Postcard — February 3, 2017, 4:03 pm

Closing Calais

Though the refugee camp may have vanished, its inhabitants will not

Trailers housing refugees in Calais, after the camp was demolished. Photograph by Paul Lorgerie

Trailers housing refugees in Calais. Photograph by Paul Lorgerie

In October, French authorities deployed trucks and bulldozers to raze the migrant camp in Calais. On the morning before the demolition began, hundreds of migrants and refugees lined up on the camp’s perimeter, waiting for government buses that would relocate them to one of 451 so-called Welcome Centers in towns and villages across France. Those who left early in the process were those who left willingly, carrying backpacks and duffle bags filled with what belongings they had. Others refused to go, despite threats of detention by French police. The press cast them—perhaps not wrongly—as dreamers unwilling to relinquish their hopes of reaching the United Kingdom.

I volunteered at the camp in August. For weeks, I worked with a few aid organizations, including Jungle Books, a French-English bilingual school on the camp’s south side. There, in the middle of a ring of trailers housing ramshackle desks, chalkboards, and shelving units stacked with battered novels donated by British families, I met a twenty-four-year-old from Darfur whom I’ll call Benjamin. He entreated me to return each day so that he could improve his English, even though he was nearly fluent.

In the days that followed, Benjamin did not complain about where he lived. He’d left his home in Darfur in 2014, after his family’s farm was burned, his brother was arrested, and his mother was killed. One night, after dark Benjamin offered to walk me to the exit. He was lithe, dressed in flip-flops and jeans, carrying a small French dictionary filled with papers on which he’d written lists of conjugated verbs and vocabulary words, and paragraphs of English describing his education, his focus on engineering, and his ambition to continue with his studies. As we approached the boundary, Benjamin stopped talking and turned to face the dry expanse of trash-filled grassland, which I would soon leave, and he would not. We stood together in silence. Our position granted us a wide view of the camp, along with the only permanent features of so provisional a place: cobbled-together shacks, fire pits, and broken glass scattered in the sand. “This is freedom for me,” Benjamin said.

Calais was a grim freedom. The camp—or The Jungle, as it came to be known by aid workers and refugees—was often described as the worst slum in Europe. Water and electrical systems were primitive. People washed their dishes, feet, and T-shirts at the same cold-water pipes, and charged their phones at the information centers, which were housed in decommissioned double-decker buses. The majority of shelters people slept in were holiday tents, sagging and shapeless from bad weather and overuse. The camp’s swelling population had resulted in overcrowding. The smell of sewage and rotting garbage first hit me from half a mile away when I turned my bicycle onto Rue de Greniere, the long road leading to the camp’s entrance. 

I wasn’t prepared for the poor conditions or the shortages of basic necessities. At the bottom of the main walkway, which was lined mostly by Afghan-run restaurants housed in dilapidated shacks made of particleboard and corrugated iron, there were usually at least fifty migrants lined up to use the ten or so portable toilets. Walking down a narrower path, opposite an Iraqi’s tent, were shops stocked sparsely with earbuds, phone chargers, cooking oil, toothbrushes, and rolls of single cigarettes piled in pyramids. Their owners often stopped me to ask for help obtaining shoes. Each day, hundreds of migrants waited outside the One Spirit Ashram marquee, one of a group of volunteer-run kitchens.

It is not surprising that French president François Hollande’s given rationale for the demolition cited the living conditions. The aim was to transfer the camp’s population—10,188 in September, according to the final census conducted by L’Auberge Des Migrants—to sanitary housing. Bernard Cazeneuve, who was then the country’s interior minister, stated that the centers would offer shelter to those refugees eligible to apply for legal asylum in France. It was reported that between 5,000 and 6,000 migrants had left on government buses.

But it was political expediency more than humanitarian concern that precipitated the action. Conditions had been appalling for more than a year and a half, which suggested to some aid organizations and charities that the camp’s closing was a bid by Hollande to boost his popularity. His decision not to run for reelection, in the hope that abdicating leadership would salvage support for his party’s platform, exposed the extent of his failure to unite France’s left-wing parties, particularly around issues of unemployment and immigration. Hollande’s plan for the people living in the Calais camp was not only hastily executed but also ill-conceived; he promised opportunities shadowed by uncertainty.

“It is really likely that refugees will come back to Calais,” a French volunteer named Valentin told me. Many of the people newly installed in shelters had called him in the days following the evacuation, distressed that basic necessities were hard to come by. Conditions at some of the centers were no better than they had been at the camp, and the food offered was not halal. To make matters worse, many residents in rural villages were unabashedly racist. Some teenagers relocated to centers in northern Calais had been forced to pick apples for French supermarkets for no pay.

