A Decision on the ‘Jungle’ in Calais

The French encampment is perhaps the EU’s most infamous refugee camp.

A migrant and her child walk on Thursday in the southern part of a camp for migrants called the “Jungle" in Calais, France. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters)

A French court has ruled that authorities can evacuate and demolish part of the so-called “Jungle,” the makeshift encampment outside the port city of Calais that is home to thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria and other restive parts of the world.

Estimates of the number of migrants affected by the order range from 1,000 to more than 3,400. The operation won’t touch public places in the camp such as places of worship and schools.

French authorities had originally told migrants to evacuate the 17.5-acre southern half of the camp last week. The evictions were postponed after two humanitarian groups working in Calais, Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants, reported that 3,455 people live in the section of the camp slated to be demolished—over three times the number French officials had estimated. The unofficial census counted more than 300 unaccompanied minors, the youngest of whom is 10. In response, British and French NGOs, along with more than 200 migrants living in Calais, filed an appeal requesting that the court delay demolition until adequate living situations were found for all of the evacuees.

Thursday’s decision in France will be watched closely in the rest of Europe, which is seeing the most-severe refugee crisis since the end of World War II. More than a million people have entered Europe since 2015, fleeing civil war in Syria and unrest elsewhere. Predictably, the influx has raised tensions within individual EU countries and among EU members, who have been unable to agree on a formula on how to equitably distribute the newcomers among the bloc’s member countries.

It's obviously a complex situation and there are a lot of problems with the way that responsibility for asylum claims is distributed within the EU right now,” Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said about Thursday’s decision. “[But] there’s a need to uphold the rules under which the asylum system is supposed to be functioning. Having large, very visible camps tends to undermine the public’s trust in the government’s ability to really manage arrival and take care of people.”

Perhaps the most infamous refugee camp in the EU, the Calais Jungle has become a source of frustration for the French government and tension with local residents. The camp held 6,000 migrants at its peak this summer; French authorities estimated it now holds around 3,800, though the census released this week puts the number at 5,497. As Simon Cottee noted in The Atlantic last August, the proximity of Calais to the English Channel has made it an unofficial destination for migrants looking to illegally enter the U.K. Most of them arrive in Calais through Greece, crossing through Eastern Europe by bus, by train, or on foot.

Few migrants make it to the U.K., especially now that police presence has increased. Barbed-wire fence surrounds the camp and police have used tear gas to combat the near constant attempts by Calais residents to cross the Channel Tunnel into England, often by attempting to jump aboard trucks on the nearby highway. But the U.K. and France have an agreement under which Britain conducts all border controls on the French side of the border. This makes it difficult for migrants to enter the U.K. illegally.

For migrants in Calais, the U.K. is their best chance to rebuild a normal life. Many of them speak at least a little English, and some have relatives in Britain. Others believe their chances of finding employment are better in the U.K. than in France, and that the environment is generally more welcoming to refugees.

As an unofficial refugee camp, the Calais Jungle has been largely neglected by the French government—though similar camps in other locations in the city have previously been closed by French authorities. Media reports and volunteers have described slum-like conditions: piles of garbage and raw sewage, overcrowded tents, infestations of rats, contaminated food and water, and infections and injuries that go untreated. Many migrants live in homemade shelters of wood and tarp that offer little protection from rain or the near freezing temperatures this winter.

A September 2015 report by researchers from the University of Birmingham and Doctors of the World called conditions in the camp “perilous,” adding that “the shortcomings in shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security are likely to have detrimental long-term health consequences.”

But conditions have improved somewhat in recent months, as a flow of volunteers organized systems of delivering aid. Several NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, have dug latrines, distributed tents and sleeping bags, and provided other services. Though the camp remains squalid, it has also grown into a makeshift city, with small stores, restaurants, and bars, as well as mosques and churches.

During the preliminary hearing Tuesday, the lawyer for the appeal argued that the camp offered its residents “psychological support, medical care, places of worship, a school, a legal advice centre … Nobody wanted this shanty town, but it is there now and we cannot simply remove it. Shelter alone—a bed—is not enough. These are people who are already very vulnerable; we must now take the time to offer proper, serious alternatives.”

Evacuees would either move into shipping containers nearby or be relocated to migrant shelters elsewhere in France. French officials have called these accommodations more humane than the current living situation in Calais. Humanitarian groups believe these plans are insufficient, arguing that the government has underestimated the number of people who will require new housing.