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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.