Calais (France) – Viciously cold wind and rain helped dampen resistance in the “Jungle” refugee camp in northern France on Tuesday, leaving migrants to watch helplessly as bulldozers continued the gradual destruction of their makeshift homes.
Nureen, a Sudanese migrant with his jacket zipped up tight around his face to fight the biting cold, watched as the debris from demolished homes was scooped up into a dumpster.
His house was next — he had been told that police would come knocking early on Wednesday morning.
“Unfortunately, we cannot fight the police,” he said. “There is nothing for us to do. We will just be left in the cold winter.”
Lines of riot police in heavy-duty gear guarded the zone where workers were pulling apart the shacks in this grim shantytown on the edge of the port city of Calais.
In the southern half of the camp, that has been earmarked for demolition, many of the shelters had the words “Lieu de vie” (roughly translated as “living space”) scrawled on their side.
It was a rather desperate reference to the ruling from a French court last week that said “living spaces” could not be destroyed — a vague order that appears to mean only that churches and mosques will be left untouched.
Thousands are still lodged in the Jungle, all hoping to smuggle aboard lorries to Britain. A small number are still able to buy their way across the Channel despite major upgrades to security around the port.
But few now believe there is any way to stop the slow but unrelenting advance of the bulldozers as they make their way methodically up from the southern tip of the camp.
– ‘Solidarity cannot last’ –
Activists and charity workers said some of the evictees are moving into the homes of other refugees in the Jungle, whose homes are not yet targeted for destruction.
“People are helping each other for now, but the solidarity cannot last forever,” said a charity worker with Caritas France, adding that most will end up shifting to even grimmer camps along the French and Belgian coast.
There have been pockets of resistance to the demolition.
Violent clashes broke out on Monday when migrants and activists threw stones and set fire to shacks, and police responded with tear gas.
The authorities repeatedly blame a British activist group called No Borders for fomenting violence, but many of those working in the Jungle roll their eyes at mention of the group.
Tom Radcliffe, a British volunteer who helped establish Help Refugees and has been living in one of the shacks that was cleared away on Tuesday, dismissed the idea that No Borders is a dangerous source of disorder as “absolute nonsense”.
“They are not sinister — they’re kids,” he said. “They sometimes do some rather foolish things, giving people inaccurate information. They can be immature because many of them are very young and haven’t seen what happens when things go bad.”
– Months of work destroyed –
It took months to turn the Jungle into something where people could survive the harsh winter of northern France. Volunteers worked with migrants, providing wood and tarpaulin to create wind-proof shacks to replace the tents that existed here before.
Now all that work is being ripped apart, but few of the camp’s residents are interested in the authorities’ offer of proper accommodation elsewhere in France.
They fear, with some justification, that they could be deported back to their first point of entry into the European Union — as required under EU law.
Others have been turned off France by the rough treatment they have experienced.
“If it was just one person telling me about police violence, I would doubt it, but I hear it over and over and over again,” said Johannes Martens, a Belgian monk who has been living in the camp for several months.
He said the presence of family and friends in Britain remained a powerful draw to many migrants.
“If you end up in England and your asylum result is rejected, you’ll end up in poverty,” he said. “But what you have in England that you don’t have here is communities surrounding you to support you.”
Britain represents hope to the refugees, said Martens, while the events in Calais have left them only with despair.
“Despair is the main feeling,” he said. “They don’t know where they’re going tonight or tomorrow. They are exhausted.”