Arab migrants face a new Sykes-Picot in Calais

18 July 2014
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Afghan Jungle, Hazara Jungle and Palestine House. Such are the names of squats and camps in Calais that have existed in various incarnations for years: the result of two European nations fortifying themselves against crises of their own making, writes Timothy Cooper. History continues to repeat itself.

On 2 July, only minutes after the close of the suhoor Ramadan dawn meal, the combined forces of the French Police aux Frontières, constituent riot control forces and the Gendarme staged a coordinated raid on the migrant population of Calais – the grim transport hub linking France and Britain. The surprise mass eviction resulted in the destruction of various sub-camps and the detention of hundreds of refugees. At least 600 migrants were attacked with pepper spray, humiliated and insulted, while any surrounding witnesses to the eviction were violently removed from the scene. This latest attack on migrant settlements was authorized by the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart; another murder-hole attendant defending the walls of fortress Europe.

A squat in central Calais following the clearance of an earlier “jungle”, in September 2010. Photo: Marie Barbier. Source: Flickr

During the brief interludes when the camps are not being raided, migrants shelter themselves beneath canopies made of plastic bags, without access to clean water, without recourse to protection. Volunteer groups have attempted to alleviate conditions by distributing food, sanitation items and clothing, and a demonstration was called on 12 July to protest the atrocious treatment of Calais’ migrant population by the French government and forces.

The word “jungle”, when it wasn’t being used to denote particularly impenetrable or overgrown vegetation, was a colonial byword for unruly, untameable lands that had yet to come to heel. Today, these same jungles can be found within the former colonial powers, on the outer periphery of ferry ports and border crossings; in Calais they take the form of squatted buildings or makeshift camps. Afghan Jungle, Hazara Jungle and Palestine House – all names given by their embattled occupants – have existed in varying incarnations for years. They house migrants from areas as diverse as Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam, Kurdistan, Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, not to mention a sizeable East African contingent.


Recently, the most marked increase in those fleeing to the shores of northern Europe has been amongst the Syrian community. In October, Syrian refugees in Calais attempted to appeal directly to the UK government, staging a short-lived protest that saw some wielding placards appealing to speak to prime minister David Cameron directly. Syria Jungle has fallen, but the desperation that necessitated its existence ensures that it will rise again.

Tensions mounted in Calais on 28 May as a series of migrants’ camps were dismantled under the pretence of fears of a scabies outbreak. Rather than effectively treating its inhabitants, the authorities intensified the cycle of violence and abuse. In response to the operation, occupants that had been forced to sleep outside the SALAM charity centre began an ongoing hunger strike in protest against constant police harassment and repeated evictions. Initially, SALAM was founded in response to the closure in November 2002 of the Red Cross centre in the town of Sangatte.

With winter approaching the French government effectively condemned these migrants to sleeping on the streets, leading a number of volunteers to pool their efforts and resources. Today SALAM has centres in Calais and Dunkirk and, with a contingent of 300 active volunteers, ensures a hot meal is served every evening.

Following the closure of the Sangatte Red Cross centre, over a decades worth of unsanitary camps have been forced to spring up in its place, all of which have been threatened by (ultimately successful) police attempts to clear the makeshift shelters. In 2009, the French minister of immigration Eric Besson authorized a notorious and widely publicized crackdown on the jungles of Calais, which ended in the arbitrary arrest of 278 migrants and their incarceration in detainee centres.

While the crackdown unfolded, Franco-British negotiations were conducted to allocate resources and provide for the strengthening of border controls in the face of that most overstated of threats: forced migration. Just as the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 reneged on the assurances made to support a pan-Arab homeland, so too does the contemporary Anglo-French alliance lay bare the false motives at the heart of David Cameron and François Hollande’s eagerness to intervene in the Syrian war.

The 2009 clearing was yet another tragic example of, in this case, two European nations fortifying themselves against crises of their own making; crises that have led to countless deaths in perilous marine crossings, transatlantic wheel carriages and airless, suffocating lorries. In the intervening years the world has witnessed the upheavals caused by various responses to the Arab Spring. The British and French governments have already appropriated the Libyan and Syrian conflicts as a means of repairing their crumbling humanitarian image.

Already the Franco-British betrayal of previous forced migrations – such as those of Iraqis, Afghans, and Sudanese – is evidenced in illegal deportations, ignored asylum requests and repeated instances of harassment and violence. But with an idea of deliverance in mind, migrants who travel the thousands of perilous miles with the UK as their final destination ultimately refuse to give up their dreams in spite of the toxic socio-political environment.

Meanwhile, another model for migrant support has more or less flourished in Jordan and Lebanon. Although destabilised by the on-going conflicts in the Middle East, many surrounding countries have willingly provided asylum and protection to some of the almost-three million Syrians that have fled the war. One such camp, Zaatari in Jordan, began life as a tent-city. Now, some of its earliest settled streets are paved and, while crime remains an issue, the spontaneous infrastructure of this migratory urbanism is a testament to the self-sufficiency of its population. Relative to the Calais jungles, Zaatari is a place of stability, making a more suitable environment to treat pervasive cases of trauma, war-related injuries and disease.

The latest series of evictions of Calais’ camps began Wednesday 2 July with the SALAM charity’s food distribution centre, a concrete yard secured by mesh gates, where 540 migrants, including twenty women and ten children, had been sleeping rough since their camps were destroyed in May. The police blocked all exits of the enclosure, using volleys of tear gas to prevent escapes. Activists, support groups and visiting journalists were quickly segregated from the epicentre of the clearances to ensure no one bore witness to summary assaults and the destruction of the jungles, the migrants’ only source of shelter. Over 300 individuals were crammed onto coaches and taken to detention centres across the northeast of France, many to facilities that had recently transferred detainees to other centres across the country to make room for the imminent eviction.

Despite the best efforts of the Calais authorities to stop migrants congregating around the region, violence and coercion will not deter those who are determined to reach a safe haven at any cost. At the beginning of July, a British driver discovered a sixteen-year old Sudanese boy clinging to the underside of a coach bound for Ilford, near London. Having just returned from a school trip to Calais, the driver only discovered the child by chance during routine checks; certainly, the outcome could have been much worse.

The Calais Migrant Solidarity group that organized the demonstration on 12 July, aim to ensure that risky border crossings (such as that attempted by the young Sudanese boy) do not remain the only option open to the embattled migrants of the Calais region, and that mass round-ups do not become the exception that proves the rule. Having worked with migrants in Calais on a daily basis since June 2009, Calais Migrant Solidarity have overseen the residence of British, Belgian, Dutch, German and Italian activists, many of whom remain on-site, monitoring police activity, providing emotional support and distributing SIM cards and other provisions to ensure that a fragment of normality can survive in the Calais migrant’s liminal lives.

From the infamous 2009 clearing of the Afghan Jungle to the recent destruction of the Syrian Jungle, the temporary settlements of those dispersed by conflict, tyranny and oppression have become increasingly scattered along the northern French coast. Just 40 kilometres from Calais, in the town of Dunkirk, SALAM have recently set up a food distribution point to alleviate the day-to-day hardships of forced migration.

For many British citizens, the name of the town alone brings to mind images of evacuation, the need for shelter, protection and deliverance. It has been 74 years since the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a stunning rescue of over 300,000 soldiers from the onslaught of the Nazi blitzkrieg. What was once hailed as a “miracle of deliverance” today appears as an alien concept to the French coast, which continues to be the location of an Anglo-French betrayal of the region’s itinerant migrant population.

Published 18 July 2014

Original in English
First published in openDemocracy, 11 July 2014

© Timothy Cooper / openDemocracy / Eurozine

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