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Court ruling offers limited lifeline for Calais’s desperate refugees

by Robert Trafford

Some of the most vulnerable residents of the ‘Jungle’ – a sprawling refugee encampment outside the French city of Calais – may soon be given a route out of the camp, following a British court ruling that three children and one dependent adult from Syria should be permitted to join their families in the UK while their asylum applications are examined.

<p>A man walks in a makeshift camp set up by refugees and undocumented migrants in Calais, France.</p>

A man walks in a makeshift camp set up by refugees and undocumented migrants in Calais, France.

(Denis Charlet/AFP)

A small proportion of the estimated 4000 to 6000 refugees and migrants living in squalid conditions in the Calais camp have close family in the UK. Although current European Union regulations stipulate that an asylum seeker in Calais must apply for asylum in France before the UK can take over the application, lawyers acting on behalf of the applicants successfully argued that the current system has broken under the present strain.

George Gabriel, of the grassroots community network Citizens UK, told Equal Times: “The judgment is also tinged with sadness. We know that Masud – who died just days [before the judgement], aged 15, suffocated in the back of a lorry, trying to reach his sister here in the UK – could also have been granted asylum using this safe route.

“Now the UK government and the French authorities must act to ensure that no more children are driven into the hands of people smugglers or become so desperate they take terrible risks to reach the safety of the UK.”

The judgement has raised morale amongst those living and working in the camp after a difficult start to the year, as winter bites and the already “diabolical” conditions worsen. The makeshift tents are surrounded by mud and water, with some inhabitants suffering from diseases such as tuberculosis, scabies and even measles.

Volunteers and refugees recently relocated more than1000 residents out of a large swathe of the camp, which was subsequently bulldozed and cleared by the local authorities.

A document released by the Pas-de-Calais prefecture and seen by Equal Times suggests that the clearance was intended to prevent refugees from accessing the nearby motorway, just a mile from the entrance to the ferry port.

Authorities have also expressed a desire to significantly reduce the size of the encampment in light of conditions that UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn described as “a disgrace”on his visit to the Jungle last week, although it is unclear how this reduction will be achieved.

Tom Radcliffe, founder of Help Refugees and a long-term volunteer in Calais, described a meeting about the clearances with the Calais authorities to the camp radio station, Jungala Radio: “At first we were told they would have to be moved in three days - that’s somewhere between 1000 and 2000 people… even if they told us we had a month to do it, it would have been difficult.”

He described the French authorities as acting “completely without compassion.”

Some community leaders in the Jungle initially chose to “respectfully decline the demands of the French government with regards to reducing the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes.”

The prefecture later gave a “slightly more open-ended, ambiguous answer,” according to Radcliffe, and eventually postponed the deadline, giving NGOs such as L’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees, Acted and Care4Calais, a chance to build new shelters and help with the relocations.

Philli Boyle, another senior volunteer, described how many refugees relocated themselves, “picking up their homes and carrying them off.”

 

Prison-like facility

The eviction follows tensions in the camp surrounding the opening of a new facility to house 1500 refugees, overseen by French NGO La Vie Active. While the facility offers security and free electricity inside heated shipping containers, many refugees have been deterred by the centre’s lack of communal spaces, and the fact that it “looks just like a prison”, as Hamid, a young Afghan who has lived in Calais for two months, told Equal Times.

While authorities have not confirmed any link between the land clearance and the opening of the new accommodation, they have, according to Gregory, “said officially that people living in the area [affected by the clearances] will have priority for living in the new facility.” This conflicts with earlier reports that the facility would first offer spaces to vulnerable women, children and families.

This confusion has only fuelled suspicion regarding the facility, which volunteers are forbidden from entering, and which is surrounded by barbed wire. Many refugees are wary of the biometric scanners at its entrance, and are reluctant to leave their communities, which are becoming increasingly permanent in character.

Help Refugees announced at the start of this week that only 230 tents remain occupied in the camp – a difficult statistic to verify in light of the sustained rate of at least 50 new arrivals per day. But it does suggest that at least 4000 refugees are now housed in either donated caravans or the tarpaulin-wrapped wooden shelters which line every street in the camp.

As of last week, much of the container facility remains unoccupied, with The Telegraph newspaper reporting that just 173 refugees had moved in.

The prefecture did not respond to our request for comment, but the UK Home Office confirmed that it will continue to contribute £5 million a year toward encouraging “the movement of migrants away from Calais by providing support and facilities elsewhere in France”.

In a related development, earlier this month Médecins Sans Frontières began construction of a ‘winterised’ heated tent facility on the outskirts of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, where over 2000 refugees, mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan, have been camped in fields and woodland, in conditions that MSF’s UK executive director Vickie Hawkins described as “some of the worst that I have seen in 20 years of humanitarian work.”

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