At the entrance to the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais on Monday morning, around 400 people had “over-spilled” the borders of their designated plot of “no man’s land” and saw their tents and belongings brutally razed to the ground. This was done as a “security step” according to last month’s France-Britain agreement to increase border security. The agreement fails to address the situation for refugees who attempt to make their final crossing into Britain, who had recently started camping outside the Jungle as it is no longer a safe space to seek refuge. The chaos of the camp and even its designation as “no man’s land” seems to reflect European border officials’ dehumanisation of the situation. The people are perceived as “no man”, a problem for the system, not vice versa. Indeed, as this week has already witnessed several incidents when the police used tear gas against refugees, bulldozing their few belongings and patchwork shelters, it has become clear how such a border policy is made to put an ideological spin on the protection of (some) people, through compromising others. Within such discourse lies an ingrained European fortress-like self-identification, which is conveniently fuelled by right-wing xenophobia. This fear is used to control domestic citizens and mobilise them against the Other – the refugees – who in this case, are survivors of war and displacement. Such a tendency is not new, but has never been more clearly embodied or pronounced in Europe.
After the Jungle was attacked by the French police on Monday, a local sit-in was staged by 50 of the refugees along with a few activists. The new tent pitches extending from “no man’s land” were set up due to the insecurity that the refugees felt by living within the camp, Medicines Du Monde told AFP. The French police gave no prior notice of their action, giving people no opportunity to re-pitch their tents somewhere else or even gather their belongings together. The latter included vital documents needed for further migration or asylum claims, their valuables and the few photos or memorabilia they had looked after, through their several months’ of life threatening travel to Northern France. Their already inhumane living conditions in makeshift shelters were made worse by the police action.
Sheltering an ever-growing number of around 4,000 refugees and migrants from ex-colonies of both Britain and France, including Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea, the wilderness known as the Jungle has existed since 2002. It is largely self-ruling and supported by NGOs and the goodwill of EU citizens. There are frequent outbursts of violence and people attempting to be smuggled across the English Channel. Cross-channel relations were cut around 10 years ago to discourage people from trying to get to Britain. People in the Jungle are either waiting to have their asylum claim dealt with in France, with the prospect of re-settlement or, for the majority, waiting for the border to open so that they can enter Britain legally. The desire to go to the UK is due either to family relationships, the French language barrier, education or the prospect of a better life; some may have no other option due to their varied commitments.
With the dramatic increase in the number of people wanting to take refuge within the EU, risking their lives along the way, it is ironic that the values of compassion and humanity upon which Europe prides itself have been missing; governments have thrown up barriers at the cost of the security of others. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, is deciding whether or not to bomb Syria on one hand while on the other he is refusing to take in a reasonable number of refugees fleeing from the war that he wants to get further involved in. Indeed, even the context of the refugees is overlooked as politicians focus on domestic concerns about the country’s “capacity”, matching neoconservative xenophobia despite there being thousands of empty houses in Britain. Such a shift to the right was reflected in recent elections in the UK, Denmark and France, among other countries. Expectations about assimilation to “national norms” and “culture” is a common trait in such political societies, and does not reflect the vibrancy of culture as a concept, and the way it works dynamically for people to make sense of their world with – rather than in relation to – others.
There has always been migration, a movement of people around the world, exchanging ideas and cultures; current European policies on refugees and migration need to understand and reflect this. Moreover, integration should not be taken to mean assimilation, when in fact the definition is more of a dialogue than the priority of one culture over another. Seeking to protect a culture as if it is a static object is both naïve and, ultimately, likely to be unsuccessful. It is only going to fuel a populist right-wing agenda against immigration or asylum seekers. Migrants suffer in such an atmosphere, even if they are not fleeing war and persecution; many are more than ready to contribute towards their new societies and have the educational qualifications to do so. Wasting such resources in no man’s land, keeping a border for the sake of segregation and losing out on all that humanity and communitarianism can bring, makes no sense for developed countries like those in Europe.
The brave, resilient and hopeful
On Saturday, I took part in an event involving British and French citizens to shed light on the humanitarian repercussions of European border policies and show solidarity with the brave refugees. As a part of the “London2Calais” convoy from London, I made my way to the Jungle with many students, journalists and activists. The residents of the camp looked at us with misery in their eyes yet still welcomed us warmly; they are attempting to make some sort of life in the limbo of the Jungle, with its mud and tents; the children were everywhere. Factsheets were handed out in English and Arabic, explaining our resistance to the deal struck between Britain and France to solve the “issue” of the thousands of refugees and migrants who have ended up in Calais and other parts of Northern France; against a system that re-casts people as problems, turning a blind eye to the core inhumanity of the immigration system.
As the march began, several hundred Jungle survivors – the word sums them up perfectly – joined us in our chants while singing and dancing, and creating an impressive and peaceful protest. Placards called on the British border to be opened with some degree of understanding that migration is not an exceptional thing. One banner said “Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Descartes, De Gaulle were all refugees – Europe remember your values – remember your past”.
We walked together, listening to their stories of how they fled and survived several border crossings over sea and land to get to France, and we heard their views of the European responses. I met Omar, a young Sudanese man who came to Calais through Tunisia, after he had tried to make the journey on two boats from Sudan and Libya, where it was too dangerous for him to stay. The first boat held 50 people and was faulty, as was the second which carried 100 people; both started leaking at sea and returned to shore. Such boats are not uncommon. The desperation of the men involved and the profiteering of the people smuggler nearly cost hundreds of lives, including Omar’s. He finally reached Italy after a horrid crossing of the Mediterranean with more than 500 other passengers. He welled up as he told me of the horrors he had witnessed; people dying in an attempt to reach a safe haven in a place of excessive wealth and protection, compared to the rest of the world, including the countries from which they have fled and their colonial legacies of poverty and corruption. Going “home” to such places is not an option.
Mohammed is a young man from Afghanistan. He told me that he had travelled the whole way on his own and had sought asylum in France; he has a few more months to wait before he will know if he has permission to settle in Paris. In no man’s land this man had to keep believing in his dreams, suppressing the memories of his past and the pain of an uncertain future, for there is no way that he can go back. Along with thousands of other young men and women, he used to believe that Europe would be the place of his dreams for a safe life, but has been disappointed so far.
Not only was their journey life-threatening and traumatic, but they also now live precariously in the violence of the Jungle. Over the past few months, 11 people have been killed in motor accidents on the adjoining motorway. The NGOs in the camp told me that a man had died the day before our arrival, and a pregnant woman was hit by a car, which caused her baby to be miscarried.
Before our group headed back to Britain, Samir, who fled the war in Syria, explained to me his pain and frustration. His friend – a young man just 23 years old – had been electrocuted in a motorway tunnel in Calais. “What’s going to happen now?” he asked me desperately. “What’s going to change?” Our joint hope is that European government policies start to reflect the solidarity of European citizens.
The London2Calais campaign has been harassed by the Kent Police and UK Border Force. The campaign leader, Syed Bokhari, posted on Facebook that one of the team members had just had Border Agency officers at their house, suspecting them of people-trafficking. With governments prepared to spend scant resources to obstruct solidarity efforts, I believe that there is a real need to re-assess the ideological foundations of a closed border policy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.