On the two-year anniversary, almost to the day, of the closing of the Calais Jungle refugee camp, armed French authorities entered a refugee camp at Grande-Synthe in the north of France. The refugees were woken in the early hours as police surrounded their tents and ordered them to gather their belongings.
The armed officers herded refugees around without providing any information as to where they would be taken or what was actually happening at the camp. From this behaviour, it’s hard not to draw a comparison to the closure and demolition of the Calais Jungle in 2016.
At its height, the camp at Calais was home to an estimated 10,000 people, at least 1,000 of these unaccompanied children. When the French authorities razed it, there were no plans made for the thousands of refugees displaced by the camp’s destruction.
Two years on, at least 1,000 refugees still live by the border, hoping one day to make the journey to the UK. While it is now nowhere near its formidable size, this number of homeless refugees are seriously at risk from violence, trafficking and illness.
Some are able to take advantage of limited shelters there and live on meals provided through charity. However, as President Macron continues to restrict asylum laws, all shelters have been set for removal at the end of winter, with March 30th being the final deadline.
As is clear from the destruction of the jungle, the removal of shelters from the border has not been a deterrent for asylum seekers willing to make the perilous journey. Removing their access to shelter would only make life more dangerous for those remaining.
While this may be the intention of the French government, there is no way to deny that a humanitarian crisis is around the corner and that no amount of ‘pull factors’ being denied them will outweigh the ‘push factors’ which forced them to leave their homes in the first place.
The camp at Grande-Synthe has had a particularly rocky history. Originally makeshift shelters built on swampland, the mayor dedicated himself to building wooden huts which formed one of the only internationally recognised humanitarian camps. When this burned down in April last year, the migrants went back to sleeping rough.
The camp, as it existed until yesterday, was situated in the nature reserve the Puythouck, adding to tensions with local residents who felt that the presence of the camps compromised the natural wildlife. The official police figures say that this camp was home to around 1,700 refugees, around 400 of these women and children.
As with the Calais Jungle, many of these people will most likely be taken to reception centres in France where they will have to register as asylum seekers, but it is unlikely to deter more from heading towards the border.
The British government’s own hard lines on asylum seekers are in no way making the situation easier. Although most refugees remaining in Calais, interviewed by Open Migration, still hold out that it’s easier to get papers in England, the Home Office’s actions in the past few years have been increasingly hostile to asylum seekers.
In 2016, the Immigration Advice Service represented a case to the High Court which found that the government had been underplaying the humanitarian situation in Eritrea in order to deny asylum to applicants from the country. Eritreans make up one of the larger ethnic groups of migrants on the French border.
For the hundreds of children in both Grande-Synthe and Calais, the government is also failing. The Alf Dubs amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act, named after a Kindertransport refugee and current Labour peer, means that the government has agreed it will accept unaccompanied child refugees from a number of places in Europe.
While the initial recommendation by Lord Dubs was to take 3,000 children, the government decided it would only take 350. Although this number was changed to 480 after a legal battle introduced by Help Refugees, the government has not yet met this target.
It was also revealed that many of the children brought in under the Dubs amendment actually qualified for entry by family reunification. This means that many of these slim places have been unfairly allocated and unaccompanied children still living in France could have had the chance of settlement in the UK.
Only this month, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s actions towards a great deal of child migrants had been unlawful as they had given them no real reason for denial and no written evidence so as to avoid legal challenges being brought by the children. When faced with the biggest refugee crisis in history, the government has acted shamefully at almost every turn.
As reports emerge that children initially denied asylum in the UK have made it across illegally and are now fully in the hands of their traffickers, the government’s actions are only putting them at further risk. Evidence continues to suggest that no amount of restrictive and dehumanising legislation will deter those in desperation from attempting the journey to the UK.
Two years since the Calais Jungle closure displaced an already displaced people, the UK government needs to overhaul its approach and take a humanitarian approach to the migrants massing at our borders.
Damon Culbert is a political commentator from the Immigration Advice Service