For the Calais refugees, this is the destruction of hope as well as home | Maria Margaronis

It happened in Greece, now it’s happening in Calais: razing refugee camps serves politics, not people

The dismantling of the Calais refugee camp brings a sense of deja vu for those of us who followed the eviction of the Idomeni camp on the Greece-Macedonia border in May. The streams of buses; the heavy machinery waiting to destroy the tents and shacks; the queues of bewildered people with their lives in bundles at their feet; the riot police standing by.

For the refugees there’s the terrible uncertainty about what happens next, the fear of being deported, taken into detention, separated from the small community they’ve made. And there’s the anxious surrender to the inevitable grief mixed with relief. Will the new place be better, safer, or just further away from where you hope to go?

People on the move will settle where their way is blocked. Idomeni and Calais – at the southern and northern edges of continental Europe – were by far the largest such camps, each home to 9,000 or more. But there are others: in Serbia, for instance, on the border with Hungary – one of the first frontiers in Europe to be fenced with razor wire.

These places are grim, chaotic and threatening, especially for women and children, who often travel alone. In Idomeni, before it was cleared, I sat with a Syrian man who had that morning tried to hang himself, unable to bear watching his family suffer another day. I heard tales of nightly knife fights on the edges of the camp; of traffickers abducting children into slavery. When it rained, rivers of mud poured through the flimsy tents. But I also understand why some people prefer to stay in such camps than go to official centres, where conditions may be no better and the prospects for escape much worse.

food queue at the Idomeni camp, in Greece
A food queue at the Idomeni camp, in Greece. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

“As long as we’re here, by the border, there’s hope,” a young man in Idomeni said to me before it was razed. “We’re not leaving here until the border opens.”

He did leave, of course; there’s nothing there now but green fields ruffled by wind. What’s gone – destroyed almost without trace in just a few days – was, like Calais, becoming a small town, with shops and falafel stands and internet cafes, barber shops, language classes and even a TV station, sending stories from Idomeni out to the wider world. And as in Calais, hundreds of international volunteers – some from mainstream NGOs, but many self-organised – made life more bearable, providing everything from food and information to childcare, friendship and concern.

The main reason for wanting to stay near the border, or the Channel, is obviously to cross it: the opportunities, and the traffickers, are there. But, without wanting to romanticise it, Idomeni, like Calais, was for some of its residents also a kind of home: a place where they had a little agency in their daily lives, and where despair was tempered by a sliver of hope that the border would open, or that they could somehow slip through and move on.

It’s that hope, above all, that the razing of of such camps shuts down. The existence of these squalid shanty towns is a symptom of Europe’s failure to manage the refugee reception crisis, as well as migration more broadly; closing them does nothing for the underlying problem. In France, as in Greece, the process is driven by politics – the wish to clean the place up, disperse the people, make them less visible – rather than any plan for meeting the needs of refugees, or managing mass migration from the global south. The message to Europeans is: “Look, we’re taking control.” The message to refugees is: “Don’t come.”

Dispersing people may reduce local resentment, but it also undermines empathy. Since Idomeni was cleared there’s been far less media focus on the plight of the 60,000 people still stuck in Greece. But most of those evicted from the camp are still sheltering in derelict factories and warehouses, or tents pitched on hard gravel where snakes slither in and rainwater floods through.

One family I know spent several weeks in hospital because their two small daughters developed blood poisoning from insect bites. Some prefer to sleep on the streets rather than live in Greece’s derelict industrial infrastructure, out of sight and out of mind, cut off from volunteers and local populations.

Calais shelters set on fire as refugees clash with police - video

And though the closure of the camp was meant to undercut the people smugglers, they are, if anything, doing an even more thriving trade. With fewer than 5,000 refugees relocated from Greece, despite the 66,400 places promised by other European countries, most who can afford it are paying for the quicker, more dangerous way out.

France is a great deal wealthier than Greece. But if the experience of Idomeni is anything to go by, many will slip away from Calais rather than subject themselves to an uncertain asylum process, which is unlikely to send them where they want to go, and may well return them to danger or extreme poverty. Some will find their feet, legally or illegally, in French cities and towns. Some, including children, will fall victim to traffickers. And, unless Europe works to open safe routes for refugees, unofficial camps will continue to spring up across the continent, with all the risks and dangers of Idomeni or Calais.


Maria Margaronis

The GuardianTramp

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