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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.