Calais Jungle

Switzerland, July 22

Yesterday, while attending a forum on European migration issues, I learned that in the town of Calais on France’s northwest coast, a growing shanty-town known as Calais Jungle populated by migrants and asylum seekers, now has a population of 7,300 and is likely to reach 10,000 by September. This deteriorating situation in Calais, not widely known in the U.S., cries out for attention, if only to allow those of us living at a distance to sense the shocking and heart-rending tensions and contradictions still surrounding Europe’s refugee/migrant crisis.

Calais, best known to the Anglophone world as the entry point into continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel, is a gathering place for refugees and migrants who have set their hopes on getting to the UK. Camps of this kind have been forming in Calais since the early 1990s. They have been set up on unoccupied land, using tents and other temporary shelter, moving to new locations when the French authorities close them. Last year this particular camp grew significantly. By April 2015, it had acquired, for the first time, showers, toilets and electricity. Charities have been providing one meal a day.

Because the UK is not party to the Schengen agreement for free movement of people in Europe, the UK is not legally required to allow entry to these people. Nor are they likely to get asylum in the UK as refugees, since they have already been living in France for some time, and therefore can no longer make a case that they are unsafe. But these people do not want to give up on the dream of getting to Britain, where many already have family members, and where they believe their chances of getting jobs are better than in France. The current population includes over six hundred children not accompanied by an adult, many of whom are waiting to be reunited with family members in the UK.

Frequently inhabitants attempt to board trucks or trains entering the Tunnel. One man recently walked almost the entire 31 miles of the tunnel, with freight trains rushing past him inches away, only to be arrested shortly before his arrival on the British side, and forced to return to France.  Just one month ago the port of Calais was forced to close for a time when migrants took to the streets, erecting barriers in the road in order to slow down vehicles heading for the tunnel so that they could board them. Police dispersed the migrants with tear gas.

The alternative to going to the UK for these people is to request asylum in France, but these migrants regard that step as giving up on better possibilities in the UK.

Left wing groups, including Jeremy Corbyn, embattled head of the British Labour Party, have been lobbying the British government to let in a good number of the migrants.  British who want to demonstrate their compassion for the Calais situation have mobilized an aid convoy for the refugees, but French authorities have blocked its departure from Dover, the port town on the British side of the Tunnel. This policy arises from French recognition that anything they do to improve the lot of the inhabitants of the camp is likely to encourage more people to come.

France seems unable to find a means effectively to disperse these people, even though conditions in the camp are unsanitary and crowded. In February of this year, a court in Lille allowed the Calais police to evict 1,000 migrants from the camp. But since the February evictions, the numbers have grown even greater. The authorities have brought 125 shipping containers into the shanty-town as a form of temporary housing for 1500 people. Permanent buildings are not possible because of the sandy soil.

The news site reported in January 2016 that the French Army is making contingency plans for the “reappropriation of national territory,” in case these groups acquire weapons and become more hostile to authorities.

The situation presents the French authorities with a terrible dilemma.  Let’s fervently hope they can find a way out of this before the law of the jungle has its way.



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