Many observers had anticipated violence during the evacuation in the last week of October of the refugee camp located next to Calais in the light of clashes that had occurred earlier between some migrants and police forces. Their fears did not come true. Within less than a week, the so-called “jungle” at the outskirts of Calais, a French city bordering the English Channel, was dismantled by French police forces without significant incident and most of its 6,500 migrant inhabitants relocated across France in centres established in smaller towns. An estimated 2,000 persons went their own way, mostly to join other migrants camping on the streets in northern Paris. Even refugees, set on crossing the Channel to reach England, did not put up a fight and are now awaiting better days.
The sense of relief was obvious at the helm of the state, prompting the senior civil servant in charge of an operation that mobilised thousands of heavily equipped policemen and gendarmes to exclaim, “La jungle, c’est fini!” (the jungle is finished).
The feeling of finality may have seemed overwhelming for the moment, but it should be remembered that prior to the establishment of the camp, which was nicknamed “the jungle” by the residents of Calais, the French government, had, at the insistence of the British, dismantled another such outfit, at Sangatte in 2002. Set up in 1999 by the Red Cross next to the entrance of the Channel tunnel, this one accommodated up to 2,000 migrants who were determined to reach England. The Sangatte centre had remained open three years whereas the “jungle”, that took over thereafter, was in operation for four.
The presence on French territory of thousands of migrants, eager to reach British soil at any cost, has, for long, been a thorny issue between France and the United Kingdom. The closure of Sangatte resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Le Touquet in 2003, whereby France, with the help of UK immigration officers, stationed on French territory, strove to prevent migrants from attempting to cross the Channel.
The concentration of refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea or Sudan, did stir anti-migrant feeling among the local population, the topic becoming a hot political issue in the context of a rising Front National Party (far right). French politicians, across the political spectrum, have openly demanded termination of the Treaty of Le Touquet, arguing that their own authorities should not act as proxies on behalf of the British government. The outcome of the Brexit vote and the upcoming May 2017 presidential election in France are only adding to the existing pressures.
As Calais is situated only 40 km away from England, there is every reason to believe that the story is far from over for the migrants. People who have risked their lives to cross Africa, or the Middle East, and the whole of Europe, to reach Britain will not be deterred easily.
Calais may be seen as a symbol of the tension between Paris and London, but it could, equally accurately, be considered a manifestation of the crisis in Europe as a whole. The fact is that even at the peak of its activity, the Calais “jungle” housed roughly 10,000 migrants–less than 0.1% of the refugees in Europe. In 2015 alone, more than one million refugees entered the Schengen area. As the figures for 2016 are similar, the current total number of refugees does not exceed three million people, a figure to compare with the total population of the European Union (743 million), i.e. 0.4%. It is therefore difficult to see how the economy, welfare and way of life of European citizens is likely to be threatened, even though this perception is widespread across the continent, with politicians capitalising on the fears of their fellow citizens.
Another comparison is in order: Lebanon is housing 1.5 million Syrian refugees (25% of its population), Jordan 700,000 (11%) and Turkey 1.6 million (2%). The numbers, however, are bound to increase as immigration has its ebbs and flows, it cannot remain at a static figure.
Europe has to face facts: its own population is aging, already dwindling in some of its member states, whereas populations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are growing rapidly, are young, and often trying to escape not primarily poverty, but the deadly situation caused by widespread conflicts. These are circumstances that impel flight; people are running for their lives, despite the obstacles.
It was Sangatte yesterday, the Calais jungle today, that may have been closed. Politicians and the top brass in the police forces may congratulate themselves about a “mission accomplished”. But they appear impotent in the face of a phenomenon of this magnitude. They cannot escape an embarrassing truth: immigration in Europe is here to stay and the closure of makeshift barracks, such as those bulldozed in Calais last week, does not mean that it is going to stop.
European governments are caught in a cleft stick: there is, on the one hand, the rising influence of populist and anti-migrant political parties, but even if immigration can be regulated through better coordination between governments, it cannot be stopped altogether. European leaders are yet to state this clearly to their people. It may not be what European voters want to hear, but silence or denial is not a sustainable option either.
On the other hand, telling it to them like it is may be tantamount to committing harakiri for any politician at a time when European governments are weak, with their economies recovering painfully slowly from years of asthenia. Moreover, many citizens of the continent feel insecure in the face of emerging countries in Asia or Africa and are in search of their identity, some of them trying to define it by the colour of their skin or their “Christian roots” in Europe. So, even though European economies may be able to absorb the current flow of refugees, the political crisis that such movement has exacerbated is not going to disappear.
Olivier Da Lage is editor-in-chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.
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