Calais’ “Jungle” refugee camp was always squalid and unsanitary: now it’s gone

A tear gas cannister on the outskirts of the Calais camp. Image: Thom Davies/author provided.

Among the detritus of the squalid Calais camp lie empty tear gas shells, recently fired by the police. They signify the physical violence that some refugees were to suffer in the coming days as the so-called “Jungle” was forcibly dismantled.

“It’s a big problem, the gas gets into the tent,” explains an Afghan resident who lives on the edge of Europe’s largest makeshift encampment. But beyond the cuts and bruises that residents of the camp have suffered at the hands of the police and racist thugs, other hidden forms of violence have slowly brutalised refugees since the camp was created in early 2015.

Our research and visits to the camp have revealed the invisible public health dangers that refugees have suffered, and the microbiological threats of living in such squalid conditions – conditions that the state could easily have chosen to improve. For months now, French authorities have failed to provide enough hygiene facilities, food and toilets. They have even failed to meet the minimum standards for refugee camps set out by the UNHCR and the Sphere Project, which works to set basic standards for humanitarian emergencies. A failure to meet such public health requirements thereby deliberately enforced squalor and misery for the camp’s inhabitants.

In 2015, a fifth of the camp’s residents seen by health-related NGOs presented with scabies, and many of its population was suffering from various gastrointestinal illnesses as a result of a lack of access to adequate sanitation, and safe storage of food or water. As one resident of the Calais camp who had lived there for several months reflected: “A quick bullet through the head in Afghanistan would be better than this slow death here.” The comment was a testament to how miserable things had become.


Security over sanitation

In the 18 months that this camp has existed on the French-UK border, both governments have consistently done the bare minimum to protect the lives of refugees in Calais – from a failure to ensure minimum health standards, to the lack of food and shelter provision. Meanwhile, millions of pounds have been spent by the UK to enforce the border, with elaborate security architecture. Yet the evident humanitarian crisis in Calais has been met with state indifference.

These decisions to do as little as possible in the face of an unfolding crisis now also extend to the British commitment to only rehouse a small fraction of the children living in the camp. The British government is currently relocating a small group of child refugees – six months after a parliamentary amendment to bring them to the UK. This amounts to the weakest of political actions at the eleventh hour of an 18-month long emergency.

This state negligence also stands in stark contrast to the efforts of volunteers, aid agencies and activists working tirelessly in the face of government inertia, including MSF, Help Refugees, Care 4 Calais, Doctors of the World, Secours Catholique and the Kitchen In Calais among many others, who have worked hard to ensure some level of humanitarian support.

The informal Calais camp will now gradually be dismantled by French authorities, and refugees are being relocated to asylum centres in other parts of France. This is to be welcomed to the extent that it may provide shelter, food and access to asylum processes for migrants who have previously been denied these material and political provisions. But with many camp residents reluctant to give up on their desire to reach the UK, and with more than a thousand riot police having been drafted into Calais for the dismantling process, it is inconceivable that this operation will be completed without the sustained use of force.

A violent place to call home. Image: Thom Davies/author provided.

Too little, too late

As British authorities are unwilling to take all but small numbers of child refugees with family connections in the UK, many adult asylum seekers with similar connections will seek to remain in northern France, living informally in smaller sub-camps to sustain their chances of making it across the Channel. Some refugees left before the dismantlement started on 24 October for other informal encampments, or simply to sleep on the streets; but others simply have no Plan B, so determined are they to reach the UK.

Research by the Refugee Rights Data Project in Calais indicates that 40 per cent of the Calais camp residents want to get to the UK principally to reunite with friends or family. “It is the UK or back to Afghanistan,” said one resident in his 40s who has lived in the camp for a full year.

If the current French response amounts to too little, too late, the UK’s response has been weaker still. It is telling that, rather than a debate about the extent to which Britain should be assisting in the resettlement of refugees, such is the popular mood and toxic political landscape, that even the rehousing of minors from war-zones – with close relatives in the UK – is attacked by the political right and tabloid press.

As the media covers the overt violence of the camp’s demolition, the persistence of less visible forms of violence will continue to threaten the lives of refugees. As long as European states cannot agree a more systematic, equitable and just method of distributing displaced populations, informal camps will remain a constant fixture on the European landscape. The Conversation

Arshad Isakjee is a research fellow in migration, identity and belonging at the University of Birmingham. Thom Davies, is a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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