Stop this rumble in ‘the jungle’

The French should demolish the migrant slum in Calais — but only after Europe’s inhumane immigration policies have been bulldozed.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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Bulldozers are reportedly lining up at the outskirts of the so-called ‘jungle’, a stretch of wasteland by the main port of Calais, France, where around 2,000 migrants are stuck in a limbo, living in makeshift tents and shelters while waiting for an opportunity to cross the English channel (1). These migrants’ hopes for a better life in the UK now look set to be crushed.

‘The jungle’ is a rough, shantytown-like area which came into existence in 2002 when Britain pressured the French government into closing the infamous Red Cross refugee centre at nearby Sangatte. It was the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who oversaw the closure in his role as interior minister.

It is estimated that every night of the week, hundreds of migrants try to board UK-bound lorries and ferries heading for Dover from Calais. Now, French immigration minister, Eric Besson, has promised that the entire ‘jungle’ will shortly be razed to the ground by police, supported by army units. ‘The message’, Besson declared yesterday, ‘is you won’t get to England anymore via Calais’ (2).

As the UK border controls have become increasingly strict since Sangatte was shut down it has become harder for migrants to cross the channel and so numbers in the jungle have soared. Many of the migrants come from Iraq and Afghanistan, but there also people from across Africa and from Eastern Europe here. Most of them are male, but there are also some women and young children living in the jungle, where conditions are rough and unsanitary.

I spoke to several migrants and activists who are currently in the jungle. They did not want their names to be printed for fear of being targeted by the police.

A member of the Calais Migrant Solidarity Group (CMSG) told me that a squat belonging to a group of Ethiopians had just been raided. ‘There are massive army-style trucks here’, he said. ‘All that’s left of the squat now are a few mattresses, clothes and blankets. Everyone is gone.’ Another CMSG member, who visited the jungle last night, told me that word had been spreading amongst the migrants that something serious is about to happen: ‘There’s a sense that there might be a big change soon.’

According to one activist, while Besson stated his intentions clearly yesterday, there have been rumours going around for several months that the jungle would be cleared by the end of this year. When the No Borders camp – a week-long demonstration in solidarity with undocumented migrants – took place in Calais this June, many jungle residents interpreted the heightened police presence as evidence that a clampdown was imminent. With police significantly outnumbering protesters, there was a sense that the French state wanted clearly to mark its position and attitude towards illegal migrants living within its borders.

It is of course unacceptable that people should be living ‘illegally’ in a shantytown. The conditions are inhumane, the stress of not knowing whether you’ll be able to make it to your end destination or whether you’ll be deported is testing. The jungle is simply the outcome of Europe’s inhumane immigration policies, which brand some foreigners as undesirable and forces them into desperate situations. Denied their freedom of movement, the jungle residents have been forced to take illegal and risky routes across the world only to end up living in a slum, sometimes for months on end.

Onyeke Ingwe spent some time in the jungle this summer, while making a short documentary about the conditions there for the news channel WORLDbytes, where I also work. She told me: ‘It’s a serious humanitarian situation. In August there was a massive problem with scabies… People are not able to shower.’

Humanitarian organisations and migrants’ rights groups offer food and assistance to jungle residents, but there are risks involved: in France, it is against the law to assist illegal migrants (3).

‘People are trying to make the best out of an absolutely horrid situation’, says Ingwe. Shops and even a makeshift mosque have been constructed. But when Ingwe visited the temporary home shared by 13 migrants, she realised just how low the quality of life is in the jungle. The ‘house’ was a small, ramshackle construction covered in blue tarpaulin. ‘The people I met there were so similar to my friends in London. Many of them were young, liked football, school and rap. They had the same aspirations and dreams as most people my age have.’

‘What sets them apart of course is that they have had to travel for months, sometimes years, to get where they are now. I met one young boy who was only 13. He had made it to Calais on his own.’

The migrants interviewed in the WORLDbytes film, Don’t Stop Me Now, talk about their long, arduous and often dangerous journeys across the world (you can watch an edited version of the film below). A 23-year-old man from the Ivory Coast describes leaving war-torn Bouaké to go to Ghana, then Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Malta, Italy. After almost four years of travelling, he finally ended up in Switzerland where he spent three years waiting for his asylum request to be granted. When it was declined, he went to Calais to try to get to the UK. Others in the jungle have taken equally remarkable journeys in the pursuit of a better life. Some are planning to study or work in the UK, some are hoping to be reunited with relatives.

Whilst the migrants in Sangatte were predominantly Kurds and Iraqis, a large proportion of those now living in the jungle are from Afghanistan. The hypocrisy here is evident: the UK government evidently has little respect for the borders of the countries it chooses to invade. However, when the people ‘liberated’ from these countries try to better their lot in the UK, the government goes to great lengths to prevent people from coming over here.

Besson has attacked the UK for being ‘soft’ on immigration. ‘The paradoxical situation in which France finds itself is that we’re trying to protect entry to the United Kingdom’, he said (4). The UK Borders Agency, on its part, refuses to take any responsibility for the situation. ‘It’s a matter for the French’, Richard Knight, a UK Border Agency spokesperson, told me. He then read the following pre-prepared statement:

‘The decision to close illegal encampments in and around Calais, and the timing of these operations, are matters for the French government… The UK government has an agreement with France to secure the border at Calais and is committed to working together to ensure that illegal immigrants are not able to cross our juxtaposed border. This goes hand-in-hand with work to reduce the pressure at the border and reduce the flow of illegal migrants into Europe.’

This morning, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, demanded that the UK offer asylum to some of the migrants from the jungle: ‘The problem is that we have freedom of movement among European countries, but we have different asylum systems with different rates of recognition. You have a kind of asylum à la carte and this doesn’t make sense at all.’ (5)

It’s time for the UK government to take responsibility for the situation, but not by relaxing its ‘à la carte’ asylum laws and letting a few more migrants in. As has been argued on spiked before, the only way to stop illegal immigration is by making it legal.

Yes, ‘the jungle’ should be bulldozed. But only after people, no matter where they’re from, gain the right to move freely across the world so that they don’t have to live in slum-like conditions simply because they happen to be born in the ‘wrong’ part of the world.

Patrick Hayes is volunteer co-ordinator for education charity WORLDwrite, producers of the alternative news channel WORLDbytes. View the WORLDbytes film Don’t Stop Me Now: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and No Borders Camp or watch a short version of the film below:

(1) See the latest news from Calais on the Calais Migrant Solidarity website.

(2) Calais Immigrant ‘Jungle’ To Be Destroyed, Sky News, 17 September 2009

(3) French ask: Should it be a crime to help illegal immigrants?, Christian Science Monitor, 18 March 2009

(4) France to shut Calais ‘jungle’ to stop illegal crossings to UK, Telegraph, 17 September 2009

(5) UK ‘must accept jungle migrants’, BBC News, 18 September 2009

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Topics Politics


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