Another significant confusion created by Hollande’s plan has been over the definition of the legal right to live in France. Many migrants and refugees who experienced unforgiving, months-long journeys from Sudan, Eritrea, or Afghanistan have, in crossing several borders, inevitably had their fingerprints registered in another country. According to the Dublin rule—implemented by the European Union in 1997—the first country a person arrives in is responsible for receiving them. Were migrants’ fingerprints to be discovered by French authorities, they would risk deportation to the country in which they were registered—including such countries as Hungary, where treatment of migrants is known to be inhumane. (In May, the U.N. refugee agency expressed concern at reports of beatings and abuse of asylum seekers, including women and children, by official and civil militia at the Hungarian border.)

In the camp, several aid workers and migrants I spoke with said that the government had told them evacuees would not be subject to the Dublin regulations. But they were skeptical. “We’re not sure if it’s really true,” Valentin said. “And the accommodation centers are only slated to be open for three to six months. What will happen next? Deportations at the end of this time will be far easier to implement than before.”

In the long term, the reception centers do not present a viable solution for those intending to reach the United Kingdom. Care4Calais, a nonprofit that has continued working to end the refugee crisis in Northern France, estimates that a third of the refugees and migrants have family in the U.K. Many more want to go because they speak English better than they do French, and because France has a higher rate of unemployment.

Though the camp may have vanished, its inhabitants will not; to many, Calais still seems their best hope.

The recent demolition is one in a series of muddled efforts by France and the U.K. to protect the border—all of which has done little to prevent refugees from trying to overcome it. Without safe and legal routes, refugees hoping to get to the U.K. have created their own by attempting to climb inside vehicles bound for the ferry port or the Eurotunnel terminal. To block them, French authorities began construction work on a U.K.-funded concrete wall to run the length of both sides of the Rocade, the main dual carriageway leading to the port.

Calais is a port city, and has long been a locus of migration. Refugees and migrants have been arriving there with the aim of reaching the U.K. since the opening of the Eurotunnel, in 1994. The first “jungle” established itself in Calais in 2002, in the form of makeshift shelters in the woods erected by Afghan and Iraqi Kurds. It arose after the closure of Sangatte, a reception center administered by the French Red Cross, and was shut down by the French government largely in response to xenophobic propaganda pedaled by the British tabloids. 

In 2003, France and the United Kingdom signed the Le Touquet treaty, a bilateral agreement that allowed British officials to carry out border checks in Calais, and French officials to do the same in Dover. As part of the agreement, the U.K. contributes funds to French police units working at the border. The French police I interacted with most often at the camp were riot police—a mobile unit called the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. To many refugees, it appeared that France’s ongoing state of emergency, ordered after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, had intensified hostility from law enforcement toward outsiders.

The more time I spent in the camp, the more I encountered allegations of police brutality. Karen Moynihan, a child-protection officer from Dublin who works with the Refugee Youth Service, told me that she encountered injured children almost every day. All of them told her that the CRS had used “very excessive force” against them. “One child, we thought his eye socket was broken,” she said. “We’ve seen a thirteen-year-old boy get cracked in the back of his skull.” 

“They think this violence is normal, that they deserve it, for doing something illegal, [like] getting into the lorries or trespassing,” said Solenne Lecomte, a legal adviser working at the camp. “But we tell them, this is not the price you pay. Imagine if there were no more migrants. Who will be the police’s next victim? Everyone in France needs to consider that.” 

At best, the camp’s demolition is an incoherent response to a complex crisis. And the proposed solution—evacuating refugees to randomly located and provisional centers—seems likely to perpetuate some of migration’s root causes: blocked safe routes to the United Kingdom, and processes for legal asylum that are both opaque and unreliable.

A few days after the demolition, a friend still in Calais sent me photographs of the decimated site. In a few, I spotted the ruins of “L’Ecole,” a school for minors near the Eritrean Orthodox Christian Church. Unraveled rolls of string and toys flattened by the bulldozers lay next to crushed bottles of paint, which had colored the blackened rubble with bright streaks of yellow and green. I remembered walking to the school with Benjamin one afternoon, as he made his way back to his tent. He’d asked me about my life, where I was from, what I did, and what I’d like to do next. I replied that I lived in New York, where I worked with writers, though I didn’t write much myself. “Well,” he said, “I hope that you write about me.”

Share
Single Page

More from Alice Whitwham:

Postcard March 30, 2018, 3:25 pm

The Bubble Bursts

Having made it to paradise, refugees are stuck sleeping on Paris streets

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Resistances

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Article
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Article
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
Article
Resistances·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today