By Geoff Moore
The “Jungle” camp of Calais, in northern France, was thrust back into the headlines late last month when French President Francois Hollande declared the camp would soon be completely dismantled. This comes about seven months after the last attempt by French authorities to destroy a portion of the camp. However, the population of the Jungle has soared since the previous attempt did nothing to change the incentives of those wishing to reach Britain. We have written about the Jungle camp before, but the proposal to eliminate the camp deserves a fresh look, particularly concerning children.
President Hollande’s announcement has to be read in the context of a looming Presidential election next year. With former President Nicholas Sarkozy and Front National’s Marine Le Pen already staking out strong anti-immigration positions, Hollande has joined the chorus, with all three placing the responsibility for Calais on the shoulders of the United Kingdom. Across the Channel, Britain’s Brexiting bureaucrats have said, “dismantling of the camp in Calais is a matter for the French government.” What seems to have been mostly lost on the British and French governments, however, is that their actions affect real people living in terrible conditions. This fact remains true whether you label them as “refugees,” “migrants,” or “illegal immigrants.”
According to the Children’s Commissioner for England, there are currently 1,200 children in the Jungle. The European Union’s Dublin Regulation includes guidelines for how to determine the asylum claims of unaccompanied minors (under 18 years old), particularly if they have family members in an EU country. However, for most children who have passed through Calais, the easiest route to Britain is the illegal and dangerous one in the back of a lorry.
Children in the Calais camp are exceedingly vulnerable to disease, trafficking, and abuse. This is in addition to the trauma which caused them to leave their home countries in the first place. Many in Calais have experienced depression, stress, severe anxiety, and other traumas. Doctors of the World UK, a group which has criticized police raids and camp destruction in Calais and Dunkirk, works in the camps to provide “mental health care to severely traumatised refugees.” Indeed, they argued in March that destruction of the Jungle “will not deter people from coming to Calais…it will just cause more chaos and trauma.” Research by the Refugee Rights Data Project in February showed that nearly 60% of the children in Calais were unaccompanied, with 61% of children reporting never feeling safe. A staggering 56% “said they would remain in Calais or sleep in the street” if the camp were dismantled.
What is most troubling about the plan to dismantle the entire camp is the apparent lack of any planning. As the Refugee Rights data show, it is essential that there be enough temporary housing to keep children off the street while they wait for asylum claims to be processed and transportation to be arranged. These may seem like boring logistical issues, but they could be life or death for unaccompanied children.
Lord Alf Dubs, himself a former child refugee, sponsored an amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act in Parliament to resettle unaccompanied minors. When it passed the House of Commons in March, the charity Help Refugees released a statement denouncing the removal of specifics on the number of children the bill would resettle. They noted that “the process will move so slowly that many desperate children who stand to benefit will end up in the trafficking networks of Europe instead” of being resettled.
Amber Rudd, the British Home Secretary, said this week that Britain and France have a “moral duty to safeguard the welfare of unaccompanied refugee children.” Yet, there is no apparent coordination between the two governments. Although 72 French police led an effort to conduct a census of the camp on Tuesday, they did not communicate how this information would be used. The BBC has reported that Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, has stated that the names of 300 children “who are eligible would be given to the government” for resettlement consideration. On what data this number rests, it is anyone’s guess. It is also anyone’s guess what Amber Rudd’s definition of “moral duty” is, because after endless months of inaction, any claim to morality by either the French or British is not only objectively offensive, but long lost. Help Refugees recently filed a lawsuit against the Home Secretary for this very inaction. The head of the French charity Secours Catholique (Catholic Relief) in Calais told the paper Libération that the dismantling of the camp “is a security operation…humanitarian in name only.”
Al Jazeera reported in September that President Hollande’s plan for Calais included the resettlement of “small groups of 40-50 people [who] will be given four months to apply for asylum and those who are not successful with applications will be deported.” Yet, in France’s current anti-immigrant political atmosphere, this will be a difficult sell for host communities. It would not only be politically useful for Hollande to produce a transparent step-by-step plan for Calais. A real plan would reduce stress and tensions in Calais and Dunkirk, and could achieve the goal of permanently dismantling the camp by laying out a clear path for future asylum seekers. What will not work is telling refugees and migrants that Calais is “a dead-end” as a French official recently said. The very existence of Calais is proof that walls, police, and bureaucracy are not going to stop people who have already risked everything to trek through some of the most dangerous territories on earth.
 Estimates differ, but the population in Feb 2016 was about 4,000-6,500, whereas it now stands above 10,000. See Feb ‘16: http://www.dw.com/en/as-calais-jungle-is-dismantled-concerns-mount-for-refugee-children/a-19077111 ; Oct ‘16: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/26/calais-migrant-camp-must-go-by-end-of-year-francois-hollande
 “C’est une opération sécuritaire, qui n’a d’humanitaire que le nom.” http://www.liberation.fr/france/2016/10/10/demantelement-de-la-jungle-le-secours-catholique-refuse-d-etre-complice_1520978?xtor=rss-450&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
© Photo taken by author in Calais, France ‘Jungle Camp’ (Jan 2015).