Writing from the Calais Jungle, NANCY DENT describes how the French authorities’ silence is fueling rumours in a volatile environment
“IF WE had 20 of her one year ago, the population of the camp would have been halved by now.” Rowan Farrell is referring to Suzon, a French lawyer who has given up her job in order to offer information to refugees in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais about their legal rights.
The camp is preparing for a full eviction that could start as early as next week. No official notice has been made by the authorities, but it has been made clear to NGOs that demolition is approaching.
Farrell is the co-founder of the Refugee Info Bus, a project that provides access to technology and information to the residents of the Jungle, and is explaining to me the importance of accurate and up to date information in a troubled and transient environment. Suzon is one of many lawyers and legal practitioners who have come to the camp to alleviate some of the problems here.
Sitting in Khyber Cafe, it is clear that people are looking hard for the answers to their questions. They are patient too, forming a queue and quietly slipping into the chair when the person in front is finished with their questioning.
Previously, the Info Bus has provided workshops on the legal rights of displaced people in Europe, as well as information about the Dublin Convention, Brexit and the various asylum systems across the continent.
But now the conversations are turning towards a more pressing matter: the impending eviction of the camp.
It is 2pm, and workshops are happening all around me. Volunteers from the legal centre and the Info Bus are scattered around the restaurant, surrounded by huddles of refugees.
It is noisy — pockets of conversation buzz with the ebb and flow of tense questions and complicated answers, as volunteers aim to answer the questions of as many people as possible. “We try to hold as many workshops as possible, so that we know that we have reached as many people as can,” a volunteer from the legal shelter tells me.
This is the crux of the problem: information can only be given out person to person, and there is a danger of rumours distorting what little facts the NGOs have.
The Refugee Info Bus is one of several projects attempting to address this issue.
Help Refugees are distributing documents in English, French, Pashto and Arabic that contain information about the evictions and how refugees can prepare for them. Bold letters warn the reader that: “THESE DETAILS COULD CHANGE,” and the whole camp seems to be aware that no-one has access to the full story. Speculation is rife within the camp and the volunteer networks.
The authorities have mentioned that evictions will begin on Monday October 17, but the Calais prefecture has since denied such claims. “The date is not yet known. It will begin in the coming weeks. The agencies are still in the process of providing shelter. The objective is that the demolition will be finished before the start of winter so these people are not left in this miserable camp this winter.”
The French state has not sent representatives to clarify this to the residents of the camp, nor to the NGOs working to support them.
“They haven’t pinned a notice up and no-one has told us officially what is going on,” Rowan says. I am also told that the first indication of the date of the previous evictions in February was a local binman disclosing the end date of his contract to collect rubbish in the south side of the camp.
That eviction saw 1,000 refugees forced out of their shelters. This time, there are 10,000 people who will be made homeless.
The lack of concrete facts makes it impossible to plan for the future.
Suzon deals daily with a frenzy of questions about where to claim asylum and in which direction a journey should continue. Smuggling prices have gone up — should asylum be claimed in France?
Uncertainty is reflected in the faces of everyone in the camp.
Sifat and Nazif are two Afghan men, who have both claimed asylum in France.
They are unclear of the details of the evictions but seem certain about one thing: “We just know about how they want to destroy the Jungle. They want to finish the Jungle on the 17th of this month.”
They explained to me how they knew this. “Lots of people told us. Volunteers, refugees, Europeans, lots of people. Every time we talk with them, they say that on the 17th the government will destroy the Jungle. But they also say that they are not sure. They are not sure if they will destroy the Jungle or not.”
This lack of concrete information is concerning for the men. They cannot plan for anything beyond Monday. They do not know if they will have shelter beyond next week and they do not know if they will get a place on a bus that will take them to one of the promised accommodation centres.
The following information is what we do know and what has been provided to refugees across the camp: the French government will evict the Calais Jungle. This will happen by the end of the year at the latest, but probably very soon. The French government has promised to make enough space in the centres for all Jungle residents who want to go. Tenuous facts have been passed from the authorities to NGOs, which have then been passed to refugees. There has been no attempt to impart information directly to the camp by the French state. Information is being doled out individually, and the opportunity for facts to become distorted and misconstrued is prevalent.
Memories of the previous evictions in February are also raw. The demolition of the south side of the camp was violent.
Everyone remembers the tear gas, rubber bullets and fire.
This time, however, the authorities are bound to provide transport to the shelter accommodations that are spread throughout northern France and Paris, but the buses haven’t arrived yet and people are unsure if there is a plan.
Nazif worries: “When they destroy the Jungle, there will be a lot of problems. But we do not know this.”
How can a population of 10,000 people prepare for an exodus if they do not know the date?