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Jungle of Calais: Why is France demolishing its most notorious refugee camp now?

Calais France
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On Monday, Feb. 29, French authorities began removing residents from the southern portion of the so-called “Jungle of Calais,” a refugee camp that has long served as a way station for a shifting population of several thousand migrants hoping to reach England via the Channel Tunnel, whose entrance is nearby.


The French government says that it acted because conditions in the camp, always deplorable, had declined further as the number of residents increased in recent months. But it’s clear enough that political pressures played an equally important part in the decision.

Which is not to say such pressures were entirely grounded in reality. For anti-immigrant politicians like the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the Jungle has served as a potent symbol of the French government’s alleged “inability to control its borders.” The truth is that the Calais camp, far from being born in a fit of bureaucratic absence of mind, was the product of a concerted calculation by the French and British governments. Both had agreed that it made more sense to control the Franco-British border on the French side of the Channel. Neither anticipated that the camp would earn a symbolic meaning far in disproportion to its actual size or significance.

France established its first refugee center in the Calais region in 1999. Following talks with Britain, France agreed to establish a security perimeter around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in order to prevent migrants from stowing away on entering vehicles. The French government housed the refugees, and thus prevented them from escaping to England, in the nearby village of Sangatte in a building owned by the company that manages the tunnel. During its three-year existence, this center became a political battleground, as a variety of humanitarian groups sought to improve living conditions, while local authorities complained of the burden they were being asked to bear on behalf of Britain, whose financial support for the effort was criticized as woefully inadequate.

Sangatte was closed in 2002 because of overcrowding. Nicolas Sarkozy, then-minister of the interior, promised to solve the migrant problem permanently by returning refugees to Afghanistan, for which he obtained a promise of cooperation from the Afghan government. His British counterpart, David Blunkett, promised on his part to tighten laws governing refugee status so as to make the United Kingdom a less attractive destination. But refugees,protected by French and European asylum laws and court decisions, continued to pour into the Calais area, and tens of thousands of them succeeded in making their way to Britain over the years, often with the aid of paid smugglers.

Hopeful migrants, many drawn to Britain because they have family there or have already mastered the language and hope to find work in the U.K., where unemployment is much lower than in France, began to set up makeshift camps at various locations in the area. Over the next decade-and-a-half, as these camps grew in size, a variety of services emerged to serve the residents, including grocery shops, medical facilities, theaters, mosques, and churches. But French sensibilities have regularly been shocked by reports of unsanitary conditions in the camps, where some residents have no choice but to bathe in waste water from a chemical plant. “The living conditions of these people … are absolutely unheard of in Europe, and do not even respect the norms set by the United Nations [for refugee camps],” according to aid groups. The site has been compared to a “war zone or scene of natural disaster.”

There have also been disturbances in the camps, some stemming from frictions between migrants of different nationalities or ethnicities, others involving assaults on women, and still others pitting police against migrants, allegedly egged on by members of the anti-globalization network No Borders, which advocates for the abolition of all border controls.

Previous attempts by the French government to dismantle the camps succeeded only in forcing them to relocate from one place to another in the Calais region. But now the government has decided to mount a two-pronged assault. It has begun to build its own refugee camp using shipping containers equipped with heaters, electricity, and sanitary facilities. Official emissaries have been sent into the Jungle to persuade refugees that they will be safer and more comfortable if they move into these new facilities. At the same time, efforts are underway to persuade refugees to abandon their hope of reaching Britain and instead to accept asylum status in France.

This is a hard sell for some refugees, who have no facility with French or who hope to rejoin family members in England. Others have nevertheless proved more receptive to the government’s offer of resettlement, despite apprehensions about anti-immigrant sentiment in many French communities. On the morning of Feb. 29, buses began arriving in the Jungle to carry willing migrants off to newly prepared housing in selected locations around France.

Opposition to this new relocation policy has created some strange bedfellows, with anti-immigrant mayors like Robert Ménard of Béziers lining up alongside anti-globalization activists demanding an end to all borders. Some humanitarian groups complain that the squalid dwellings in the Jungle are being destroyed before adequate replacement housing has been put in place, but the French Interior Ministry insists that shelter will be found for all the displaced refugees.

Why this change of direction on the part of the French government? The answer clearly has to do with the fact that, since hundreds of thousands of migrants recently started fleeing for Europe from wars in the Middle East, the refugee question has become the top item on the agenda of the entire European Union. Refugees are no longer a parochial French issue linked to the geographical accident that one end of the Channel Tunnel is in Calais, the other in Folkestone.

Europe’s wider struggle with refugees had cast the squalor in Calais in a very harsh light. The number of refugees enduring the wretched conditions in the Jungle — between 3,000 and 7,000 depending on whose estimate you accept — was risibly small compared to the tens of thousands of refugees now stranded in Greece by the closing of the Macedonian and Bulgarian routes northward and even less significant when compared to the million-plus refugees who have found their way to Germany over the past year. France has agreed to shoulder part of the burden by accepting 24,000 refugees, but this is a tiny fraction of the total arrivals.

At the same time, overt hostility between Jungle residents and citizens of Calais has been on the rise for some time. Le Pen has seized every opportunity to criticize the government for lax law enforcement in its dealing with Jungle residents. “Sorry to ask impertinent questions,” she tweeted after one clash between refugees and police in November 2015, “but how many arrests were made?”

In last December’s regional elections, Le Pen’s National Front led all other parties in first-round voting in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region in which the Jungle is located. Although she was defeated in the second round, she came close to becoming the head of the region. Her Socialist opponent, Pierre de Saintignon, called the situation in Calais “untenable” and said that it left no choice but “to accelerate measures to create reception centers for refugees who may remain in France, as well as for those who should be admitted to England because they have family ties there.” The ruling Socialist Party thus felt compelled to respond, both to improve France’s image in Europe with respect to the handling of refugees and to answer criticism of its policies from the right and extreme right within France.

The refugee crisis now overshadows the euro crisis and continuing economic stagnation as the most serious challenge facing the EU today. Since the closing of the Macedonian border, the situation in Greece is deteriorating rapidly, with explosive political consequences. Despite growing opposition within Germany and even within her own governing coalition, Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to insist that she will not change course on refugees. Yet French Prime Minister Manuel Valls seemed to blame Merkelfor the refugee crisis by alleging in a recent Munich speech that her open-door policy was only encouraging more and more people to flee the civil war in Syria in the hope of a safe landing somewhere in Europe.

The Schengen Agreement, under which 26 European countries with a combined population of some 400 million people agreed in 1985 to allow relatively free movement of people across borders, has been severely tested by the refugee crisis. Border checks have been reinstated in many places where they had fallen into abeyance, and even tiny Denmark has begun to turn away refugees and confiscate the valuable assets of new arrivals in order to pay for their upkeep. There are serious divergences within and between member states in the Schengen area (which does not include the U.K.) about how to deal with the crisis, and Merkel’s calls for a fairer apportionment of the burden have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

With pressure building both across Europe and within France, the French government no doubt decided that it could no longer afford to temporize on a solution for the Jungle of Calais. It remains to be seen, however, whether the evacuation of the camp can be completed without provoking opposition more serious than has been seen to date, especially if substantial numbers of migrants opt for permanent residence in France. What is already clear, however, is that the camp’s closure will do nothing to bring resolution to the broader continental migration crisis that compelled it in the first place.