The ‘Jungle’ refugee camp is gone, but the border at Calais remains a fortress. Fences standing five metres high, topped with razor wire, run alongside the train tracks and the approaching motorways. At the port, armed police look down from on high.
The refugee crisis in Calais reached a head in October 2016 when the camp dubbed the ‘Jungle’, home to around 6,500 refugees, was dismantled by the French authorities. Photos emerged of tents in flames and crude, broken shelters. In one image, a pregnant woman stands on the roof of a shack and threatens to cut her wrists as police look on, one pointing his gun at her.
Thousands of individuals were bussed to immigration centres around France, while some children came to the UK under the ‘Dubs amendment’ scheme which offered 350 places to unaccompanied children in Europe (the UK government pulled out of the scheme in 2017, having provided homes to only a fraction of the 3,000 children that Lord Dubs, who introduced the programme, suggested was possible).
Yet the fences remain and there’s a reason why. Today, according to figures from charity Help Refugees, there are still close to 1,500 refugees living in the forests of northern France and the French and British governments have combined forces to prevent them from crossing the channel. In January, Teresa May agreed to pay France £44.5m to continue policing the border.
In Calais, a quiet, post-industrial town that is trying hard to look a little prettier, the refugees stand out. They’re noticeable, huddled in small groups, seeking shade under trees at the side of the road or walking through fields of long grass. In a patch of woodland next to a main road, around 60 young men from Eritrea sleep between the trees. Elsewhere, groups of Sudanese, Afghans, Kurds and Ethiopians (including the separate ethnic group of Oromo Ethiopians) have set up camp. Some have made a bed of the huge mounds of black tarmac, dumped at the edge of an industrial park. They can be spotted picking their way across the rubble. There are also people from Syria, Iraq and other African countries such as Chad and Cameroon. They are mostly men, although in nearby Dunkirk, aid workers have reported increasing arrivals of women and children.
The French government is adamant that it won’t let another ‘Jungle’ develop. In January, President Macron visited Calais. In a speech to police, he said: ‘There will be no reconstruction of the ‘Jungle’ or tolerance of illegal settlements in or around Calais. To stay in Calais and build makeshift shelters and even set up squats is a dead end. The alternative is clear. People can get to the reception centres where everyone’s case will be examined and those who have the right, given asylum in our country.’
The speech was an indication of the direction to be taken by France’s new immigration policy, which passed in April. The policy takes a harder-line than its predecessor and has shortened the deadlines for filing asylum applications and doubled the time for which illegal migrants can be detained. Macron’s no-tolerance approach in Calais echoes previous moves by the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart who, in March 2017, banned the distribution of food to refugees (the move was later overturned by a French court).
On a different note, Macron warned police to act appropriately when dealing with refugees. A few months before his visit, a report released by the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations department pointed to excessive use of force by police against refugees in Calais, including against children. The report found that the police had used chemical sprays on sleeping individuals and had repeatedly confiscated sleeping bags, clothes and blankets.
The use of excessive force is something that volunteers in Calais talk about a lot. At one site, a group of young Eritrean men sit at a plastic table and play with a pack of cards brought by volunteers. One of the men has a bandaged wrist, another has a cut near his eye. ‘We were running from the police,’ they both explain, before asking if there are any more trainers available in their size. The volunteer on duty says she’ll try, but donations of trainers are low.
Much of the policing in Calais is carried out by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), best known for crowd and riot control. Aid workers from charities such as Help Refugees, the largest on the ground in Calais, report witnessing the CRS slashing tents and evicting refugees, before beating them and spraying what the workers believe to be tear gas.
At the cavernous warehouse where Help Refugees collects donations, one long-term volunteer, Billy Brotherston, points to an empty pallet containing a solitary tent. He explains that the police’s activities result in an endless cycle in which aid workers distribute tents only to find that they have been confiscated by the CRS within a week.
‘In the past two months the police have been coming in every week and taking stuff,’ he says. ‘I'm really apprehensive about the coming weeks. We have distributed our last tents. We only had 71 and there were 120 people asking, so we weren't even able to give to everyone. These people are not being offered any emergency shelter by the French government or anyone else, so they're essentially left to sleep outside in the elements or wherever they find. Even then they are harassed and moved on.’
Another volunteer explains that the communities the charity supports suffer from numerous health problems. In the winter there’s a high risk of hypothermia and several people suffer from scabies, a parasite that burrows under the skin and causes unbearable itching. Aid workers are kept busy conducting hospital runs to a centre that offers free health care.
As dangerous as the physical conditions are, it’s also mental health that concerns aid workers. Clare Mosley, founder of the charity Care4Calais, explains that many refugees reach their lowest ebb at the border. She’s used to meeting people who self-harm and express suicidal thoughts but has nowhere to send them. ‘The strategy being followed is to break their spirit, and it’s working,’ Mosely says. ‘Calais is where people really break because all along the route they have hope and they have purpose and somewhere they are coming to. Then they get stuck in Calais and over the months they slowly lose that hope.’
Mosley is skeptical that current tactics, which she thinks are deployed to deter refugees, will ever work. ‘It all comes down to this idea that the French and British governments have, that if they make it unpleasant enough, the refugees will stop coming. It’s the idea of ‘pull factors’. To me it’s completely counter-intuitive, because the push factors are so strong. The things they're running away from are so big that how can the things they're running to be more important?’
Many of the individuals in Calais want to reach the UK. Often, it’s to do with the familiar language and many have friends and family in England. For all of them, the crossing has become increasingly difficult and dangerous, leaving them in limbo. Seeking asylum is complicated and is certainly risky. In 2017, France received 100,412 asylum applications and rejected 73 per cent of them. Its new immigration policy looks set to make the process even harder.
On 7 July, during a particularly scorching day, a march held in solidarity with migrants arrives at its end point in Calais. Participants have walked all the way from Ventimiglia in southern France. As the procession moves through the town, Calais residents look down at the dancing and chanting from their windows. A few smile and wave, most simply stare.
Within the march there’s a carnival spirit and people play drums and wave flags. For one afternoon some of the refugees let themselves go – young men dance with their hands in the air alongside retired French ladies. Others choose not to take part. As the march passes by one of the camps, the refugees look on, unsure what it’s all about. By the next day the marchers have gone and the refugees are alone once more.
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