‘The camp is now almost completely on fire and not safe. Volunteers are reporting hundreds of unaccompanied minors under the bridge not knowing what to do.’
The words of the Facebook post from Help Refugees are every bit as powerful as the picture that accompanied it, showing towers of billowing smoke covering what seems to be most of the sky above the Jungle camp in Calais. Around 300 children had just been turned away from the converted shipping containers in which the French authorities were processing them; and told to go back into what was fast becoming a firestorm. Among the comments was a plea for any local hoteliers to house some children for the next night. Without being there – without even seeing video footage – the enveloping sense of panic crept through to me too. Those words represented the frantic attempts of a small, overwhelmed team of volunteers trying desperately to prevent Armageddon. And all in real time.
Chaos in the Jungle during its dismantlement was inevitable, but undoubtedly it had to go at some point. The lorry drivers whose vehicles were targeted by smugglers were put through recurrent trauma and fear of punishment upon discovery of unexpected passengers in the UK. As for the camp itself, it was hardly where its residents had envisaged ending up. But after an initial stage of orderly evacuation, the demolition became a humanitarian failure bordering on the atrocious. The cause lay in the wilful disaster that had constituted French government policy stretching back years: closing the camp merely represented its climax.
The fires were started by the Jungle’s departing residents, burning down their homes as a final show of resistance to a country that has done its best to brutalize, demonize and humiliate them. Their goodwill had been eroded by years of institutionalized police abuse by perhaps France’s most infamous law enforcement agency: the Calais Riot Service. When I volunteered for two weeks over the summer in Calais, I discovered the extent to which this brutality was open, shameless and apparently acceptable. Officers beat refugees openly in the streets of the camp and unleashed tear gas on what appeared to be an arbitrary basis. A friend of mine had to act fast when a gas canister landed right next to the open door of a makeshift school at which he was working. Another friend witnessed a lone male suddenly being accosted by a group of officers and viciously beaten. While this behaviour is socially acceptable within the force, the Calais police are not stupid: they remove their numbered badges so as to avoid identification by those wishing to prosecute them under French law. Of course, it does not trouble them that this is illegal.
After an initial stage of orderly evacuation, the demolition became a humanitarian failure bordering on the atrocious
Considered alongside France, and Britain’s, consistent refusal to grant asylum to the camp’s occupants, it is easy to understand why the latter were sceptical when the authorities promised them that their claims would now be reviewed if only they handed themselves over. The government’s plan was to transport the refugees to reception centres across France and deal with their applications there. As one long-term volunteer put it to me, people were being asked by an institution they did not trust to allow themselves to be taken somewhere they had never heard of.
The camp had become a refuge for them and they had done their best to make it into a home. The road leading into the camp takes you first to the ‘high street’, lined either side with shops and restaurants frequented by volunteers as well as the locals. Another turn takes you to the arts and crafts space and next to it the youth centre, where children and adolescents play games, take part in group activities and try to forget that they are living in a refugee camp. On leaving the Jungle you can see adults too making the best of things, playing ten games of cricket and football side by side .It was not the society they chose but it was the one they made.
This may not even be the end of the Calais saga. Refugees have populated the area illegally since 1999, when the Sangatte camp was established. It came to house 2000 people by 2002, when it was dismantled relatively peacefully by the French authorities and its inhabitants granted asylum in the UK or France. There are two lessons to be drawn from Sangatte. First, there will probably be another Jungle. Second, if the French wish to deal with this one more effectively than the last, then they must show more understanding towards the plight of refugees.