On Monday, French president Francois Hollande announced the demolition of Calais Jungle by the end of the year, possibly as early as late October.
Our friends who live in the Jungle lie sick in damp or leaky tents. Getting to a meal, a shower, a French class entails navigating puddles in shoes with questionable soles.
It would be easier and more compassionate for France to allow volunteers and NGOs to improve this shantytown than to disperse its 10,000 residents to uncertain conditions. Cheaper too. Installing thirty more showers, and reopening the demolished southern half of the Jungle would cost the French less than staffing accommodation centers and providing necessities for dispersed refugees. The government could remove restrictions on building supplies in Calais Jungle, enabling refugees and volunteers to erect shelters. It could allow shops and restaurants run by migrant entrepreneurs to continue operating, rather than shutting them down en masse as they do from time to time.
France won’t admit that it is ill-prepared to take on the services currently provided by hundreds of volunteers and NGOs in the Jungle. The informal network of volunteer-staffed organizations provides food, French classes, wifi, phone credit, free tea, legal information, entertainment, friendship, acculturation, and sanity. Large off-site warehouses sort sleeping bags, clothes, and tents. Organized distribution of sorted items happens in spots and at times known to refugees. Fights break out, but, all in all, the system works. It provides basics, and would be able to do more were it not for the efforts of the French police to curtail services. The theory is that the more miserable the refugees, the fewer will cross the Mediterranean to come here.
Refugee communities help each other by walking to each other’s tents, sharing a meal in a cheap restaurant while charging phones, studying French or English together in a language class. They pass the time playing chess at a tea truck, reading donated books and dictionaries in classrooms, and making music with donated instruments. Refugees listen to leaders from their own communities – Sudanese, Eritrean, Afghan, Ethiopian, Syrian, Iranian, Ethiopian.
The rudiments of what the French Welcome & Orientation Centers (CAOs) claim they will provide already exist. Outreach and exposure to European customs are embedded in genuine friendships with volunteers and NGO staff.
Since volunteers manage most services, the French government pays little except for police who carry out a dubious mandate.
After the demolition, France will wake up to thousands of migrants looking for services they can no longer find. Those who don’t trust French authorities will evade the CAOs. Some will sleep, eat, and defecate wherever they can. This will bother the French more than if refugees stayed in an improved Calais Jungle.
The demolition of the camp is short-sighted and ill-conceived. The number of CAO beds may fall short. Communities of support in the Jungle will be broken up. Human traffickers wait in a white van.
If the French want to allay fears, if they are proud of their plan to move refugees to new homes and integrate them into society, they would disclose the details of their plan. Refugees wait for reassurances to counter their experience of harassment, tear gas, and beatings at the hands of French police. Who will monitor and protect over 1000 unaccompanied minors vulnerable to traffickers? Where will refugees awaiting asylum live? Will they be able to live with friends from the Jungle? What actions can they take to increase their chance of asylum and decrease their risk of deportation?
The French have a legitimate complaint. It is not that migrants curtail tourism. Tourists visit interesting and beautiful cities. Calais has a few stately historic buildings. That said, it has made poor aesthetic choices like allowing dog poop on sidewalks, and displaying huge ugly plastic animals, and blasting mediocre outdoor rock concerts. Its taxi policy of pricing the upfront meter cost based on the passenger’s distance from the train station is an unwelcoming slap to tourists. Much of its population is bigoted toward migrants, and that sourness spills over onto tourists such as our Expressive Arts Refuge team.
Their legitimate complaint is something else. Refugees and their smugglers deliberately cause traffic accidents in order to slow trucks they then board, hoping to sneak into England. This makes roadways around Calais unsafe.
There is not a simple answer to this serious problem on roads by the Chunnel, the tunnel to England. Refugees inform one another of conditions, work opportunities, and prejudice in the countries where they land. Those who’ve made it to England report work opportunities and treatment that bests those in France. So refugees in Calais aim for England.
France could treat its refugees better, and develop a plan to integrate and employ them. Many thousands in Calais Jungle could contribute a cheap work force as they do in Germany. Some are educated, and with training, could contribute to the economy. Some musicians have already recorded on a chart-topping World Music album called Calais Sessions. Others run restaurants or volunteer.
Our recommendation: Unaccompanied minors cleared for family reunification in the UK should immediately be transported to England. Additional staff in France and England should collaborate to quickly process asylum claims. The Jungle should remain with improved conditions.
We don’t expect this to happen.
Instead, Expressive Arts Refuge has prepared a 13-page document to advise French CAOs in best practices to integrate the Jungle’s 10,000 refugees. We seek leads to disseminate it through proper channels to French CAOs.
We also created a sample Questionnaire to help Jungle residents prepare for asylum and integration in France. It has been translated into French and Arabic.
This is not what we want to be doing. We’d rather be planning Christmas in Calais to build shelters, put on a concert, and visit friends who will soon be dragged out of the Jungle to an unknown location or forced to hide in someone’s yard, without a tent for fear of disclosure.