By Anton Mukhamedov
It might come as a surprise to those who are aware of the abominable living conditions at the Calais refugee camp that both the refugees and the associations of the Calais camp currently oppose the government’s plan to dismantle the slum. After all, isn’t living in a cold tent on the muddy ground, in constant fear of violence and epidemics unspeakably worse than being offered a place at a government-run centre?
On the first of October, a demonstration mainly directed against the plan to clear the area and redistribute all of the current refugees within the French regions took place. After a visit from several presidential candidates who—of course—shared the stratagems which would have surely allowed them to fix the situation, it was François Hollande’s turn to come to Calais and confirm the imminent eviction.
To provide some context, the camp or, as it is often referred to, “the Jungle,” is home to about 10,000 migrants and asylum seekers according to the latest census. At least a thousand of them are unaccompanied children, often suffering from severe trauma at a place where too few (and sometimes no) qualified specialists are available. It is an inhospitable place, where people regularly disappear, some die on roads while trying to catch a lorry going to England, and where you are daily woken up by teargas. It is also a self-managing small town and community, where cafés, restaurants, and churches of different faiths have been constructed from scratch by refugees and volunteers.
The overwhelming presence of strangers in a place, which—for lack of anything better—still serves as a home to many, produces a strong illusion of visibility and coverage from all sides. Meanwhile, the divergent opinions formed by the citizens of Calais, regular volunteers, occasional journalists, and politicians paint a contradictory picture. The constantly present divisions of the French riot police only adds to this image.
We avoid the frustrating reality of the “refugee crisis” by believing that any general approach, preconceived notion of a solution, or an attempt at objectivity is simply inapplicable when dealing with the deeply personal reality of those indefinitely residing in a refugee camp or at an official accommodation centre. The eviction will obviously not be perceived in the same way by those who are seeking to rejoin a close relative in the UK and who will instead be forced to apply for French asylum with little chance of integration, by the lucky few minors brought to the UK under the program initiated by Lord Dubs, or by those accustomed to the idea of staying in France.
Ultimately, however, little is known as to who will benefit and who will find themselves a victim of human trafficking post-eviction if they don’t find themselves a place on one of the buses ordered by the state.
A Council of Europe report, issued on October 14th, indicates that far from enough is being done to prepare alternative accommodation for every resident of the camp or to assure the safe transport of every unaccompanied minor to the UK. To add insult to injury, the UK officials haven’t yet shown any interest in abandoning the controversial construction of a wall meant to separate the Jungle from the closest road, thus preventing anyone from the camp to access the vehicles in direction towards England.
In the midst of the controversy, it is clear that though the “refugee” label does not offer a portrait, certain experiences will contribute to forging a common identity amongst survivors of yet another traumatic experience. The Jungle did not have to come into existence and after more than a year of hard work from refugees and associations, it still remained uninhabitable and one of the biggest humanitarian urgencies until it was burned down.
Still, the bitter irony of this—having to flee the destruction at home in order to find yourself faced with forced eviction once again—is something that can only add on to the general toll of being a refugee and a vision which will hardly be washed away by either rain or teargas.