Even as world leaders meet in an emergency summit to discuss what is being recognized as the worst refugee crisis since World War Two, refugees in the Calais “Jungle” camp are being evicted from the fragile structures they have made their homes, as French police move in with bulldozers and riot shields. The refugee crisis is something we are all aware of, but rarely seems to touch our lives as students, and is all too often dismissed as not our issue to solve- even though the largest refugee camp in Europe touches our borders.
Video clips of the eviction show French police blocking off areas of the camp in order to raze it to the ground by way of burning and knocking down the structures. The authorities continually have a water cannon on hand, despite the fact that there has been little active protest. The police have shown their willingness to crack down on the refugees, having in the last couple of months taken to regularly using tear gas to quell what they deem as violent protesting. However, videos and testimonials from volunteers tell quite a different story.
Clare Moseley, of Care4Calais, is one of the main coordinators of the relief work taking place in the Jungle. I had the privilege of meeting Clare and chatting to her as we worked on food distributions when I visited Calais in September. Like many others, Ms Moseley was shocked by the vehemence of the force used by police when clearing the targeted area of the camp.
“There was no need for the police to go in in such numbers, or to use so much force… Standing in the middle of the crowd earlier this week, the only thing I was afraid of was the police. Yet all the media want to talk about it “migrants rioting”.
“Standing in the middle of the crowd earlier this week, the only thing I was afraid of was the police.”
I have visited the Jungle camp, I have worked with other tired but enthusiastic volunteers who only wish to contribute however they can, and I have spoken with the refugees who cling to hopes of a better, peaceful life in the UK. They yearn to make the crossing to England because by now, they are well aware that they will not find this peace in France.
The French media paints an unfavourable image of the refugees, reporting that about 150 people, wielding sticks and iron bars, attempted to block the vehicles. With any opposition being quickly quelled by the riot police on site, the demolition continues, with refugees being given only a couple of hours to evacuate their makeshift homes, or face arrest.
French authorities have moved to begin “clearing” the overpopulated refugee camp, using bulldozers and setting fires to destroy the makeshift shelters, which in many cases are the only homes the refugees have been able to build for themselves once arrived in France. A French court gave the go-ahead for the demolition process to begin, after lawyers argued that policing the camp posed a drain on resources which are needed to address the state of emergency announced after the Paris attacks in November.
Julie Bonnier, a lawyer for the refugee charities, argued that the Jungle offers, amongst other things, medical and psychological support by providing schools, churches, and other social structures. Having seen this support first-hand, I can attest that the community feeling of the Jungle is integral to ensuring the survival of those who are stranded in Calais.
Despite the fact that the court ruling stated that common areas like schools, medical centres, churches and mosques would not be affected, with only the makeshift shelters being evicted, the targeted area was comprised not only of shelters used for accommodation, but several religious structures.
French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, had claimed that the eviction would be gradual.
“We intend to proceed by finding shelter for all those who are in the southern zone at Calais, particularly unaccompanied minors.” But it has fallen upon the shoulders of volunteers to offer other arrangements for the many unaccompanied children left stranded after the eviction. L’Auberge Des Migrants, one of the main organisations supporting refugees in Calais, expressed concern at the lack of safeguarding provisions for the estimated 305 unaccompanied children in the camp. According to their census, 3,455 refugees will be evicted over the course of the demolition.
3,455 refugees will be evicted over the course of the demolition
French authorities have recommended that the refugees move to one of 98 reception centres around the country, or into a contained facility in the northern section of the camp. Residents of the camp are understandably reluctant to move into this fenced off, fingerprint-access only area. Many have begun to move to Dunkirk, where numbers in other camps continue to grow exponentially, despite the fact that the main camp has its own eviction date set within the next couple of weeks.
This is not the “humanitarian operation” which the authorities claim it to be. Frequent clashes with the police in Calais have set the refugees far apart from the French citizens who live less than a mile from their makeshift homes. During my visit to the city, I could see for myself the apathy of the French people regarding the humanitarian crisis unfolding on their doorstep. Perhaps now, the citizens of Calais will be forced to take note of the refugees’ plight, as refugees as forced to disperse across the town.
Sarah Schneider, President of Exeter’s Student Action for Refugees Society, criticized the French government’s justification for the move.
“The overwhelming flaw in that logic is that these refugees have no home. They have nowhere else to go. The suffering our governments continue to put them through is senseless, because leaving is not an option.”
Last Thursday, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that unsuccessful asylum seekers from Afghanistan would be deported from the UK after the capital of Kabul was deemed safe enough for their return. Despite the fact that travel to the country is heavily discouraged by the government, and that last year was the bloodiest on record regarding civilian casualties, the Home Secretary won a significant legal battle to reopen flights returning migrants to the country.
last year was the bloodiest on record regarding civilian casualties
Even the Afghan government, according to leaked documents obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, pleaded for the UK not to resume deportation. Afghanistan’s Minister for Refugees and Repatriation expressed the view that as former child asylum-seekers have lived in the UK for so many years, their relative inexperience with the situation in Afghanistan will put them in serious danger when returning to the country.
Last year, over a million people arrived in Europe by sea, many starting the journey in Turkey, which is home to 2.5 million Syrians. The influx of illegal immigration to Europe continues, despite the significant chance of not making it across the seas safely. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, warned those considering migrating from Syria and Iraq to look for work in Europe, against the attempt.
“Do not come to Europe. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing.” He warned that Greece, and in fact the whole of Europe, will no longer be a viable transit zone for refugees.
European authorities are taking an increasingly hard line regarding the influx of asylum-seekers, with borders tightening and only a tiny portion of those seeking refuge being awarded it in the UK. With more Schengen countries introducing border controls, the refugee crisis has prompted a crackdown on free movement within Europe. Most recently, Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, Denmark, and non-EU member Norway have reintroduced controls.
Sadly, the actions of the few have contributed to a gross misconception of the many refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and many other countries in the Middle East, and consequently, sympathy seems hard to come by amongst the UK public. Fear-mongering by tabloid stories and the spread of misinformation regarding the intentions of migrants to Europe has not improved the situation.
the actions of the few have contributed to a gross misconception of the many refugees from Syria
After the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, public opinion turned from wary to outright hostile. Numerous retaliatory attacks have taken place across Germany; after Ralf Jaeger, interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced that “people with a migration background were almost exclusively responsible for the criminal acts”, the backlash was strong and immediate. The violent response from far-right groups has targeted migrant communities and asylum seekers across Germany, a blanket response to what appears to have been an isolated set of attacks.
It appears that the attacks in Cologne were the trigger many had been waiting for to launch a campaign against migrants in Germany. This spike in xenophobic feeling and behavior is the physical embodiment of a dangerous mood which is swelling in Europe, and one which we know from history can be extraordinarily destructive. Migrants and asylum seekers penned an open letter to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to dissociate themselves from the attackers and express their gratitude in being allowed to live in Germany.
They wrote, “We are asylum seekers in Germany who have fled from war, terror, political persecution and sexual attacks… We were appalled by what happened on NYE in Cologne and other towns nearby. We abhor the sexual assaults and petty thefts which took place and we denounce them.”
The vast majority of the refugees are not dangerous. In Calais, I met so many people who came to Europe in search of a better life, fleeing from poverty or war, and instead, they have found only hatred or utter apathy. The destruction of the Jungle camp is one step further in alienating those who have come to us for help. The longer the people of Europe continue to ignore the plight of the refugees, the more we contribute to the suffering and death of millions. And that is something which not only Europe, but humanity, cannot afford to do again.