This is a recounting of a New Year’s eve night at the makeshift settlement known as the Calais ‘jungle’ that is the subject of so much media attention of late. A cold wet sludge of a jungle that’s home to some 6000 people, the migrants of Calais. The encounters over the course of the night blown through by wintry gusts offer another insight into why this jungle exists and the significance of its place in the contemporary colonial question.
It’s worth saying at the beginning that the jungle as a mode of improvised shelter has by now an established history in Calais. Whilst this requires its own research, in its current incarnation the jungle at Jules Ferry owes its existence to both the civil resilience of the migrants and to the solidarity of diverse social actors – these have come together in the making of a jungle of homes, streets, cafés, churches, mosques, libraries and social centres however miserable we might see it to be. For even such a jungle was not meant to be. The calculation was that if one by one the individual pockets of jungles in Calais were bulldozed, the squats used as shelter evicted, the migrants of Calais would be thinned out by the winter. As with past experience the opposite happens. The tenacity of desperation knows no bounds. From the once ‘unacceptable’ 2000, there are now at least three times as many along with a further 2000 in abject dereliction in Dunkirk 30 miles away. There unlike Calais, the authorities stepped in to deny any civil contribution. Thus Dunkirk is a picture of abject hell. In comparison Calais could be a purgatory though in truth both are different circles of the one and the same hell.
The most decisive feature of the jungle lies in its people, that is in who they are and how that changes over time. In 2002 when the UNHCR administered Sangatte camp was closed, the largest group was Kosovan, then Kurd and Afghan; in 2006 it was mainly Iraqi, Afghan, Eritrean and Sudanese; in 2016 we add the Syrians. These reveal why the jungle exists in a single word – war. In its wretched essence, the jungle is nothing but a fallout of war, more specifically the fallout of colonial wars on European soil. The jungle is a living reminder of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth through colonialism’s unresolved legacies. Jean-Paul Sartre in his preface to Fanon’s book in 1961 had written,
In the colonies the truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on.
The very same applies to the Calais jungle. Every effort is made to dress the nakedness of its truth, to obfuscate it through arbitrary distinctions between economic migrants and refugees. By further manipulation of asylum policies and border agreements the migrants are finally presented as authors of their own circumstance. Such that everyone in the jungle is there “out of their own choice”. But as always the more bombs that fall afar, the more bodies that come. And the more bodies that come, the more the dressing and duplicity. Thus the Calais jungles do not “exist” at least as legal entities; instead in the doublespeak of officialdom, they are ‘tolerated’ by the authorities, kept in a state of perpetual indeterminacy. What exists but doesn’t “exist” can be made to not exist. Thus the bulldozer has always followed the jungle.
Rue des Garennes is one of the roads that leads to the jungle. Once an anonymous industrial roadway nowadays it is lit up to ease the policing of migrant movement. It’s 10pm New Years eve. We are walking past rows of lacklustre industrial 70s housing, then onwards past the chemical factories of the Zone Industrielle to finally reach Jules Ferry, a former children holiday camp around which the jungle has grown. Heading in the other direction is a steady stream of men from the former colonies, mufflers round their faces in the cold, woollen caps. They are on the way to the port or the Eurotunnel; it’s the nightly ritual of trying to smuggling themselves into the UK. They walk stridently with a sense of mission. Salaamu alaikum some of us say – the gestures are returned, at times occasional handshakes which is not what they will expect as they pass the housing neighbourhoods a few minutes away.
In the light of 60’s optimism Sartre had seen the destiny of the colonised, in effect the parents of the mufflered faces who walk by, as the bearers of a new Modernity which the European tainted by colonial inheritance could never envisage. A Modernity free of colonial extraction that perfectly overlaid Fanon’s new humanity expressed as “a new humanism both for itself and for others”. A humanism of new social relations which could only emerge through decolonisation, of both territory and of mind. The horizon for this was so clear at the time that Sartre could tell us,
Here Fanon stops. He has shown the way forward.
Fanon lay dying with leukaemia the same year as the Wretched of the Earth was published. Sartre wrote in the preface,
.. when we have closed the book, the argument continues within us, in spite of its author.
