Scenes From The Last Days Of Europe’s Largest Refugee Camp
By Harriet Paintin & Hannah Kirmes-Daly
The Calais Jungle, Europe’s largest unregulated refugee camp, was evicted at the beginning of the month. The port town in northern France has been host to a refugee camp in some form since the 1990s, but the scale of the Jungle was unprecedented. Small camps and squats dotted the Calais region until February 2015, when all refugees were evicted to a patch of barren land over an hour’s walk from the town centre and the port, in the hope that conditions would become so unbearable that people would give up and leave to other countries.
Until last week, more than 10,000 people from countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and Syria, having fled the persecution and violence of their home countries, were still living in their makeshift shelters in the so-called “jungle.” An autonomous economy grew as people established restaurants and shops, and there was a strong sense of community to be found in these spaces.
French authorities withheld details of the operation until just a couple of days beforehand, which left the thousands of residents to speculate on scraps of information that were passed around like a game of telephone.
People heard that the authorities were going to send buses to transport them to CAOs (Orientation and Greeting Centers) across the country, where they would have to give their fingerprints in exchange for access to state support and services. According to the Dublin Regulation, a European law that states refugees must have their asylum case decided by the first nation in which their fingerprints are taken, this would force people to claim asylum in France.
While this means that many who do want to stay in France would be able to access services, it has put an immediate end to many people’s dreams of eventually reaching the UK. Additionally, many refugees have already had their asylum claims denied in various other EU countries, especially people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The EU recently declared that these are “safe” countries, despite the many reports of civilian deaths and persecution in many regions.
We have been to the Calais Jungle several times in the previous years, and before the eviction we spent a week there getting to know people and their stories. For most, the idea of the future is not an easy one, and the past behind them has been difficult. The hope that has sustained many people is that one day they will reach the UK, rejoin family, and start a new life. In the light of the eviction this hope is harder than ever to hold on to; previously the feeling in the camp was often one of hope, expectancy, but in the week before the mass eviction, when we visited, the air was heavy with uncertainty and despondency.
As the Jungle comes to an end, it is vital that we do not just sweep it away as a terrible byproduct of EU border policies, but rather see what can be learnt from the situation. Certainly, there were negative aspects. Human trafficking, smuggling, and criminal networks filled the gaps left in the absence of any official authority. However, it is important to recognize the many positive aspects that emerged despite the oppressive conditions, and consider what lessons can be learned from the Jungle in order to move towards a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis in Europe.
On our most recent trip to the Jungle, in the week before the camp was officially dismantled by authorities, the muddy “high street” was still lined with shops, restaurants, and barber shops. The self-built structures were painted and decorated to the best of people’s abilities. Inside, familiar faces would gather to share information, sip sweet chai, and eat food full of the flavors of Afghani home cooking. Far from simply existing as thriving spaces of commerce, these structures were safe spaces of collective solidarity. In an environment so far removed from anyone’s aspiration of what consists a normal life, being able to go to a restaurant or a barber shop and see a friendly face offered a rare moment of normality in the chaos.
One of these places, called Sami, was run by a group of young Afghani men. Sitting there one day sipping hot milky tea, we began talking with Amir, a Pakistani man who had been in the Jungle for a year. He was from the Patan region of Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan, a place where persecution and oppression at the hands of the Taliban is rife.
“Everybody from Pakistan wants to stay with their family but in every home, there are a thousand problems,” his eyes were piercing as he spoke quietly. “Go there and see the situation for yourself; however much I tell you, you can never understand.”
Like most people we met in the Jungle, Amir spoke of a time when the life in his village was good, and he had work in a shop. Nowadays, however, the situation is much changed. “That was before; now, there’s one tank here, one tank there, bullets flying and drones falling from the sky.
“But still, here in Europe, there’s no help or support for us. If you went to Pakistan, despite the danger and the poverty, people would extend their hospitality to you. Maybe this is the biggest difference with European culture. You would get a shelter, food, everything. But who can we expect help from, when Western governments are the ones causing so much death and violence in our country?”
When we spoke with Amir in mid-October, the upcoming eviction of the Jungle was preying on everybody’s mind; people were making various plans for the following days. “I hope I can stay in France, build a home here. I don’t want to go back to Pakistan,” explained Amir nervously. But as a Pakistani national, his future in Europe is highly precarious. “Who will win, who will lose? In a few days, we will find out.” Despite this uncertainty, he still maintained a strong sense of positivity. “Everything will be alright, somewhere, somehow. Life is long and it’s hard, but we have to keep our eyes on the target.”
Further up the high street, a group of Afghani men were selling naan bread in a small wooden shack. Their shop was another example of the entrepreneurial nature of many residents of the camp. Having all chipped in to buy the oven from a previous Jungle resident, these men were earning a bit of money, enough to feed themselves. Other Jungle residents crowded around the small opening to buy steaming hot, freshly made bread, a much-needed relief on a cold day.
The warmth of the small coal-fueled oven filled the room where we talked to Farooq as he rolled out small balls of dough. His asylum claim in France had been denied, and he was living in the Jungle to avoid deportation back to Afghanistan. However, with the eviction of the Jungle, he was giving up on his dream of reaching the UK and had decided to return to Afghanistan.
“My family is there. I have three children, and if I can’t get papers here in Europe to bring them over then I have to go back. But it is so dangerous. People are dying. Before, it was because of the Taliban. Now there’s Daesh [ISIS] too. We are forced to leave, because of this.”
Like Amir, Farooq talked of a time in Afghanistan before the fighting. “There is nowhere in the world like Afghanistan. Kabul, it used to look like Paris. Not anymore though,” he trailed off.
We asked him how he felt about the end of the Jungle, a place that had provided him with a support network, a community, and even a business during this difficult time in his life. “Yes, it’s sad. I have a lot of friends here. But it’s not a life here, it’s the Jungle. Do you understand? It’s so dangerous. Last week I was robbed while I was sleeping. But what to do? After the eviction, there is nowhere for us to go except back home, with all the dangers that face us there.”
It is nothing but a huge failure at the hands of the European asylum system that people like Amir and Farooq have been unable to get to the protection they and their families need. The eviction and the way in which it was carried out illustrates yet again the short-sighted nature of asylum policy. Far from solving the problem, evicting the camp has sent so many people into situations of further precariousness.
The French authorities declared the eviction of the camp a “successful operation” while thousands of people, including children, were left to sleep outside after all shelters and infrastructure had been bulldozed. Newcomers are already arriving where the camp used to be, and new camps are springing up in the streets of Paris, again illustrating the gulf between policy and the lived reality for people.
If there is anything the Jungle can teach us, it is that people are resilient and capable. The Jungle is full of people like Farooq who are entrepreneurial and ready to work, and the European asylum system has failed on many levels to protect these people and give them the opportunity for the future they deserve.
Further militarization of borders and higher walls have never stopped people from migrating; people always have found and will always find a way through. So, rather than putting so much money into solutions which have never worked, European policy should instead focus on building solutions that are sustainable and profitable. These people are far from a burden on their host countries, especially when given a chance.
Lead illustration: Brush&Bow