The new Sangatte: rights pushed out of sight

In the context of escalating police violence and local racism, the new day centre for migrants in Calais, France is an example of increased, anti-migrant state control posing as humanitarian assistance. 

Che Ramsden
13 April 2015

2012 eviction in Calais. Photo: CMSIn January this year, French riot police (CRS) started placing eviction notices at migrant camps in Calais announcing that, following the opening of a new day centre for migrants, riot police would forcefully evict the camps inhabited by up to 2,000 individuals. It was subsequently announced that the centre would be opened by the Interior Minister of France this coming weekend, on 11th April.

The last few days of March saw about 1,200 people move from camps and squats in and around the city centre to an authority-designated site 7km out of Calais, in what solidarity groups are terming a ‘silent eviction’.

For years, Calais has been home to migrants from some of the most crisis-hit parts of the world, including Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Syria. From 1999-2002 the infamous warehouse in Sangatte aimed to meet the needs of 2,000 migrants in Calais, but lack of Red Cross resources and limited space (it was designed for 500), coupled with an increase in the number of people arriving in Calais, meant its humanitarian efforts fell far short. At the same time, racist and anti-immigrant sentiment in then-Interior Minister Sarkozy’s department and similar pressure from the UK government led to the closure of Sangatte in 2002 to ‘discourage’ migrants from coming to Calais.

People need spaces to live – even in transition - so it is no surprise that, as in the rest of the world, camps (the largest known as ‘jungles’), squats and shelters have continued to develop. Campaign group Solidarity Against Evictions explains that ‘when these spaces have not been evicted rapidly, collective life has built up and people have adjusted their living spaces to meet their spiritual needs, beyond mere survival.’

Yet as political disputes surrounding the camp have borne on in Calais, around the world, war, abuse and disaster have continued and increased. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that in 2014 forced displacement around the world topped 50 million for the first time in post-World War Two era. This is reflected in the number of migrants arriving in Calais. Many have sought asylum in France and many have tried to cross to the UK. Of those who have attempted the crossing, too many die en route – the Calais Migrant Solidarity blog attempts to keep as much of a record of these deaths as possible. 2014 saw a large increase in the number of migrants in Calais. 2,300 people were reported to Human Rights Watch by Pas-de-Calais prefecture in January 2015, though Solidarity Against Evictions estimates that due to the evolving situation, this number was underestimated; they suggest 3,000 to be a better estimate. This has led to increased efforts by the authorities to ‘deter’ migrant people from the area. Violent eviction has been commonplace in a sustained effort to keep migrants out of the town and to prevent them from self-organising. Human Rights Watch recently documented the abuse of migrants by police: beatings, attacks, pepper spray (including on two of three children interviewed), and migrants and asylum seekers left destitute by legal failures of the state.

According to the Minister of the Interior, the new centre has a primarily humanitarian function. Developed on the site of disused children’s holiday camp, it aims to gather together under one roof the various associations offering migrants support, and is intended to become the sole space for the migrant population in Calais. In January, the Jules Ferry day centre partially opened, with an announcement that it would open in full this month. Migrants living in Calais had until the end of March to move to the new site or face eviction.

Solidarity Against Evictions report that people met in the jungles and the squats to decide, collectively, what to do about the riot police’s eviction notice warnings. I am told that it was felt that the choice was either to move or to be forcibly moved. A member of the Solidarity group commented, ‘people talked about what would happen and what they would do, but with so many people living together, it was not possible to reach anything collective. Rather, people, faced with no real alternative, started moving, and others followed. Nonetheless, the meetings were for me a sign of how people who are treated as if they were animals still, in terrible conditions, act politically.’

On the face of it, people have decided to move to Jules Ferry without violent police intervention. But as Calais Migrant Solidarity points out, ‘psychologically and physically harassing people into moving to a place they don’t want to go is an eviction.’ On 26th March, 40 women and children were the first to go. No one was given any assistance by the authorities to pack up their lives and make the 7km journey out of town. By 1st April, an estimated 1,200 people reportedly moved to Jules Ferry in the space of a week; some remained in camps and squats elsewhere.

In the context of escalating police violence, local fascism and racism, as well as a renewed effort at UK ‘border security’, many feel that the new day centre is an example of increased, anti-migrant state control posing as humanitarian assistance.

Life in ‘the jungle’

I visited the Tioxide jungle in February this year, inspired by Strike! magazine’s call to solidarity following a Daily Mail special offer on ferry tickets and a particularly harsh winter. I was shocked by what I saw there, and what it reflected on French and British ‘democratic’ systems: migrants who the authorities would clearly rather did not exist living in tents in the shadow of a smelly industrial chemical plant, without access to basic amenities, gendarmerie vans threateningly present around the corner and hard-to-circumvent border security making any crossing to the UK extraordinarily dangerous.

But someone I spoke to at Solidarity Against Evictions pointed out that this jungle, despite being far from ideal, was built up by migrants and made into their own space, which functioned. At times there was a shopping street in the middle of the camp, a couple of restaurants, a hairdresser’s salon, a sheesha bar, a church and a mosque. People didn’t want to be at Tioxide – it was not always safe – but there ‘they could enact some autonomy over their lives.’ Similar communities existed in other jungles – a Sudanese jungle near the LeaderPrice supermarket, the Galloo squat close to the train station, a Syrian camp outside a local church – and shelters, including the house of 40 women which was the first to be moved to Jules Ferry.

By contrast, the new space at Jules Ferry securely belongs to the anti-migrant authorities. Having already made it harder for migrants to access support (the act of distributing food from an organised location in Calais was forbidden in January by Calais’ mayor, Natacha Bouchart), the day centre regulates essential services which were already being provided by associations in Calais: food (limited in the day centre to only once a day), daytime access to drinking water (as yet there is no tap outside), sporadic showers, doctors’ visits. A group which has chosen to resist eviction at Galloo has raised concerns about hygiene, safety and space.

Overnight accommodation is available for women and young children and camping will be ‘tolerated’ in the grounds, which are described to me as being ‘sand dunes…thorny, bushy areas’ unsuitable for camping. It is also a hunting ground; a person writing through Calais Migrant Solidarity reports, ‘You can find cartridges used by the hunters, so we are scared to get hit by lost bullets.’ This is echoed by those remaining at Galloo, who state in their list of reasons for resistance, ‘There is bad drainage and there is too much grass, and the place is for hunting may be dangerous for being shooting by chased gun.’ During a meeting two weeks ago between 10 people from different migrant communities and the sous-préfet (deputy prefect) of Calais (the only meeting of its kind), the sous-préfet responded to these concerns by saying, ‘there is no danger, the hunters shoot in the air [because they are only hunting for birds].’

The centre’s proximity to Calais, or lack thereof, makes it harder for the people now living there to access other services (including making asylum claims). They are being forced to depend on a centre which does not meet their needs. The location also makes it hard for solidarity associations to access the site, Solidarity Against Evictions tells me. There are concerns there will be closer monitoring by the police: ‘people feel quite vulnerable being there.’

The situation in Calais is symptomatic of a world which is divided by borders. In this world, meeting the inherent rights of human beings requires negotiation with the nation state. Rights to citizenship and rights which are dependent on citizenship are exclusionary: border controls and welfare benefit systems are aimed at keeping people out rather than welcoming them in.

The women, men and children evicted to Jules Ferry have traversed continents across years to find themselves stuck on the cusp of that grand ideal, Western European Democracy. Here we find that ‘democracy’ means apartheid: denied access, citizenship and, with it, rights, they are unceremoniously – now silently – pushed out of sight.


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