On Monday, 24 Oct., the French government has started a week-long operation to evacuate 6,000-8,000 migrants from the French camp of Calais to resettle them in different areas in northern France. The camp will be bulldozed. 

Many are worried, because they want to reach the UK, while others are happy to be leaving the squalid conditions of the camp. For the many children escaping the horrors of war, the camp is comparatively better. 

The migrants are separated into groups of adults, unaccompanied minors, families and vulnerable people in order to be taken on coaches to various French processing accommodation centres. 60 buses are going to carry 3,000 people each day, from Monday until Wednesday this week. On Monday, only 1,918 people were processed and distributed to 80 centres around France.

French authorities want the UK to help find a home for more than 1,000 children.

Britain will pay £36m to help the French government clear the Calais camp forever, so that no other camps reappear again. 

Calais: Welcome to the “Jungle” 

Migrants attempting to cross the English Channel (Strait of Dover) through the Channel Tunnel (also known as Chunnel) owned by Eurotunnel, or the Pas de Calais by hiding in lorries, cars or trains in order to reach Britain, have been living in camps near the port of Calais. The French port city of Calais is the closest French town to the UK. 

The refugee and migrant camp at Calais is nicknamed the “Jungle” by the migrants themselves. “Jungle” is a translation of “dzhangal” which means forest. The word comes from an Eastern Iranian language, Pashto, spoken by Afghan, Pakistan and the Pashtun diaspora immigrants. 

A refugee camp had been open to asylum seekers and traffickers from 1999 to 2002 when the French president Nicolas Sarkozy decided its closure. But because of riots and continued migration, camps at Calais have been reestablished. In 2009, after the French authorities destroyed the camp, a new one was established with 800 inhabitants. In 2014, 1,300 migrants were estimated to live there and in 2015, the numbers rose to 3,000. In 2016 there were more than 6,000 refugees from countries devastated by war, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea, living in the camp. While nationalities have changed through the years, Kurdish Iraquis, immigrants from the Horn of Africa area (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti) and Sudan make up the majority. Various charities are helping to feed the migrants, among them unattended children who lost their parents during their escape, or orphans with nothing else left in the world.

From September 2015, when a ferry heading to the UK was stormed by 235 illegal migrants, until the summer of this year, the huge numbers of migrants have made migration a heated issue. In late May 2016, a fight in the camp resulted in 40 injuries, among them migrants, police officers and aid workers. 

It is said that after the EU Referendum, the migrants living in Calais reached 10,000.

British Government’s response

Theresa May’s government was criticised by charities and aid agencies for being against taking the child refugees, and only a few days before the announcement of the camp’s demolition did the Home Office comply. Josie Naughton of the charity Help Refugees said: “We have been campaigning for a year for the UK government to help the children in Calais and then they try and do it all in a week, which obviously they couldn’t.” Also, shameful, was the reaction from anti-immigration campaigners when 21 children with relatives in the UK arrived to be met with disputes about their age. Conservative backbenchers were also calling last week for dental X-ray checks to confirm the children’s ages. As if a child younger or older than 18 years old is more or less human. 

Le Touquet treaty and Brexit

Under the 2003 Le Touquet treaty, British officials and French police are entitled to perform passport checks in each other’s ports, both in Calais and Dover. This is convenient for Britain because migrants remain in Calais. The UK government’s position is against offering asylum to Calais migrants because, under the EU law known as the Dublin Regulation, migrants should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive at. This is why Britain argues that the migrants should apply to France or other continental states for asylum. But, as France’s economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, said to the Financial Times, the Le Touquet agreement between the UK and France would be threatened if Britain withdrew from the EU. Macron’s comments were considered as "scaremongering" by Leave campaigners.

But the treaty is not an EU agreement but one between the two countries and can only be terminated by either of them.

The French think otherwise. If the Leave campaign demand to “take back control”, then as Calais politicians pointed out, it is time it “takes back control of its borders from France.” Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region that includes the Calais camp, said to the Telegraph: "The British people have chosen to take back their freedom, they must take back their borders." He added: "The days when the French handled the whole burden and the British signed a cheque are over. To date, the means they have put into it have been largely cosmetic, that has to stop.”

Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, the former conservative Prime Minister, also want to move the border back to Dover. This is also used as a right-wing rhetoric before the 2017 election, which is scheduled in less than six months. Right-wing politicians want Britain to deal with the migrants, especially when it is leaving the EU. 

What happens now?

Already charities are shocked by the way the children of Calais are being treated. Calais immigrants are stressed and worried since they have no information about what is happening and where they are going.  People fear they will lose their freedom. 

It isn’t yet clear how many children the UK will take. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats said: 

“It is unbelievable that the day before demolition is due to take place, our Government still can’t tell us how many children we will take and when they will arrive. The Home Secretary must clarify this in her statement to Parliament today and take this opportunity to rebuild Britain’s reputation as a compassionate and caring country. The UK Government has a moral responsibility to ensure that all vulnerable children are either transferred to the UK or moved to places of safety before camp clearance starts.”

At the end of the day, as the humanitarian crisis unfolds, and images of children carrying nothing but crumpled asylum papers are repeatedly circulated in the media, Calais will force us to remember something long forgotten. The shanty town of Calais isn’t a rhetoric to be used for sale in the Parliaments of the British or French, but the place from where we all came. We are all migrants of the world. 

If you want to help the people of Calais, please check these websites: