On Friday February 19th the French Government will evict nearly one thousand asylum seekers from their homes in “The Jungle,” Calais’ infamous refugee camp.
Bulldozers are expected to razz the southern neighborhoods of the jungle on Friday morning, where most of the camp’s families reside. The Southern section of the camp is also home to several of the camp’s most important cultural, community, and aid centers. These will also be bulldozed as part of the eviction.
On Sunday there was a mass prayer held on the camp’s main road as residents fear losing their homes and communities. Many have been in the camp for several months either attempting to enter the U.K. through the Port, or through the Eurotunnel. Some refugees have been in the camp for more than a year.
During the summer the number of people fleeing conflicts and oppression in Syria and Northern Africa ballooned sparking a rapid increase in the camp’s population. When I arrived as a volunteer in December the Jungle was home to over 6,000 asylum seekers. Since then that number has declined with the most recent estimate by French authorities showing that the current population has fallen to just under 4,000, as many have left to seek asylum in Germany or to other camps around Europe. Friday’s evictions are part of the local government’s plan to further reduce the size of the camp.
Among the centers to be closed down is the Ashram Kitchen which is one of a network of kitchens in the camp which serve over 5,000 meals a day to residents. The Good Chance Theatre, colloquially referred to as the “Dome,” will also have to be dissembled or be torn down by the authorities. The Dome provides live music, art lessons, and a stage for refugees and visitors to perform plays. Plays performed by refugees during my stay in the camp included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, various renditions of life in the camp, and a 45 minute autobiographical play written and performed by a young Afghan who was both deaf and mute.
Also located in the condemned area are three schools (including a children’s school), Jungle Books (the camp’s main library), a legal aid center, a vaccination center, one church and at least three Mosques. The camp’s Youth center which provides a safe place for recreation, shelter, meals, and clothing to the over 500 young people living in the Jungle will also be destroyed. Young men who have escaped compulsory military service- which both ISIS and the Assad Regime have imposed- will be disproportionately affected by the Youth Center’s closure as many of them have come to The Jungle unaccompanied.
Friday’s expulsion follows a previous eviction in mid-January when the Pas de Calais Prefecture ordered the bulldozing of another section of the camp that was home to over 1000 residents in order to forcefully move them into container housing units built during the winter. The 125 housing units were built by French authorities and are meant to house up to 1,500 refugees, but many refused to move voluntarily likening the container village to a prison due to the fences that encircle it. The forced removal sparked riots and several fires when more than 300 residents refused to leave their homes.
In Calais there is no Red Cross or UN presence, which makes the condemned community centers vitally important to the health of the camp’s resident’s. Because the French government does not recognize the Jungle as an “official” refugee camp residents are forced to rely mostly on services provided by cin sin Fronters, Medecin du Monde and the volunteers that run the condemned centers.
In November the lack of services prompted a French court to rule conditions in the camp to be “inhumane,” exposing residents to “degrading treatment,” and ordered the provision of garbage removal, water taps, and much needed portable toilets. Even after the court’s ruling such services are still substandard as many refugees don’t have bins to dispose there trash, toilets fill up quickly, and there is little modern pluming.
Sitting on the opposite end of the channel from Dover, it is the closest point between England and France and is home to both a ferry crossing and the Eurotunnel, as such it has become the prime destination for asylum seekers trying to reach the United Kingdom. Because of this Calais has been destination for people seeking asylum in the UK since 1999. This has prompted both the UK government and the French government to adopt various measures to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Calais or attempting to cross the border.
Rather than work towards processing the camp’s residents for asylum, the British government began subsidizing French Authorities during the summer of 2015 in order to increase security at the border to stem the number of illegal crossings. Then in September, when the Tory government announced it’s plan to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020 they excluded refugees across the channel, restricting the pool of potential candidates to people from camps outside of Syria.
As a result a 13 foot razor wire fence fitted with state of the art, night vision capable, cameras was erected and the CRS (French riot police) presence grew. The CRS is the main French authority tasked with policing the camp, but in practice the neighborhoods police themselves as the CRS generally does not enter the camp, but pools resources at the camp’s entrances and patrol the areas around the new fence. While the stated purpose of the fence is to keep refugees from the highways – which it does- and the border crossings- which it also does- it encircles large sections of the camp and allows the CRS to more easily control movement in and out of the camp.
The Jungle’s main entrance lies under a highway overpass and is overseen by several CRS officers wielding military style weapons and tear gas launchers during the day. At night the number of riot police balloons and there is usually a water cannon stationed behind the nearby chemical plant. It is also where Banksy, the world renown and anonymous street artist, spray-painted a rendition of Steve Jobs whose parents where Syrian refugees. Next to the Banksy is usually a collection of several dozen spent tear gas canisters from the previous nights.
On December 17th tear gas was launched into the Women and Children’s section of the camp, whose populations is being evicted on Friday, which is the quietest area in the Jungle. Being tear gassed is a regular occurrence in the Jungle- it happened to me on my first night in the camp- as is being beaten by police. Because the Fence can be cut, the most common place for violent encounters with the CRS to occur is on the highway between 7 and 11 o’clock at night, when refugees attempt to stow away in cargo trucks. Many residents also complained about unprovoked confrontations with the CRS while leaving or entering the Jungle and along the camp’s perimeter.
Another unwelcome force in the Jungle has been the steady growth of local fascist groups and armed right-wing militias in the Calais region. The Neo-Nazi group Les Calasien en Colore has seen its Facebook following grow to more than 66,000 and members regularly gather outside of the camp at a local supporters home which sits by the southern entrance, by the neighborhoods that are being evicted on Friday.
