The Ghetto of Calais

Almost the first sight I saw on my return to France was three Afghans making the walk of shame, back out past the barbed fences, trailed by a crawling Port of Calais car, window wound down.

Not a good sign, I thought.

But the sky was cerulean blue and the wind just freshening as the sun made out like it was going to be here until Christmas; the Afghans looked unbothered and the port authorities merely bored.

Cycling back into Calais town centre, though, I saw no more migrants. Compared to last summer, the streets were empty. Good sign or bad sign? The numbers of migrants here is already supposed to be higher than last year, four thousand by some estimates – so where are they all?

At the beginning of June, numerous camps and squats in the town centre were evicted and closed down. Gone are the Leader Price camp, the Galloo squat and the Egyptian house. These join the earlier evictions of Tioxide and the Afghan camp in the Zone Industrielle des Dunes. Chased from the town centre, their former inhabitants have no more cause to be in Calais. There is nothing for them here.

The mayor’s plan to cleanse the town seems to have worked.

I can’t help but feel a small corner of relief for the people and businesses of Calais who rely for their income on the clean tourist image that the mayor is so eager to portray.

Over the past few years, the people of Calais would struggle to feel pride for their town. Every street corner wore the badge of the failures of French welfare, UK immigration, EU foreign policy and the failures of humanity in general. Now, with the migrants largely corraled and confined away from the town centre, the effect is diluted and visitors can start to forget the “migrant problem”.

So I couldn’t help but feel a little glad that Calaisiens appear to have “their” town back.

But the greater part of me fears for what that absence means. It means up to 4,000 migrants are being forced to live in ever more restricted areas, more tightly controlled by the police and much, much more densely packed.

I fear because I know what happens when you squeeze more and more air into your bicycle tyres. Already this year, fights have broken out between groups of migrants, living in difficult conditions and in unnaturally close quarters in the Jules Ferry camp grounds.

(I won’t call these camps “jungles” because this light-hearted gallows humour name, given to the various wild camps of Calais, has been seized upon by the right wing press and used to promote their portrayal of the migrants as little more than animals, fit only for the jungle. The truth is the other way around: our governments are treating them as animals.)

Recently, tents were set on fire in the camp, in a dispute over control of the parking lot where many migrants try to cross into the UK. A wooden church was also burnt to the ground. The dispute, however, could have been over almost any real grievance or imagined slight – disrespect, drunkenness, a misplaced word – because increasing population density alone causes increasing incidence of violence.

Remember how fractious you get on long coach journeys, confined, packed close together with your fellow travellers who go from being charming strangers to stinking, inconsiderate, corpulent, greedy, selfish freeloaders in the space of just 9 hours.

Add to that the migrants’ growing frustration at a life interrupted by war and blocked by bureaucracy and you have too too much air squeezed into your bicycle tyres. It’s going to burst sooner or later.

I cycled, via the boulangerie, to Richelieu Park, in the centre of Calais. The sun grinds its heel into the yellowing grass. Two young boys share a bicycle, one pedalling, the other standing on the footholds on the back wheel, hands on the shoulders of his mate, looking for all the world like a Roman emperor. This is their empire again. Palm trees stand in rows, while the young take the sun, the elderly the shade.

A year ago, this park, and parks like it, would have been filled with lounging migrants, waiting for the evening and their chance to cross into England. Police, too, would have been strolling the grounds, moving people on in a haphazard, half-hearted manner. Today, both are gone. So too is the Salam food distribution that used to take place on a field behind the nearby town hall. Anything that might attract migrants has been excised from the town centre.

So I cycle for half an hour, out of town. The parks and polished streets of central Calais start potholing as the houses straighten up into apartment blocks and then abruptly flatten out into red-roofed bunglows. I overtake a boy carrying a fishing rod lance-like on his bike. Shopping centres skulk past, warehousing all kinds of cheap comestibles, from rack to ruin.

I cross the river and the wind hits me. Nothing but forty-foot lorries, factories and not much else. The rue Garennes is long and straight, built to service the industrial parks that line its verges. Some are still operational, choking fumes into the evening, others bear only the air of dilapidation and neglect.

This is where the migrants start to appear, on the side of the road, traipsing, schlepping, some carry boxes and bags, baguettes and energy drinks. Some coming towards me, heading into Calais, to try to cross at the Channel Tunnel. Others walk in my direction. I follow the trail underneath a motorway bridge and into the camp.

Here is where I shall sleep tonight. With those four thousand others, out of sight and out of mind.