In his Enlightenment in the Colony Aamir Mufti picks up on the line, Here Fanon stops. Mufti suggests that not only does Sartre make the colonised bear a far more expansive modernity than Fanon but that he “reinscribes the native as more European than the European”. In other words through the argument that continues within us, the making of a new humanism relocates the arena of decolonisation to Europe and becomes an extension of the White Man’s burden. In effect Sartre becomes Fanon, white Fanon. Quid pro quo Fanon becomes black Sartre an icon of the 68 uprisings. The long neglected Black Skin, White Masks of Fanon’s early years then comes alive, in Europe.
Sixty years later, it is in such reversed mental and territorial spaces that the wretched of the earth now find their place in colonialism’s unending legacy. Whilst Europe’s self identity is still dependent of endless forays of military intervention in one form or another, the coordinates of a “here” and “there” of colonial space have changed and with it how the argument has continued within us. Thus when I enter the space of this jungle in Europe, and place myself within it, how I contest its reality becomes part of that argument through a complex range of actors.
The entrance to the jungle is signalled by the bridge at N216 motorway which leads to the ferry port. Once past the bridge, the well lit tarmac street turns into a myriad of muddy alleyways thronging with people, generators humming, shops selling basic essentials, from toiletries to food. The pressing thing to do is to get out of the cold. We step into the refuge of a restaurant cum pool bar. Persian pattern rugs cover over makeshift seating. The attempt to make life feel normal eclipses everything. It’s comfortable. It’s busy. The Pashtu speaking Afghans who run the establishment make teas all round. It was through the Pashtu that the word jungle, or dzhangal, came into common use as a reminder of having to live in the woods following the closure of the Sangatte. As it happens a tree trunk abuts the pool table here. It repeatedly gets in the way when I finally get my turn on the table and I pot the black. I settle for some food; kidney beans and favoured rice. The cost is four Euros. The jungle has its culinary diversity and we have eaten well. An economy has slowly sprung up and in my years of coming to Calais it’s something new to witness. Shops and cafés dot the jungle. Every jungle kitchen is something to behold. The capacity for self-help in the face of adversity and distrust of authority is self-evident everywhere. But it isn’t media material. It doesn’t correlate with the obsessive narrative of migrants in Calais driven by the search for our welfare and charity.
A group of Syrian boys introduce themselves; second year students of English literature once at Damascus University their studies came to an abrupt end. They ask me for advice on universities in England. I hesitate, embarrassed. I tell them about the scale of fees at English universities. I question if it’s their best option. I ask them to explore Germany or Sweden. After all most Syrians go there. But their minds are set. And that is Calais’ fate. First as a stepping stone to England. Then a jungle in France where the lingua franca is English.Fluent English, broken English but always English.
The Syrians students are embarrassing me yet again. Shakespeare, Coleridge, Milton. I am not good on the classics. But I quietly set aside the line from Paradise Lost. No light; but rather darkness visible. The students are full of hope. Of living for the future. Well shaven and dressed as best they can. They will not surrender their dignity in this jungle. I remind myself again that the need to make life feel normal eclipses everything here. I am forgetful. The conversation could as well be taking place in some coffee house elsewhere.
It edges towards the new year and we move to an Eritrean disco bar. Music booms from the speakers, lights carve arabesque patterns on the walls. Haile Selassie looks down from a large cloth banner. His is an internationalist legacy but the eyes here scan each other for ethnic affiliation. There are ways of making anyone unwanted very uncomfortable. The jungle turf is carefully delineated. Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Sudanese etc. And this is Eritrea. There is enough time for a dance or two, maybe more.
Outside the rain continues to fall. No matter we are in the street joined in a circle. The jungle generators are at full tilt. Light bulbs are refracting from multiple directions in the rain, bouncing off the silvery sludge. Loudspeakers interfere with each other. It’s a din of darkness louder than a field of crickets. Midnight strikes. Arms round each other, we are dancing in the mud
But it’s not always like this. Often its a struggle for words. I remember lunch in the summer with an old Syrian at a refugee camp in Reinickendorf, Berlin. We ate our food in near silence. All I could get out of him was that he came from Aleppo. I tried to fathom what he had been through to get here. If his family was alive. Now he sleeps in a classroom at a former French military lycée, with 23 others, an approved refugee.
