Courtesy ekvidi/
Europe / Refugees

The Intermodal Jungle

The Port of Calais is situated in northern France on the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point on the English Channel, and consequently, the gathering ground for refugees hoping to reach the United Kingdom. The “Jungle” is a sprawling refugee encampment that houses migrants of various origins seeking asylum across the strait. City dwellers and local legislators are incensed, claiming that the camp brings violence into their communities and jeopardizes their businesses. As tension rises and France faces increasing pressure from Calais residents to eradicate the camp, the Jungle is in many ways a microcosm of the escalating refugee crisis on the world stage.

Following the explosive civil war in Syria, the economic crisis in Greece, and violence in the Middle East, refugee numbers spiked dramatically in 2015; by the end of the year, there were well over a million. European countries largely underestimated this increase, since no one believed how many asylum seekers would risk coming by sea. As it turns out, one million arrived by sea in 2015, so host countries were unprepared and later unwilling to open their doors. Several European countries have stepped up to the task, especially Germany, but the majority of the continent remains insulated from the influx of refugees. The crisis has created a climate of fear that further halts the relocation of refugees and perpetuates a lack of participation among European states.

The Jungle sprang up in 2002 following the closing of Sangatte, a reception facility run by the French Red Cross that could not accommodate incoming populations. Since then, the French government has made efforts to eradicate the camp. In 2009, the French government arrested nearly two hundred inhabitants and destroyed temporary shelters with bulldozers. Later that year, the camp sprouted again from the destruction, this time housing between eight hundred and nine hundred asylum seekers. The camp continued to grow. In January 2016, French authorities brought in shipping crates to act as shelters for fifteen hundred inhabitants, only one sixth of the camp’s population. Despite the camp’s current estimated population of ten thousand, the United Nations has not formally recognized it as a refugee camp; the only help the camp gets is donated food and clothes from local NGOs. Outside of the camp, France hosts comparatively low numbers of refugeesthe rest of the country is largely untouched. 

 Although Calais residents claim the Jungle has infringed on their quality of life, the lives of Jungle dwellers are far worse. They lack hot water, plumbing, and electricity. Those unable to claim a storage container must craft lodgings from whatever they can find. The camp is ugly, refugees are desperate, tensions are high, and violent outbursts are common. As a result, the gap in empathy between the camp residents and Calais residents has continued to widen. Refugees, forced to compete and live like animals, are perceived by their hosts as same. This dehumanization of a people incites the fear, that is shared around the world, of the unknown person full of unknown potential to do harm or disrupt what one knows. As fear grows, so does refugee contempt for those who fear them, and the cycle continues: each party misunderstood and mistaken as a result of the circumstances.

In Calais, we see this tension localized in a small port city, but the pattern is mirrored on a much larger scale. Due to limited space, European refugee encampments are close to large cities: Dunkirk and London; Idomeni and Thessaloniki. The proximity of the camps to cities and the camps’ squalor make citizens nervous and incite fear in the same way that the walking distance between the Jungle and urban homes affects the citizens of Calais. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi is concerned that “a worrying climate of xenophobia has taken hold in Europe.” One of the two candidates running for president in the United States has declared, “I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of a mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they’re going back.”

Fear is growing, but the need to be perceived as “on the right side of history” remains. As a result we see pledges to accept grand numbers of migrants that are seldom followed through on. In Calais, refugee children try night after night to reach the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Border Force and French police reportedly stopped thirty-nine thousand attempts to cross the channel from 2014 to 2015, and Eurotunnel has halted thirty-seven thousand attempts. These attempts are in response to the asylum the United Kingdom has promised. That promise, more specifically, involves the Lord Alf Dubs amendment, which allows unaccompanied children to be offered safe refuge in the United Kingdom. The amendment clarifies the United Kingdom’s promise to take in thousands of  unaccompanied refugee children that reach the continent. In practice, this number has dropped by a factor of ten. The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, Amber Rudd, has said that if three hundred lone child refugees are taken from Calais, that would be “a really good result.” There are reportedly between six hundred and nine hundred lone children in the camp at the moment. We see a huge gap between what was once promised out of good faith and what is acted upon. This disparity in Calais is a product of the ambiguous language that states use to describe their commitments and the lack of accountability.

Recently, the Leader’s Summit on Refugees resulted in the New York Declaration, which according to the United Nations “expresses the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights, and share responsibility on a global scale.” The document lists several commitments and next steps for countries to take: “Strongly condemn xenophobia against refugees and migrants and support a global campaign to counter it,” and “Achieve a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees by adopting a global compact on refugees in 2018.” These “commitments” are not committal at all, since they offer no specific timelines or targets.

 In Europe, several countries take in refugees almost to capacity, while the majority of them give promises at best. We see how the European Union has allowed the refugee populations to remain localized densely in a few locations rather than disperse them evenly. Perhaps this is done to minimize the disturbance across the continent, though undoubtedly a wider dispersion would have much lower impact in host states. In France, Calais is the dumping ground for refugee populations while the rest of the country remains untouched. As refugee numbers continue to rise, this approach proves to be less and less sustainable, on an immediate level in France and very soon in all of Europe.

The French reaction to this growing problem in Calais has been inflammatory and futile; there has been an ongoing game of hot potato as different governing bodies attempt to pass the responsibility of finding a solution onto another. Meanwhile, hatred and prejudice toward the refugees continues to grow. The security of the port is controlled by the Calais Chambers of Commerce, though the mayor of the city, Natacha Bouchart, has made it clear she believes this is a problem for the French government or United Kingdom to solve. She has even called for a renegotiation of the border that would allow the United Kingdom to do customs checks in France itself. Although the United Kingdom has sent money to aid with security measures, Bouchart has also called upon the French government to help with the eradication of the camp as her constituents grow more and more impatient. Finally, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has joined Bouchart in calling for the immediate dismantling of the camp, which would mean the relocation of an estimated ten thousand people. Undoubtedly, this number would be significantly lower if the three governing bodies involved had come to an agreement years ago.

This game of hot potato has stalled any productive measures for quite some time. France has spent years fighting with the United Kingdom and Calais over its role, and now the camp has grown into a much larger problem. Although it is true that the number of refugees entering Europe jumped dramatically in 2015, the continent’s lack of cohesion and collaborative action has and will continue to worsen the relocation process.

The French government’s mishandling of Calais’ Jungle is a smaller, symbolic picture of the escalating refugee crisis across the globe. What started as a small encampment in 1999, left unattended, is now an overgrown problem for the citizens of Calais. As government officials were bickering over capacity, women, children, and young men suffered inhumane conditions while attempting to build a temporary life in the squalor of the Jungle. A common notion, it seems, is that refugees should be helped—it’s the right thing to do—but “not in my backyard.” Calais is an example of how a mishandled influx of refugees can turn into a backyard nightmare, further perpetuating the aversion to admitting refugees.

On September 18, 2016, President Obama led the Leader’s Summit on Refugees, where he made appeals to our “common humanity” and declared the Syrian crisis “unacceptable.” But as Obama asks the world to do more, Amnesty International reports “member states stripped the UN proposals of any substance, making sure there was nothing obligating them to take in specific numbers of people.” Moreover, the Global Compact on Refugees will not be agreed upon until 2018. Meanwhile, the Jungle grows and more and more people fleeing war spend their nights chasing freedom and fleeing border security. This problem is unrelenting, and as Obama claims, a matter of humanity; but it cannot be ameliorated without immediate global cooperation and action.