Calais Migrant Camp: The State So Far

by Alex Fusco

29 October 2016

Malachy Browne/Flickr

Before the Calais migrant camp – also referred to as the ‘Jungle’ – is erased, both from the patch of earth on which it stands and from the perennially amnesic popular consciousness, it is worth reflecting on what the camp represents and the issues it raises in the wider context of the migration debate and policy.


As a port town, historically Calais has been a place of migration, a transit point, a place through which people pass, either order to reach the UK or alight on French shores. Since the 1990s, Calais has been a major hub for people wishing to claim asylum in Britain. Toward the end of that decade, the French Red Cross opened a refugee camp (a warehouse) in Sangatte, on the eastern edges of the town, to house the thousands of refugees sleeping rough in and around Calais. The camp soon reached its maximum capacity, but people continued to arrive and conditions grew steadily worse. Periodic outbreaks of violence and unrest found their way into the mainstream media, and pressure grew on the French government to do something about the camp. Sure enough, Sangatte was closed in 2002 (on the orders of the interior minister, a certain Nicolas Sarkozy) after a deal was struck with the UK in which it was agreed that a proportion of the refugees would be granted asylum in Britain.

But Calais did not suddenly lose its strategic importance, and the demolition of Sangatte did not solve the issue. Many migrants simply relocated to various smaller camps in the surrounding area. One of these camps continued to expand, and for the most part managed to avoid the periodic expulsions and demolitions that put paid to some of the other temporary settlements. This tent city, of course, came to be known as ‘the Jungle’.

A political pawn.

14 years after the closure of Sangatte, it is now the Jungle’s turn to face the low groan of bulldozers. It would appear political memory is as amnesic as popular consciousness; will they never learn? Demolishing the camps is simply attacking the most visible and the most vulnerable manifestation of a problem that runs far deeper.

Sending vanloads of riot police to ‘secure’ the camps and forcibly expel inhabitants, then bulldozing the temporary structures that had supported a community will have no effect on patterns of migration. Desperate people wanting to get to the UK will continue to flock to Calais. And if not Calais, Dunkirk. And if not Dunkirk, then the next patch of French coastline that serves as an external British border. Destroying the camps is the futile act of a state that doesn’t know – or doesn’t want to know – how to address the issues that underpin the now-perpetual migration crisis, and is simply content to pursue short term political gain. It is no coincidence that French Presidential elections are looming.

Destination Britain.

It is pertinent here just to re-iterate a crucial aspect of this debate. The overwhelming majority of migrants living in Calais are desperate to reach the UK in order to be reunited with family members. As even a cursory glance at the academic literature on the subject will attest, familial and social ties are by far the most important elements affecting migration destinations.

The notion that these people are attempting to reach the UK in order to milk the British welfare system is an abhorrent lie peddled by a perverse right-wing media machine. That people would leave their homes, pack up their families and their belongings and cross a continent under some of the most awful conditions imaginable in order to claim £70 a week is an outrageous claim with no absolutely no basis in reality. Aside from instant rebuttal, it merits no further attention and should play no part whatsoever in the wider migration debate.

An externalised border.

In European political-speak, the term ‘externalised border’ refers to the practice of pushing frontiers back to neighbouring countries (often outside the EU) to effectively cut migration off at the source, rather than waiting for migrants to arrive on one’s own territory.

One of the most ‘successful’ externalised borders is in Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish territory on the northern tip of Morocco. In response to unprecedented levels of immigration in the early 2000s, Spanish authorities decided to step-up border security, effectively setting up a militarised zone to prevent migrants reaching ‘Spanish territory’ (Ceuta and Melilla) and thus being protected by Spanish law and able to claim asylum.

In a similar vein, Calais is an externalised UK border: security checks and various registration procedures take place on the French side of the Channel. In the aftermath of Brexit, many French politicians have been declaring that this arrangement should cease and the border be returned to its ‘natural’ habitat in Dover. Were this to occur, it would in all likelihood lead to a state of limbo for migrants caught in the middle and further tension between the two countries.

One of the main problems with the ‘externalised borders’ approach is the fact that it simply shifts the frontier from one place to another rather than actually addressing the issue. The border is still a highly-secured and contested space, but just in another place – often where human rights are less of a concern, as evidenced by the experience of Ceuta and Melilla. In the context of Calais, the result of an externalised British border is the collision of two state actors that somehow conspires to produce a void in which neither state takes responsibility for the vulnerable people caught in the middle.

State (of) neglect.

In the Calais refugee camp the role of the state is, and has been, limited to what can optimistically be termed ‘security’. The NGOs operating in Calais, staffed predominantly by volunteers, have been responsible for providing food, accommodation (tents), clothing, medical supplies, education and psychological support. Although it must be said these NGOs are doing an absolutely magnificent job, showing once again that the best of humanity is often found in the face of the worst, the key question remains – where is the state in all this?

Despite the border externalisation the French authorities must bear the brunt of the blame. The French state has essentially declared the camp off-limits: a non-place, on French territory but not governed by French laws or worthy of French state assistance. This can be seen most clearly in the events of the past few days. On Wednesday, Pascal Brice, head of the Office for Refugees and Stateless People remarked: “All the people who were leaving the ‘Jungle’ are now welcomed in France, in good conditions in accommodation centres.” As though the migrant camp were not a field on the outskirts of Calais, but a distant, far-away land where the generosity and kindness of the French state could not reach. As though anyone living in the camp could not be offered basic aid or assistance precisely because they lived in the camp. Why weren’t these ‘good conditions’ provided over the last ten years? Why has this welcoming hand been a baton-wielding fist or an indifferent shrug for the past decade?

Shirking responsibility.

On Wednesday afternoon, Fabienne Buci announced that the camp had been cleared. Anyone who saw the camp on Wednesday afternoon would have recourse to disagree. On Wednesday night, more than 100 unaccompanied minors who had not been ‘registered’ were sent back to the still-smouldering camp, apparently expected to bed down among the ruins. Presumably, French authorities were too busy congratulating themselves on having successfully completed the ‘operation’ to worry about where these children would sleep.

Once again, NGOs stepped up to the task, finding accommodation for many of the children in a nearby warehouse and the Chemin des Dunes school. But how did it come to this? Why, when vulnerable children were at risk, were the authorities found wanting?

It must be pointed out the blame does not lie solely with the French. Under the Dubs amendment announced in May, Britain agreed to accept around 3,000 unaccompanied minors. As of last week, the UK had welcomed just 30. The very fact that these children were still in the ‘Jungle’ this week was due at least in part to foot-dragging, bureaucratic meandering and reluctance on the part of British authorities.

The burden to care for vulnerable people caught up in this mess entirely not of their own making falls increasingly on NGOs. They are managing superbly, and deserve every ounce of support they elicit, but they should not be doing this alone while the two key state actors either dither or demolish.


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