We move further into the jungle using the light of our cellphones, off the thoroughfares towards the Kuwaiti quarters at the invitation of Salah (name changed). Removing our shoes, we gather in the shack that is his home shared with 4 others. It’s a Calais jungle model 2015, clad with castaway recycled pallets and tarpaulin. I had visited one of the local warehouses where the shacks are assembled by an army of volunteers, behind the even bigger warehouse where donations are sorted. Free association and resource sharing have conjoined to make this home for Kuwaiti bidoon migrants. Theirs is the plight of dispossession that came with the Gulf War. Kareem (name changed) shows me images of his two daughters in Liverpool, his parents, also in Liverpool. I scroll through his Samsung handset. I have met so many like him in the jungle; with children and partners settled in England. Just as I have met children with relatives in London, Manchester and so on. This is overwhelmingly why they have all come to this jungle in Calais. But option for Kareem is to backtrack his way across Europe to Greece as the first port of call and file an asylum application as a refugee there with hundreds of thousands in line with the so-called Dublin Regulation. It doesn’t make sense. Greece is not where he wishes to live. Thus not surprisingly it’s better to take matters in his own hands. Over the razor wire, under a lorry, or a train carriage, or a frozen meat compartment, hanging on to life. But it’s the chance he craves if he can get past the steel batons and CS gas. It’s a task he has underestimated. For tonight phone calls and the pictures of his family keep Kareem going. Tomorrow he will try again.
The music on the portable is turned up. Well over a dozen bodies are crammed into a small space barely 8 foot square. The dancing gets more fervent. I sit back to ease my asthma in the smoke. I muse on the absurdity of this reality. It mocks the history of decolonisation and its meagre returns. So much for the claims to dismantle “the legacy of the economy, the thought, and the institutions left by the colonialists”. Because the legacy was not in the colonies. And the legacy stayed intact. And how war has remained its arbiter. Through it the colonial fence has a renewed life. I realise that the locus of decolonisation is right here in Calais just as it may be in some other continent. I realise that to get to the other side all possible conjunctions of “there” and “here”, “us” and “them”, as correlates of black and white have to push together. I see White Fanon and Black Sartre as far more radical in the here and now than in their historic embodiment. I see them dancing to the mix of Western pop and Arab beats in this makeshift shack cum discotheque. Outside it gets colder and darker. The cabin is shaking, the floor is bouncing.
In the early hours we trudge out into the new year’s night. I rummage for my shoes in the dark, they are caked in cold sludge; I shake them. I put them on. The ground is a quagmire. We find our way back to the main thoroughfare, the lights and buzz of the restaurants and cafés. They are now blinded by the searchlights of CRS security police vans under the bridge. Shafts of light penetrate deep into the jungle, flashing ominously like Gestapo vans outside the ghetto. I see plumes of CS gas smoke. The nightly chemical shepherding of migrants has started. We skirt around the side of the bridge, it’s log-jammed by CRS vans. We are back on the stretch of Rue des Garennes. In the other direction are smaller drifts of returning migrants. For them another futile night of trying to stow themselves across the border. It’s getting harder and harder. A few may have made it across the channel, others more likely in police custody. And for some the CRS await. We trade new years greetings.
We are back at the 70s housing estates, by the lacklustre façades and glazed hallways where the lights are always on. The revealing transparency of precarity Europe. Of families struggling to get by. I hear shouts. I see a woman restraining her man wielding a stick. Words are streaming out onto the street; nothing to do with the new year. It’s another nightly encounter between les calaisiens and les migrants de Calais. Between reluctant hosts who know Calais as their only home and bottled up migrants who dream only of getting away. A coming together produced by serial evictions of jungles that place them in each others’ paths. I see the migrants walk past the abuse, I see them re-track, I see them kick at the door. Behind which only the ordinary strive to live ordinary lives. There is another foul exchange of words. Each day brings variations of the same encounter. Calais degenerates slowly. A monocultural town through which half the world passes is caught in a back to front border arrangement known as the Le Touquet treaty whereby the town serves as the border for another country across the waters. Life here is hostage to this arrangement. It bequeaths a bottleneck of migrants who have become a de facto part of Calais’ identity. And it gives to Calais its neo-nazis, the Calais Sauvons, Les Calaisiens en Colère and so on. The daily routine of assault and intimidation that has emerged only in recent years. Calais becomes the stage set in which all the recognisable figures from the Wretched of the Earth reconvene. The police as the paramilitary, the civil population as militias. The new figurations of the settler and native reveal themselves through a mutated language of ‘invasion’. In this stage-set there is no possibility of other forms of social relations emerging. And that is the tragedy of Calais.
