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A brief history of France and Britain's grotesque treatment of refugees in Calais

A migrant holds a placard with a message for Britain's prime minister as they face off with French riot police during a protest near the area called the "jungle" where they live in Calais, France, October 1, 2016. [REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol]
A migrant holds a placard with a message for Britain's prime minister as they face off with French riot police during a protest near the area called the "jungle" where they live in Calais, France, October 1, 2016. [REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol]

As much as French officials would like to claim that the so-called "Jungle" refugee camp in Calais has been "cleared", it is unlikely that this will be the last time Britain and France face the prospect of refugees gathering within their borders.

Indeed, even today – days after the site was demolished – volunteers report that more than 1,000 children remain, "stressed and confused", in shipping containers at the site, awaiting processing.

What is to become of them? Well, representatives of the Conservative and UKIP parties in the UK have called for any potential immigrant to be subject to invasive medical testing in order ensure that that they're the appropriate age.

But even though the UK government has ruled this out, history tells us that both the UK and France have an appalling record on the maltreatment of refugees.

Indeed, the "Jungle" isn't the first camp that has existed in the Calais area, and there is little positive to be gleaned from history's lessons or from contemporary examples.

The first 'Jungle'

In many ways, the "Jungle" and the European migration "crisis" are some of the most obvious consequences of globalisation. Where – in the past – it has been easier for Western Europeans to forget or ignore the impact of global events (and often their own government's foreign policies) on the lives of other people in faraway lands, in today's world this is not as easy.

The interconnectedness of our lives – accelerated by global issues such as climate change, international conflict and the proliferation of transnational lines of communication and transport – has come back to bite us.

The first "Jungle" camp came in to being almost as a direct result of such interconnectedness. Indeed it was with the opening of the Channel Tunnel – one of the most obvious examples of accelerated interconnectedness of the 1990s – that the camp first sprang up.

In response to a dramatic spike in the number of refugees sleeping rough on the streets of Calais in the late 1990s – presumably preparing to seek entry into the UK via the tunnel or ferries using human traffickers – the then French government requested assistance from the Red Cross who, in turn, established a refugee support centre in the province of Sangette.

With only room for 600 people, the Red Cross' centre, however, was insufficient to meet demand. Nearly 1,000 more people continued to live on the streets, some working together to establish the shanty town that would become the "Jungle".

The Sangette centre – and the surrounding "Jungle" camp – were a source of constant tension between the British and French governments throughout the 2000s, with the UK suggesting that France was happy to allow the illegal movement of people across the channel in so as to allow them to become someone else's problem.

It wasn't much good for the refugees either, according to newspaper reports from the time, conditions inside were squalid and filthy. But when the French caved to British pressure and agreed to close the centre, in 2002, the Red Cross warned that humanitarian conditions would only worsen.

Nonetheless the two governments signed the Treaty of Le Touquet in 2003 that established juxtaposed controls over immigration. Essentially, this meant that the British border control moved across to Calais, in exchange for UK funding for new facilities on the French side.

However, while this certainly provided some short-term relief to political leaders who had faced a barrage of bad press since the "Jungle" first emerged, it was far too small a step to actually deal with any of the real problems within which the question of migration is rooted.

The real story

According to the activist group Calais Migrant Solidarity, which provides legal aid and support to migrants and refugees trapped in places like the "Jungle", there are numerous different ways to interpret the meaning of the "Jungle" as a social and political phenomenon.

Of course, British and French official policy had a direct impact on the inhabitants there. This included the systematic denial of rights, the forced reliving of trauma through the demand to recount, again and again, personal stories of the pain and suffering and the "uncountable" number of lives lost at the border through negligence or deliberate policies designed to make life harder for refugees.

But more than any of that, according to Calais Migrant Solidarity, the best way to understand what any/all of this means is to look at the "Jungle" in its various forms through the lens of methodical racism and state-violence.

The real story in Calais is the persecution of any foreigner who isn't white in Britain's enforcement of its border regime (and it is no exaggeration to say this is a race issue – there have been many incidents of harassment and arrest of people with the correct documents on the basis of their appearance). The real story is the violence and repression faced by migrants in Calais at the hand of the state. The real story is the unbelievable loss caused by this border.

Indeed, despite being treated as if it is a simple problem of our time, something that can be combatted with politically motivate migration "caps", harsher impediments and making people feel unwelcome by the majority of the press, migration really is an issue on a grander scale. It's a product of global concerns; war, climate change and the startling level of wealth inequality worldwide.

If we simply look where it is that the majority of the over 7,000 people who inhabited the "Jungle" are from, according to a qualitative study earlier this year, we find that a plurality come from Sudan, followed by Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Pakistan. These are places that have been scared by a history of European colonialism and – in some cases – very recent wars in which the UK and France have played a direct role.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the on-going tragedy that exemplified the "Jungle", and the migrant crisis at large, it is that no matter how hard our governments try, the mass movement of peoples as a result of unspeakable hardship and conflict in their home countries is not ever going to really be someone else's problem. We're in this together and if we hide from that, we're only hiding from the reality of the global problems that plague us all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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