In the shadow of picturesque coastal towns and bustling ports in Northern France lies a dark and distressing reality that remains largely concealed from the world’s gaze. The Calais refugee camp, often referred to as “the Jungle,” represents an uncomfortable truth in Europe’s ongoing struggle to address the global refugee crisis. These camps, although temporary in name, have endured for years as places of desperation and human suffering.

History of the Northern French refugee camps

Originally, there was an official refugee facility at Sangatte in the nineties. Yet, due to the worry of incoming asylum-seekers by the British government, it was suddenly closed down at the end of the nineties, leaving many refugees waiting to cross without an official place to stay. Therefore, individuals started to live spread out in the forests of Calais, which had become the first “Jungle” camp. The existence of the first camp lasted until 2009 when it was physically destroyed, and many of its inhabitants were arrested. Later, in 2014, a new refugee facility opened up under the supervision of the French government, as there was a huge influx of refugees due to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. As of 2021, there were more than 7000 individuals residing in the area of the “Jungle”. Currently, there are still lots of individuals residing in the area of the “Jungle”; however, their stay is illegal as the official facility was demolished a couple of years ago. As the camps have become informal and illegal, the French government carries out evictions and poses restrictions on humanitarian assistance for the refugees. 

Frequent evictions

The frequent evictions and demolitions in the informal refugee camps of Calais have created a never-ending cycle of displacement, insecurity, and instability for the inhabitants. While the French government’s actions are often framed as measures to maintain public health, security, and order, the consequences of these evictions have far-reaching humanitarian implications.

One of the most pressing concerns is the abrupt and chaotic nature of these clearances. Often, authorities give little advance notice, leaving residents with no time to prepare or make alternative arrangements. As a result, many lose their meagre possessions, including vital identification documents that may be the key to their asylum claims in the future. This destruction of personal belongings and documents has dire consequences, as it hampers their ability to navigate the complex immigration and asylum processes.

In addition, evictions frequently lead to the dispersion of the refugee populations. Families are separated, and communities are fractured. The bonds and support systems that migrants and refugees have built within the camps are shattered, leaving them more isolated and vulnerable. The lack of a coherent strategy to provide alternative accommodations or support for those displaced only deepens the crisis.

Moreover, the cycle of evictions creates a climate of fear and instability. Camp residents live in a constant state of apprehension, never knowing when their precarious shelters will be destroyed, and they will be forced to move once again. This insecurity erodes their physical and mental well-being, as the stress of living under the constant threat of eviction takes a toll on their overall health.

The humanitarian organizations and activists working in the area have consistently voiced their concerns about the impact of these evictions on the already vulnerable refugee populations. They argue for a more compassionate approach that takes into consideration the well-being and dignity of these individuals, particularly the most marginalized, including unaccompanied minors. 

Other human rights concerns

The French government not only carries frequent evictions that are harmful to the refugees residing around Calais, but it also imposed restrictions on the access to humanitarian assistance for the refugees. Specifically, one notable point of contention is the local ordinances that prohibit food and water distributions by aid groups in the Calais town centre. This restriction has been met with criticism, as it limits the access of refugees to essential provisions. These limitations have also raised questions about the French government’s commitment to upholding the rights and well-being of those living in the camps. Further, it is unofficially banned to sell cans and trash cans in the shops near the location of the refugees, so they are not able to clean after themselves or carry around water. Additionally, the French government does not allow food distribution, yet it fails to provide safe drinking water in the informal camps. 

The criminalization of humanitarianism

Following the ban on water and food distribution by volunteer groups, the French police have also carried out insults against humanitarian aid workers and volunteers. Specifically, between 2017 and 2019, there were 718 reported cases of police harassment against individuals helping in the informal refugee camps. These cases involved physical and verbal attacks. Further, translators and lawyers helping refugees seeking asylum are also at risk of being targeted by the French government. For instance, the case of Houssam El Assimi demonstrates this. He was a French and Arabic translator who was also active in protesting and demonstrating for better treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers in France. Specifically, he was arrested during a police raid, and initially, he was charged with “violence against persons holding public authority”. Yet, later, new charges were added based on Article L622-1 of France’s immigration law, as according to it,  “anyone who facilitates or attempts to facilitate the illegal entry, movement or residence of a foreigner in France shall be punished by imprisonment for five years and a fine of €30,000.” His case also shows how humanitarian work is criminalized in France, and even with aid workers and volunteers facing legal consequences. 

Conclusion

The Calais refugee camps present a stark and distressing reality in the heart of Europe. Evictions and restrictions on aid have compounded the struggles faced by refugees, creating a never-ending cycle of uncertainty and vulnerability.
The story of the Calais refugee camps is a sombre reminder of the shared responsibility we hold as global citizens to stand for the dignity and rights of those whose lives have been marked by adversity and hardship. As the world grapples with the ongoing refugee crisis, it is a call to action that should not be ignored.

Picture by Ahmed Akacha, via Pexels