Since the Calais Jungle was demolished in 2016, asylum seekers have returned, although any shelter they erect is destroyed. This leaves them performing a shadow camp in an absurd game with the police.
Most people associate asylum seekers in Calais with the notorious “Jungle.” It was a place of solidarity that appealed to the imagination, with its makeshift schools, mosques, restaurants and a church built by asylum seekers with the help of international volunteers. However, the Jungle was also rat-infested and filthy; it was a threatening, lawless place where people-smuggling networks thrived.
These conditions prompted one scathing headline after another, until French authorities razed the camp to the ground in October 2016. Its estimated 8,000 residents were sent to processing centers across France. With the disappearance of the Jungle, the issue of migrants at the Calais border largely disappeared from public discussion. The illusion that the problem had been solved was celebrated – and that illusion has endured.
In early 2017, just three months after the demolition of the Jungle, asylum seekers started to return to Calais. For the past year, there have been 400–700 migrants living informally in the area at any given time. Yet the Jungle has not reappeared.
There is no physical camp in Calais. Newcomers play an absurd game of cat and mouse with authorities, building makeshift shelters that are then destroyed by police. In response, volunteer humanitarians reclaim the camp in the only way they can: They publicly “perform” a recreation of the protective space that the Jungle provided for asylum seekers, challenging the police’s attempts to criminalize everybody involved.
In the early days of his presidency, France’s Emmanuel Macron committed to addressing the Calais migrant problem head-on. He would not allow the Jungle to be reestablished. Instead, a zero tolerance policy was introduced: Any attempted informal settlement would be systematically destroyed.
In August 2017, the authorities carried out 26 camp demolitions in Calais: 103 shelters were dismantled and 31 tonnes of material destroyed. Such massive action requires manpower, and in January 2018 Macron boasted of 1,130 police officers stationed in the area. That is close to two officers per asylum seeker.
Killing the Camp
Sleep has become a political matter in Calais; shelter is a constant uncertainty. The threat of destruction forces migrants to hide as best they can. They rest in sleeping bags in dark nooks under bridges, or in scattered encampments on the fringes of the city, out of sight in forests or on industrial waste sites.
Asylum seekers build shelters out of tarp and blankets, nestled in bushes. But police drones and constant detection operations make concealment nearly impossible. Migrants report that their makeshift shelters can be destroyed at any time of day or night. Shelters are slashed with knives, sleeping bags are tear-gassed, possessions are confiscated.
These interventions often go beyond destroying sleeping arrangements: Migrants complain of being tear-gassed at close quarters by police, of being intimidated, chased and beaten. The psychological effect is devastating. It is impossible to rest when you feel constantly under threat. The chance of hitching a lift unnoticed to the U.K. aboard a lorry only seems sweeter to the migrants suffering dehumanizing violence at the hands of the authorities.
The French police have been repeatedly condemned for the excessive use of violence in Calais over the past year. Human Rights Watch and the Refugee Rights Data Project are among the watchdogs that have gathered testimonies and incriminating footage.
The state itself recognized some of these accusations following an investigation by the national police watchdog (IGPN) in a report published in October 2017. Such violent policing isn’t restricted to Calais, and is characteristic of what is emerging across France as Macron’s way of pushing through his “efficient” neoliberal policies.
Performing the Camp
Despite the prevailing conditions, twice every day the camp is “performed” in Calais. Several organizations that formerly had a presence in the Jungle have adapted to the asylum seekers’ new, transitory situation. They have made their aid provisions mobile: Warm meals, water, clothing and items for rebuilding shelters are distributed from vans, which also offer Wi-Fi, electricity, information and legal aid.
The battered vans pull up at five sites around the city for 90-minute windows twice daily, despite being barely tolerated by the authorities. In these instances, humanitarian acts of care associated with the camp are performed by volunteers and fellow asylum seekers who take on the role of aid workers.
When distribution time is up, hoodies are pulled back up and asylum seekers disappear in groups of four or five. Just as quickly as the camp had emerged, it vanishes. Humanitarians and asylum seekers part ways until the next distribution comes around and the camp may again be recreated.
These brief moments humanize a group whose humanity is under attack. The “performance” of the camp offers a counternarrative to that of the asylum seeker as criminal. It makes the migrants’ life in Calais visible as a humanitarian crisis, challenging the policing that treats them as criminals.
A Race to the Bottom
Two years ago, the closure of the Jungle seemed like a step forward. Conditions in the makeshift camp were awful. Rebuilding a camp at the border is not a solution, but constantly chasing migrants and undermining their dignity is a dangerous alternative, which only deepens the breach of trust between asylum seekers and states across the European Union.
Instead of taking unified structural action, countries across Europe are engaged in a race to deter migrants from settling in their respective lands. Securitization supersedes the humanitarian imperative. If France wants to solve its “Calais problem,” it should take up its humanitarian responsibility and design an asylum process that does not criminalize newcomers, nor threaten them with a forced return to their first country of entry. Until then, the sight of Dover will keep drawing uninvited guests to Calais.
Moments such as those in which the camp is “performed” remind us of the duty of care that should drive European policies to respond to this ongoing crisis. On the ground, the absurdity of the situation is blatantly clear to everyone: those building the camp; those destroying it; and those “performing” it.