Stuck in the Calais “Jungle”

With all the focus on the current refugee crisis in Europe, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that refugees have been coming to Europe from Africa and the Middle East for years. The experience of those refugees and migrants are instructive to understanding the current crisis, and how far Europe needs to go in creating humane policies that uphold the rights of refugees.

One of the most obvious signs of current European refugee policy is the “The Jungle”, a series of makeshift camps by the port of Calais in France where an estimated 6,000 refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants reside with the hope of making it to the UK. Established in 2002 after the Red Cross Reception Center of Sangatte was closed by the French government, most of the camps are tolerated by the government but still lack running water, basic sanitation and shelter. With limited government assistance, it is up to aid groups to try and provide for camp inhabitants, a task much too large for them to handle.

In response to a lawsuit filed by several NGOs working in the camps, last week a French court ordered the French government to take emergency measures to improve conditions in the camps, giving officials eight days to install desperately needed water access points, toilets, trash collection and establish procedures for identifying unaccompanied children and those in need of medical care. Instead, the camps have seen violent clashes with police over the past three nights, highlighting the tension between national policies designed to dissuade refugees from coming to Europe and the motivations of those desperate to escape to a better life.

The dire conditions at The Jungle as well as the increased police presence are both signs of this tension. Most of the people living in The Jungle do not want to stay in France and instead try to smuggle themselves on board trucks and trains passing through the Channel Tunnel to the UK. Not surprisingly, the UK doesn’t want the unauthorized entrances and has demanded France institute policies that stop them. Several protests over the summer grew violent as migrants attempted to storm the port and be allowed to pass to the UK, but the more the migrants try, the more ire The Jungle attracts from far-right and anti-immigration groups in both the UK and France. Growing security has now turned the port of Calais into a “fortress”, with the French Interior Ministry declaring that not one refugee managed to make it to the UK in October as proof of its successful policies.

But while Calais may now be a dead end for those hoping to go to the UK, calling any of these policies a success is dubious. The end result of all this is a game of cat and mouse where French police harass and stop the migrants – many of whom have legitimate claims to asylum or refugee status – but do little to actually address the underlying problem. According to aid groups, most of those arrested and sent to administrative retention centers around the country are released days just later, only to return to Calais and start the cycle over again.

So far in 2015, nearly 800,000 refugees have come to Europe by sea, mainly to the central and eastern Mediterranean. Countries further west such as France and the UK have largely escaped the numbers seen in the Balkans and Germany, and both hope to keep it that way by instituting harsher immigration policies. In that regard, the lack of a comprehensive EU-wide refugee policy is on full display at The Jungle, as are the results of government contempt towards refugees and migrants. It is a problem that has been festering for more than a decade in the shantytowns around Calais, with no end in sight. While the current refugee crisis may be new, Europe’s inability to uphold international norms and deal with refugees in a humane fashion are not. Addressing the current crisis needs more than just settling Syrian refugees, and requires that all of Europe develop a better way to accept refugees and an equitable policy that holds all of the EU accountable.