the promise of something better to come.

Leaving their respective homelands, they did not carry in their minds the image of a freezing wasteland, an industrial park, a riot police officer. They did not envisage the many short nights in cold train stations, or going days without a proper meal. For many, the UK is their last hope, the terminus, the endpoint that will mitigate the suffering of the journey. Unfortunately, to echo the sentiments of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, many will find that there is “there is no Norway, even in Norway” – that is, this dreamland simply does not exist.

After the hot food distribution, many of the migrants huddle around the vans used to transport food. One man catches sight of himself in the wing mirror. He picks at his dirty teeth, and slicks his hair back across his forehead. He wipes his eyes, trying to smooth away the dark circles around his eyes. After a moment of staring at his reflection, he shakes his head, and turns away in disgust.

At some point, be it in five years or 20, liberal Europe will hold a mirror up to itself, and look closely at how it is treating those who have journeyed to reach its territory. It will catch sight of an armour clad riot police-officer in the bleak grey dawn, tear gas canister in hand, spraying a thin, shivering teenage boy. It will be hard not to turn away in disgust.

If you would like to help, HelpRefugees are looking for sleeping bags, coats, sturdy shoes, and volunteers to help with distribution.

* All names in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity.

About the author

Alex Fusco is a freelance journalist and European Politics postgraduate student. Follow him on twitter @alfusc1.


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