15 October could be a dark day for refugees in Calais

Mitch Mitchell reports on the French authorities’ plans to demolish the refugee camp in Calais 

(Photo: AmirahBreen/wikimedia)

(Photo: AmirahBreen/wikimedia)

It has been strongly rumored that the threatened closure and demolition of the refugee camp in Calais, often referred to as “The Jungle” will commence on 15 October at 5am.

French president Hollande has bowed to right wing pressure to close the place and although he said that there would be provision made for the current residents to be rehoused in other parts of France, there is little sign of this happening before the 15th.

This is similar to the situation in 2002 when scare stories in right wing media, both in Britain and in France forced the closure of the Red Cross administered camp at Sangatte, a few kilometres away from the present site. Then, residents were forcefully evicted and left to fend for themselves.

This, in effect, meant they were living on the streets and open spaces around Calais.

The French authorities then rounded people up and took them to the area around the Jules Ferry Centre that was meant as a place of refuge. The refugees began pitching tents on the wasteland around and “The Jungle” grew up. The authorities decided it was a good idea to channel all new arrivals to this place, stating “go there and there will be no evictions”. It is worth remembering that the land has never officially been declared clear as it was a WW2 minefield. Also, when in 1996, France cleared all asbestos from public buildings, guess where they dumped it!

In his recent speech, Hollande said that the evictions must be carried out with care and respect. Forgive my hollow laugh, but in February of this year, when giving permission for the Southern area of the camp to be demolished, the judge said precisely the same weasel words, adding that the residents must be given 30 days grace to decide what they will do.

In February, on the Monday following Thursday’s judgement, over 50 vans of riot police (CRS), bulldozers and employees of the local authority (the Prefecture) arrived at about 8am.

The Prefecture employees began by knocking on tents and shelters saying “you have 1 hour to get out or you will be arrested”. Some care and respect!

People, including many UK volunteers, began to peacefully protest, but agent provocateurs planted among the refugees began throwing stones at the police which gave them the excuse to start firing teargas.

A water cannon was also deployed and on a freezing cold day, they began squirting ice cold water on people who were trying to save their meagre belongings and shelters and who had no means of drying off or, in many cases, any dry clothes to change into.

Since then, as is widely known, more and more people have arrived and there are now around 10,000 people squeezed into the area that remained standing.

Around 1000 of the 10,000 are children, often unaccompanied. An amendment to the Immigration Bill, tabled by Lord Alf Dubs (himself a recipient of ‘Kindertransport” in the 1930s) got past a reluctant Tory government in the UK.

The Dubs Amendment, as it became known, intended to bring these children as a matter of urgency to the UK, particularly those who had family connections already living here. So far, the government’s promise to enact this remains to be fulfilled.

This means that these children who have travelled to Calais under unbelievably difficult and harsh conditions are to be turned over to the streets. That they will be prey to sex-traffickers and other unsavoury elements seems to be of no concern to the French authorities. Hollande is trying to get re-elected and doesn’t want to appear “weak”.

There is no doubt that this will be tougher than in February. Since then, the CRS have been more trigger happy than ever. Only the other day, a nine year old boy was hit and hospitalized by a rubber bullet. Frequently at night, they will spray tear gas canisters around the camp on a seemingly indiscriminate basis.

I and others intend to stand with the refugees if they try to defend themselves, which will probably mean more tear gas (I copped 2 lots in February), water cannon and baton charges.

The only strange thing about the chosen date is that it is a Saturday. There has been very little police action or even presence at weekends, due to reluctance to pay them overtime. Their usual start day for these kind of operations is a Monday, but we will see.

Unfortunately, several of the agencies who have been working with the refugees seem to be going along with the clearance. They have written a joint letter to Hollande to this effect, merely asking that rights are respected and that children will be safe.

For reasons stated above, even if Hollande says “Yes”, those rights and the children will not be respected or safe if past performance is anything to go by.

I assume that, as before, the scattered refugees will eventually gravitate back to Calais in the forlorn hope that Britain can offer them a home and refuge.

Those who accept asylum in France will be no better off. Some months ago, I spoke with Pascal Froehilly who has been working with the Secours Catholique charity, mainly distributing clothing. He said that refugees granted asylum are given nothing and move from being part of the refugee problem to part of France’s substantial homeless problem.

Open the borders – refugees are welcome here.

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