Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Calais Refugee Camp

The latest U.K. contribution is to the refugee humanitarian crisis is to build the “Great Wall of Calais” – a two-mile long 13ft high barrier to prevent the entry of asylum seekers. The so-called Calais “Jungle” is Europe’s biggest shantytown. Police stand at all main entrances of the makeshift settlements. Militarized French security personnel control access to the camp. The international authorities and U.N. organizations do not officially recognize the camp but the French police control all movement. The presence and demeanor of the police creates an intimidating atmosphere.

The inhumane and unsanitary living conditions – numerous dead rats on the muddy roads, waste accumulating on the ground, running raw sewage and horrendous, overflowing chemical toilets – are a perfect recipe for disease and general malaise.

Escaping their war-torn, poverty-struck homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream but they soon discovered that their dreams of finding such safety in Europe did not correspond with their daily experiences in Calais. The dream of Europe has led these people to a bitter disillusion. When refugees land on European soil, they must face the hardships of ruthless politics that render them unwanted and disposable. The squalid living conditions, unsafe environments, ruthless treatment and the tightening of borders have not stopped the movement of people from the Middle East and Africa into Europe – quite the opposite. In August, the total population reached 9,100, with an average of 70 newcomers arriving in Calais camp every single day. It is the highest population in the camps in recent years.

Countless evictions have taken place in the past. The last eviction occurred in March 2016, when French demolition teams destroyed hundreds of shelters and community structures in the southern part of the camp. With the help of volunteers and organizations, refugees and migrants relocated their shacks to the northern part. As a result, density in the northern half has increased, and along with it, tensions, conflict and disease. In July, riot squads destroyed the communal heart of the camp when they confiscated food, water and documents from refugees and shuttered community restaurants. The French authorities even seized food from the free restaurant for children. This has led to more hungry, dejected people, adding pressure on already overburdened organizations that serve meals to them. Calais’ mayor, Natacha Bouchart, recently announced plans to dismantle the entire camp. In repeatedly uprooting already forcibly displaced populations, authorities not only legitimize violence against people fleeing war zones and famine, but also re-traumatize them. Besides promoting the message that refugees and migrants are unwelcome and unwanted, such strategies destabilize social cohesion and community structures. The community restaurants offered much more than traditional meals and hot drinks. They were safe havens for disfranchised people. These restaurants created an inviting environment, where the residents could socialize, share food and converse. In such spaces, a sense of community, normality, connection and support were present. In the face of hopelessness and conflict, social spaces enable a feeling of belonging, while sustaining at least the minimal levels of humanity and sanity for thousands who are subjected to dehumanization on a daily basis.

These political actions are clearly meant to tell people: “You don’t belong here.” Dismantling the camps in Calais will not make them disappear. They will simply re-emerge, perhaps in a different space, but with the same needs.

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