As the Calais camp is demolished, a hidden crisis continues for refugees living in squalor

A tear gas cannister on the outskirts of the Calais camp. Thom Davies, Author provided

Among the detritus of the squalid Calais camp lie empty tear gas shells, recently fired by the police. They signify the physical violence that some refugees will suffer in the coming days as the so-called “Jungle” is forcibly dismantled.

“It’s a big problem, the gas gets into the tent”, explains an Afghan resident who lives on the edge of Europe’s largest makeshift encampment. But beyond the cuts and bruises that residents of the camp have suffered at the hands of the police and racist thugs, other hidden forms of violence have slowly brutalised refugees since the camp was created in early 2015.

Our research and visits to the camp have revealed the invisible public health dangers that refugees have suffered, and the microbiological threats of living in such squalid conditions – conditions that the state could easily have chosen to improve. For months now, French authorities have failed to provide enough hygiene facilities, food and toilets. They have even failed to meet the minimum standards for refugee camps set out by the UNHCR and the Sphere Project, which works to set basic standards for humanitarian emergencies. A failure to meet such public health requirements thereby deliberately enforced squalor and misery for the camp’s inhabitants.

In 2015, a fifth of the camp’s residents seen by health-related NGOs presented with scabies, and many of its population was suffering from various gastrointestinal illnesses as a result of a lack of access to adequate sanitation, and safe storage of food or water. As one resident of the Calais camp who had lived there for several months reflected: “A quick bullet through the head in Afghanistan would be better than this slow death here.” A testament to how miserable things had become.

Security over sanitation

In the 18 months that this camp has existed on the French-UK border, both governments have consistently done the bare minimum to protect the lives of refugees in Calais – from a failure to ensure minimum health standards, to the lack of food and shelter provision. Meanwhile, millions of pounds have been spent by the UK to enforce the border, with elaborate security architecture. Yet the evident humanitarian crisis in Calais has been met with state indifference.

These decisions to do as little as possible in the face of an unfolding crisis now also extend to the British commitment to only rehouse a small fraction of the children living in the camp. The British government is currently relocating a small group of child refugees – six months after a parliamentary amendment to bring them to the UK. This amounts to the weakest of political actions at the eleventh hour of an 18-month long emergency.

This state negligence also stands in stark contrast to the efforts of volunteers, aid agencies and activists working tirelessly in the face of government inertia, including MSF, Help Refugees, Care 4 Calais, Doctors of the World, Secours Catholique and the Kitchen In Calais among many others, who have worked hard to ensure some level of humanitarian support.

The informal Calais camp will now gradually be dismantled by French authorities, and refugees are being relocated to asylum centres in other parts of France. This is to be welcomed to the extent that it may provide shelter, food and access to asylum processes for migrants who have previously been denied these material and political provisions. But with many camp residents reluctant to give up on their desire to reach the UK, and with more than a thousand riot police having been drafted into Calais for the dismantlement, it is inconceivable that this operation will be completed without the sustained use of force.

A violent place to call home. Thom Davies, Author provided

Too little, too late

As British authorities are unwilling to take all but small numbers of child refugees with family connections in the UK, many adult asylum seekers with similar connections will seek to remain in northern France, living informally in smaller sub-camps to sustain their chances of making it across the Channel. Some refugees left before the dismantlement started on October 24 for other informal encampments, or simply to sleep on the streets, but others simply have no Plan B, so determined are they to reach the UK.

Research by the Refugee Rights Data Project in Calais indicates that 40% of the Calais camp residents want to get to the UK principally to reunite with friends or family. “It is the UK or back to Afghanistan,” said one resident in his 40s who has lived in the camp for a full year.

If the current French response amounts to too little, too late, the UK’s response has been weaker still. It is telling that rather than a debate about the extent to which Britain should be assisting in the resettlement of refugees, such is the popular mood and toxic political landscape, that even the rehousing of minors from war-zones – with close relatives in the UK – is attacked by the political right and tabloid press.

As the media covers the overt violence of the camp’s demolition, the persistence of less visible forms of violence will continue to threaten the lives of refugees. As long as European states cannot agree a more systematic, equitable and just method of distributing displaced populations, informal camps will remain a constant fixture on the European landscape.

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