We are heading back towards Centre Ville. With each street my mind is casting back through past years. I see ghosts of the purged migrant in those streets. They had names. Sudan House. Palestine House. And so on. The town centre has now been cleansed and the migrants cleared away to Jules Ferry.
We are at the Place D’Armes where party goers congregate around the only bar still open. The sight of normal life. I am reminded of the Eritrean bar and how a small semblance of public life has a foothold in the jungle now. Streets, shops, the cafés, even a music ‘hall’. A space for free human association that has come from an outpouring of solidarity. An army of volunteers now lives in Calais with every hotel booked, calaisiens even taking advantage of airbnb given the demand for rentable accommodation. Warehouses are overwhelmed by donation of food, clothing, building materials from all corners of Europe. Solidarity with the migrant rebuilt the destroyed jungles and thus shelter 6000 people over winter. It’s a scale of mobilisation akin to Dunkirk 1940 but this time without any ‘miracle of deliverance‘ speech from any politician. Instead their language of swarms simply adds to the media echo chamber. But there is another language. For as officialdom withdrew, civil society stepped in: ‘We cannot watch and do nothing’.
At the same time the State as an agent does the opposite: nothing. It exploits border agreements to place the refugees in an effective limbo between two governments. It uses the Dublin Regulation to avoid reuniting divided families. It abandons children to the jungle for as long as possible. The State lets civil society do its work. The jungle thus is the embodiment of the State’s ethos that stand in opposition to the outpouring of solidarity. The symmetry is almost too perfect for as we know from Talal Asad ‘We cannot watch and do nothing’ is also the refrain that the State uses in justification of the wars that produce the refugees or migrants or whatever the label of convenience it then prefers. As Asad’s paper shows, from its onset decolonisation has been underwritten by “humanitarian violence” through military means. It’s so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to unravel. The State knows it and that’s why it can only erect more razor wire, stockpile more CS gas, entrap more civilians as supporting militias. It is always prepared. It knows that with each year, with each war, more will inevitably arrive here. Thus for the Calais jungle, the bulldozer awaits. Thus today the tolerated shanty town. Then tomorrow the fenced-in gulag.
My legs and feet are freezing. But I will be in the warmth soon. And it will be dawn. It’s a new year that comes with imaginings. I imagine that the tide of human mobilisation that came to the help of the jungle last year can go further and asserts its ‘We cannot watch and do nothing’ over the State’s. That a new Dunkirk spirit on some seismic scale will emerge and overcome the justification for never-ending humanitarian wars afar.
And I imagine the emergence of a civil life in Calais not held hostage by its back-to-front border treaty, a Calais without its daily dehumanising rituals through the new social relations that the way of solidarity has shown possible. It’s the way that might end the violence through “a new humanism both for itself and for others”. This has become clearer over this New Year’s in Calais. In that sense it is a double struggle and it extends far beyond Calais.
Siraj Izhar is a London based social activist & artist. Recent writings include articles in the New Left Project (on the riots of 2011), Occupied Times of London, Low Impact, the Hermeneutic Circular (on activism and RD Laing). He blogs occasionally at amplife.org
— Frantz Fanon, The Wretch of the Earth, Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre (1961) Penguin Books 1967
— Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture, Princeton University Press 2007
—John Milton, Paradise Lost,1667 copyright expired. Available freely online.
—Talal Asad, Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism, 2014 Available online at The Critical Inquiry Chicago Journals