Closure of Calais 'Jungle' camp: What’s next for former residents?

On Wednesday, French authorities said 'mission accomplished' in regard to the evacuation of the camp. But for the refugees themselves, the future is far from certain.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A migrant adjusts a French flag that flies from a makeshift shelter in the "Jungle" on the third day of their evacuation and transfer to reception centers in France, as part of the dismantlement of the camp in Calais, France, on Wednesday.

Since the controversial refugee camp in Calais, France, sprang up over a year ago, the so-called "Jungle" has been a symbol for the refugee crisis in Europe. Migrants, driven from their homes by war or poverty, created a makeshift town of tents and haphazard wooden structures. At its height, the Jungle boasted mosques, churches, restaurants, and even a library.

Despite these accomplishments, the shantytown had squalid living conditions with inconsistent access to clean water, and residents had few prospects for being able to access the world outside the camp. French officials announced last month that the Jungle would be shut down permanently, citing humanitarian concerns about the poverty-stricken condition of the camp.

Over the past three days, evacuations have been carried out, and officials announced Wednesday that all refugees had left the camp, despite prior resistance. As demolition of the camp begins, the future of many former residents remains uncertain.

"As the Jungle was never an officially recognized refugee camp, the conditions were harsh for many residents," Hari Reed, a volunteer who taught English in the camp, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "While volunteer organizations worked in the camp to distribute food, tents, and clothing, and running water was available, hygiene facilities were not [affordable for everyone], and many residents suffered from diseases such as scabies and TB, while rats were everywhere."

Evacuation of the camp in preparation for demolition began Monday, though many residents expressed a desire to stay despite the conditions. Many of the Jungle's roughly 6,000 to 8,000 residents had hoped to use the camp as a jumping-off point to get to Britain, since Calais is a port city on the English Channel. Many refugees see England as an ideal place to go, due to a belief that job prospects are better there than in France, family connections, and the fact that many of the refugees already speak English.

"At least some, if not most, of those refugees seeking to enter the UK legitimately have family members who they could join and receive support from," Stephanie J. Nawyn, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University, tells the Monitor in an email. "But the ruling government of the UK has been very stingy with refugee admittances. A large proportion (although certainly not all) of the population has been hostile towards increasing refugee admission."

She adds that many migrants in Calais, although affected by conflicts in the Middle East, are not Syrian, and will therefore be a "lower priority" for EU countries in terms of granting asylum. Pessimism over whether they will be granted asylum in France may lead some refugees to take their chances in other camps or on the streets, rather than to go to an official processing center.

As French authorities began demolition, many refugees set fires in protest Wednesday morning. But despite some minor clashes and the anticipated protest fires, the evacuation went relatively smoothly, Reuters reports. French officials said they would be able to close the processing center that is dispersing refugees to reception centers around France via bus by the end of Wednesday.

"Mission accomplished," Fabienne Buccio, the regional prefect of Calais, told Reuters.

For the refugees, however, their journey is far from over, as the Monitor's Gretel Kauffman wrote on Monday:

The buses will take migrants to reception centers around France to apply for asylum, officials say. But a study by the Refugee Rights Data Project found that as many as 69 percent of the camp's 1,300 child migrants do not plan to leave the area when the camp is closed, planning instead to sleep on the streets of Calais. 

Officials say there will be a solution for each migrant living in the camp. But many adult refugees also face uncertain futures, as some could be expelled from France if sent to a reception center. EU rules require that an asylum seeker's fingerprints be taken at his or her first point of entry into the EU. But if it is discovered that a seeker has been previously arrested in another EU country – a frequent occurrence for refugees trying to cross borders – the country where he or she is applying for asylum can reject the application.

The problems many refugees face are emblematic of the difficulties that Europe, and France in particular, have had in coping with the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. As forces close in on remaining ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the number of refugees is expected to increase, putting many countries in the difficult position of confronting an even more massive humanitarian crisis, as right-wing anti-immigration parties, meanwhile, continue to gain strength.

"Calais is just one example of a longer-term trend in many EU countries towards refugees," says Dr. Nawyn. "And its demolition is also nothing new. Many countries are trying to erase the spectacle of refugees in public spaces, moving them into reception centers so that they are not out in the open, stark visual evidence of both the failure of governments to provide permanent protection and something that far-right-wing populist movements can use as a rallying cry."

Reed points out that some of the early migrants have given "positive reports" of the reception centers, compared to the living conditions of the camp. However, Nawyn and Camilo Perez-Bustillo, the executive director of the University of Dayton's Human Rights Center, both say that while the centers' physical conditions might be better, the system still does not truly engage with the real problems of the refugee crisis.

"The demolition of the camp is a largely empty gesture that only addresses superficial, immediate aspects of the deeper underlying issues involved," Dr. Perez-Bustillo tells the Monitor. "The deeper problems persist, and the EU has demonstrated repeatedly its inability to address them constructively, with full respect for the rights of the affected migrants and refugees."

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