I had the pleasure of walking past about three dozen members of Les Calasien en Colore who dressed in all black uniform as they took a group photograph in front of their supporters home on December 17,th the same night the Women and Children’s section of the camp was gassed,. The members were accompanied by two police officers standing outside of a van marked CRS. Moments before this encounter I had been searched and questioned without probable cause by two CRS officers while walking around the perimeter of the camp.
Keeping an eye on the gathering with their cameras ready was a group of young activists who run the Jungle’s legal aid center- the one that will be torn down this Friday- a duty which they perform on a nightly basis. The activists told me that the right-wing groups generally do not enter the camp, there have been instances where refugees are chased and pursued into the camp in order to prompt a confrontation with the CRS. Another tactic these groups use is to traverse the perimeter late at night making loud noises in order to draw out residents and provoke a violent response from the riot polce. They also accused the police of previously beating one of their members and arresting another for videotaping the event.
The activists publish a blog called Calais Migrant Solidarity which has been active since 2009, in which they have routinely documented (with video and photographic evidence) violent confrontations with right-wing groups and the police. One such report, published November 12th 2015, claims that on the previous night plainclothes officers in an unmarked vehicle kidnapped three refugees. The operation quickly prompted a protest by the Jungle’s residents which the activists claim was met by the use of a water cannon, rubber bullets, “incendiary gas pellets,” concussion grenades, and tear gas.
Confrontations between refugees, right-wing organizations, and the CRS have also been routinely documented by members of the press. As recently as February 12th 2016 the UK’s Independent reported that on “one attack in which young male refugees were taken by van to a field where they were stripped naked and had their hands cuffed behind their back,” where “ they were then made to watch as their abductors – a group of unidentified men – beat them individually.” These are claims tat have been “corroborated by medical reports from international humanitarian organizations Médecins sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde.” According to the Independent a report is being submitted to the state prosecutor by the activists from the legal center and the UK Charity Care4Calais which contains “10 testimonies of violence, eight at the hands of police and five by civilian groups.”
But why is this happening in a country which famously espouses to Liberté, égalité, et fraternité?
Nationalist groups started growing tremendously throughout Europe in 2008 after the Financial crisis, which began in the United States, crossed the Atlantic and wacked the European economy. Like the US Government, the French Government was forced to bail out it banks when Wall St. collapsed, but completely failed to address the combination of growing economic insecurity and high unemployment because of fiscal and monetary policy constraints adopted when the Euro currency was adopted.
Unlike the Government of the United States which issues its own currency, countries which adopted the euro, like France, are only users of their currency. As such these governments have effectively lost part of their national sovereignty because they can’t manage their own economic policy.
There are two extremely important reasons why this loss of economic sovereignty matters. First, France cannot generate the fiscal deficits necessary for her economy to grow and reach full employment during times of recession. This may seem counter-intuitive because we have been conditioned to fear the Federal debt and deficit, but deficits are extremely important during times of economic contraction, especially when there is a lot of private debt in the economy.
Deficits are income for the non-government sector, so they are needed during a recession if households and employers are going to have the income from which to pay down their own debts, make investments and buy stuff; the corresponding national debt is an asset for anyone who owns it. In fact the net financial savings in dollars held globally is exactly equal to the Federal debt of the United States and the deficit is equal to the net increase in non-government savings. This comes from an accounting identity and is thus always true.
Second of all France, like all Eurozone countries, does not have a proper central bank to buy its debt and lower the interest rates, which means borrowing at interest rates determined in the market and the possibility of default. So in the United States, even though both the deficit and the debt to ballooned the interest rate on our debt actually fell. This happened precisely because the Federal Reserve wanted it to, while exactly the opposite occurred in indebted Eurozone countries like France.
The United States, while not financially constrained is constrained by the real goods, services, and opportunities for investment which exist to be purchased, i.e. inflation. This was even affirmed by former Federal Reserve chairmen Allen Greenspan (a direct disciple of Ayan Rand) while being questioned by congressman Paul Ryan in March of 2005, denying the claim that Federal Government could one day be forced to miss Social Security payments. This difference has left Francois Hollande’s Socialist party “in Government, but not in power,” to quote the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Because the architecture of the Euro favored Germany with its large trade surpluses at the expense of France, frustration sparked the rise of nationalism. Furthermore as the refugee crisis worsened in the summer of 2015, followed by the November 13th terrorist attack in Paris, French politics further deteriorated; when you mix fear, economic insecurity and loss of sovereignty then let it churn with a slow motion 1930’s depression you get the toxic political and economic climate responsible for spawning and incubating neo-Nazi groups like Les Calasien en Colore.
At the political level, the right wing National Front an openly anti-EU, anti-immigrant party Led by Marine Le Pen is capitalizing on this impotence. Last December the party broke all of its records winning 28% nationally and a whopping 49% of the local vote in Calais during the first round of voting, before losing both in the second round because fear of their victory prompted higher turnout. But still it was a policy victory for the extreme right. Terrorized of losing to fascists, Hollande’s government moved to adopt anti-humanistic policies towards refugees such as Friday’s eviction.
In this climate the fascists don’t need to win elections in order for their policies to be implemented. The truth French people have to face is that the attacks frequented on refugees by Les Calasien en Colore is only possible because French authorities, at all levels of government, are complicit in the violence. Because when neo-Nazis attack a desperate group of people and the police either let it happen or join in, when humanitarian aid is held back because of official positions by the state, when communities are officially condemned and families evicted from their homes, then the state is an active participant in the violence.