Last month, the French authorities moved to dismantle the refugee camps — known as the Jungle — in Calais in northern France. This isn’t the first time Calais has been a focal point of a debate about migrants and refugees and in France, but now the stakes are higher than ever. Today’s bitter divide over Calais is part of a bigger story, as the far right gathers strength across Europe with its xenophobia message.
In 1989, French Prime Minister Michel Rocard said, “Nous ne pouvons pas héberger toute la misère du monde” in response to the inflow of migrants toward France. Translation: “We cannot take in all the misery of the world.”
Why bring back such an old thought? First, the similarity with the current situation in Calais is obvious. Rocard was a socialist, and today another socialist government is taking a hard stance on migrant issues. The former prime minister’s statement was a reflection of the general mood in France — that of being overburdened by a continuous influx of migrants. Second, his statement has been used over and over again to the point that it could very well be a slogan for French attitudes, if not policy, toward immigration.
This background is essential for anyone who desires to understand the immigration situation in France today. It helps explain the refugee camp in Calais, its creation, its continuation, its scandals, and its recent termination.
Evolution of ‘The Jungle’
Calais is a medium-sized city on the northern coast of France, from which the Channel Tunnel to enter the United Kingdom can be accessed. From the very beginning of the so-called Chunnel’s creation in the 1990s, migrants have come to Calais in hopes of going to England.
The first refugees in Calais, only about 200 of them at the time, were fleeing the Kosovo war in 1998-1999. Authorities were forced to open an abandoned shed, which the Red Cross then used to take in people. They called the place Sangatte.
Then Kurds and Afghans arrived, fleeing from wars in their respective homelands. They settled in the forest near Calais, in horrific conditions, with overcrowding and little access to water.
Two years later, others arrived, fleeing Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. They settled wherever they could, including the city centre. Soon, shipping containers were transformed into accommodations for the increasing number of refugees.
In the summer of 2015, many Syrian asylum seekers reached Calais. Many “little jungles” sprung up, but were soon dismantled, forcing people to flee again. Eventually, they all settled in one great camp, where many NGOs intervened to help provide basic humane conditions. According to one estimate, the total number of migrants was just under 6,000 people.
The fight over Calais
The situation was denounced by various players for various reasons. Authorities feared migrants would try to smuggle their way into the United Kingdom; NGOs claimed the living conditions were inhumane and that the government was not helping enough; part of the population of Calais feared that the increasing number of refugees would affect their safety and way of life.
Tensions grew between the local authorities and NGOs. The mayor of Calais asked for the army’s help to move the migrants and destroy the camp. NGOs went through the justice system to try to force the state to improve water, sanitation, and nutrition inside the camp.
Both sides took advantage of this situation to make their case in the media. Jude Law and Banksy came to support the migrants. Far-right politicians from all over France organized anti-migrant rallies.
The state steps in
The government began dismantling the camp earlier this year. On Oct. 24, the entire camp was targeted by the authorities in an operation lasting 10 days. The purpose was to relocate every migrant to a specific facility somewhere in France, where they would live in decent living conditions while their asylum request wasprocessed.
Notwithstanding the notable exception of a group of hundred children forgotten during the operation, the dismantling of the Jungle was in compliance with human rights.
Yet, a significant part of the French population seems to be against the government’s decision, and some people even protested against the relocations. It shows the profound division within the country when it comes to immigration.
A dangerous confusion
There is a dangerous confusion between immigrants and refugees in French perception. In reality, a refugee is a migrant, but a migrant is not always a refugee. International law treats the two differently. The case of an asylum seeker is not processed in the same way as the case of an economic migrant. Their rights differ because they did not leave their home countries for the same reason.
In order to avail themselves of these rights, asylum seekers have to make a request for refugee status. If their application is successful, they are accepted as refugees by a host country. If not, they are sent back home to what is considered a “safe country.” Unfortunately, only a small number of the total number of applications are successful in France. As controversial as this system is, it guarantees that refugees are entitled to specific rights, in compliance with international law.
Many erroneously think that most of the people in Calais were economic migrants. Far-right politicians used this confusion to their advantage, claiming that these migrants came to France for social benefits.
An imagined invasion
Another confusion concerns the number of refugees France can take in. Aware of the difficult economic situation the country is going through, many people think that taking in refugees would cost too much. But this is false.
First, there is no invasion of refugees. France accepts only 1,063 refugees per million inhabitants, which is lower than the European average. Accepting fewer than 20,000 refugees in a total population of 66 million people is not even close to an onslaught.
Second, numerous studies show that taking in refugees actually enhances national GDP. The IMF predicts that the influx of refugees will add 0.19 per cent to the European GDP in 2016.
Third, there is fear. France has been a victim of several terrorist attacks recently. The country has not suffered from comparable violence on its territory since World War II. Islamophobia has gone through the roof, and the far-right has never been stronger. Refugees are considered potential terrorists simply because most of them come from Muslim countries.
The need to share responsibility
But the French population needs to admit that absolute security is not possible, without giving up values that we usually cherish.
France is not at peace, but it’s not at war either. Let’s not resort to measures inamicable to basic human rights. Asylum seekers have come to our country escaping so much violence that it would be immoral, unfair, and inhuman not to welcome them.
France can and must take in refugees. Other countries need to share responsibility as well and not leave France alone. Refugees will keep arriving on these shores for the foreseeable future. It is our duty to accept them and not let fear prevail.