When Theresa May was asked in Parliament last week about border security by Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, she stated proudly that the UK had “invested more money to ensure that the Calais camp remains closed”. What she neglected to mention was that doing so has helped produce a serious humanitarian crisis.
The independent human rights watchdog in France recently released a damning report on the living conditions of the 400 to 600 refugees who have gradually returned to Calais since the demolition of the Jungle, as the camp there was known, in October 2016.
Jacques Toubon’s report describes the “inhuman” living conditions: refugees are sleeping rough in the forests around Calais, access to water and toilets has been terminated, charities and refugees face harassment and violence from the police, and women are at risk of sexual exploitation.
Michael McHugh, who works for the refugee youth service in Calais, has directly seen the effects of this strategy on vulnerable unaccompanied minors. “In the jungle, we had a large camp that had many problems, and flaws, and challenges, much of which I would never want to see repeated again, but there were certain protective factors.
“There was a location where they could be found, if we didn’t see them. We ran a youth centre in a space which young people would come to for activities. If a young person was not locatable, we could go to their shelter and locate them, we could ask the adults or children around them, ‘Where are they?’, because when there’s a place that you’re supposed to be, your absence is noticed. However, when there’s a climate of hostility, it’s much harder to know.”
According to McHugh, UK taxpayers’ money is helping to fund the militarised riot police in Calais, who use intimidation, violence and tear-gas. “The culture of dispersing people and keeping people moving is that migrants may be less visible, and invisible children are the children who are most at risk,” he says. “This situation is a very good opportunity for people who seek to exploit vulnerable people: traffickers, smugglers. Children are disappearing every day.”
He adds that not only do such heavy-handed policies contribute to the denial of basic human rights, they increase refugees’ desperation to reach England. “Young people here equate the lived experience they have day-to-day in France with police harassment, with being denied food, lack of access to water, racist violence on the streets, and it just emboldens them and builds this narrative in their head that France bad, UK good. Despite all our work to get refugees to consider French protection, when they are woken up at 6 o’clock in the morning, and their bedding is pepper sprayed, or damaged or vandalized in such a way as they can’t use it, they are not going to consider staying in France.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of people trying to jump on lorries in the daytime, people are getting very desperate.”
Toubon’s report details how since the 2000s, governments have feared that dignified and respectful treatment of the rights of migrants encouraged others to follow – the so called “pull factor”. Yet the UK government’s obsession with this “pull factor” has blinded it to the “push factor” created by the hostility faced by migrants in Calais.
The government’s failure to tackle the ongoing crisis in Calais is made all the more shameful by its failure to meet its commitment to help child migrants under the Dubs amendment.
Annie Gavrilescu, regional manager for Northern France at the NGO Help Refugees, says that no children have been taken in by the UK under the Dubs amendment since the demolition of the Jungle: “Just over 200 children were taken over. Since then not a single child has been formally identified or transferred to the UK.”
The government claimed it halted the Dubs process because local authorities did not have the capacity to take in refugee children. But Gavrilescu says: “Many local authorities were not aware of the consultation process and what it entailed, and so many many spaces were actually left unfilled, even though there is capacity for more children to be brought to safely to the UK.”
May’s self-congratulations on Wednesday illustrate how the UK government has increasingly come to view the closure of the camp as an end in itself. But this was not always the case. Amber Rudd’s statement prior to the demolition of the Calais Jungle explained that the action was an instrument for achieving a broader set of goals – “a challenging but necessary humanitarian operation” to “keep our border secure, tackle criminal gangs, and ensure those in the camp in need of protection are moved to places of safety”.
For McHugh and other NGO workers in Calais, it’s clear those broader aims have been forgotten, and they are left simply trying to cope with the fallout.
“If I find someone on the side of the road who’s been hit by a car, I will put pressure on the wound, maintain the airway. What we’re doing here, on the ground as NGOs, it’s pretty similar. We are meeting the urgent need, but we cannot address the short-term and long-term rehabilitative needs. All of us are waiting for the ambulance.”
The UK government’s indifference to what has happened after the Calais camp’s closure suggests McHugh and everyone else could be waiting a long time.