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PTT Dispatches – Dismantled Calais Refugee Camp Is Dark Testament To Our Global Inhumanity (Kieryn Wurts)

In September I visited the unofficial refugee camp near Calais, France, known simply as ‘the Jungle’, which has served as a dramatic flashpoint in the refugee crisis this past year. Below is the first of my reflections from my time in the camp. Demolitions in the Jungle are slated to begin this week, and the fates of more than 10,000 people and 1,000+ children in the camp are more uncertain than ever. 

In the folklore that comes out of the British Isles, the most important (or rather most consistent) Corvus mythologem is the crow as augury of death. Crow can be omen, but sometimes also just a reminder. Crows belong really to the death realm, but they deliver us greetings, they snack on wild berries or mice.

Brân the Blessed [the blessed crow] was a king in Welsh legend that got into a nasty kerfuffle with some Irish lords over women and territory. After much battle and intrigue, and when most parties involved had managed to kill one another, a mortally wounded Brân asked his surviving companions to bury his head at the White Hill, his face facing east to France. What was once White Hill is now said to be the site of the Tower of London–which hosts a motley Wohngemeinschaft of six captive crows.

Corvus are common in Britain, although today urbanization and other factors have expelled their breeding grounds mainly to the more rural north. Traditionally London was within their range, and it is thought that in past centuries they were quite populous in towns and cities. Sometimes the people welcomed them (their scavenging actually kept the streets cleaner) and other times they were despised as pests (they harm the livestock, bad for business, out with them!).

They have always been associated with the Tower of London. Some stories say they crowded to the Tower in previous centuries because of the executions–scavengers though they were. Other historians hypothesize that in fact the crows were intentionally introduced to the Tower to set a darker mood for said executions. In any case, by the 19th century the crows were methodically expelled from the City of London.

A consensus was reached, they were pests and scavengers and Londoners shouldn’t be bothered by them. Londoners were allowed to kill them at will.  Much the same, crows have the special status in Qu’ran and Islamic culture as one of five animals that one is permitted to kill without consequence. However for tradition’s sake, it was decided that a captive community of ravens would be kept at the Tower of London. Legend and ancient superstition held that the crown would not outlive the last killed raven at White Hill. 

The Calais Shanty Town

In France today stands a global city by the sea, a shanty-town by the stockyards. Calais is a port town in the north of France, on the English Channel. The Jungle is its shadow: a village 10,000 persons strong that does not officially exist. It is not so sleepy. Sometimes there are riots. Quite regularly, it is engulfed in a cloud of pink tear gas. Equally regularly, Eritrean and Sudanese boys and men play cricket to the south of the camp, after the pink cloud dissipates and the worst heat of the day is finished.

The Jungle is abuzz with European youths handing out food and supplies. They move quickly, with clipped-steps and hold urgent, conspiratorial conversation. Less permanent fixtures are parades of officials, politicians, and journalists guarded by police. As they make their tour with large cameras all of the shops close their windows and rush to hide their supplies.The police are known to confiscate supplies, shut down shop. Nothing to see here.

At night the camp also buzzes. Everyone is trying. Trying, you ask?  I heard it a few times too and didn’t figure it out until I found myself in one of the volunteer organization warehouses. We were with a volunteer in the camp and she was making an emergency supply run–baby formula and women’s clothes and shoes for all genders and ages. As I rifled through boxes my volunteer friend took a pair out of my hands–“no these won’t work either. These are perfect for camp. But we need sturdier shoes for trying.” 

When I visited Calais at the beginning of September, the Jungle was nearing a population of 10,000 displaced and undocumented people. It is a regular topic on the BBC. Handwringing, subtle-jabs at the French, not-so-subtle implications about the ‘migrants’– their criminality. They talk about the looming security threat, and of course the economic burden. And these conversations, conducted in low reasonable tones end neatly, at scheduled pace. It’s time for the next story.

In the month since I’ve left Calais rumors of a camp closing and crackdown from the French intensify.  Still the numbers in Calais are climbing, nearing record rates. According to the latest count, there are 1022 unaccompanied children in the Jungle. Mind you, neither the French nor the British government conduct these counts.

According to international human rights agreements, states are bound to do something about unaccompanied, abandoned, undocumented, or orphaned children within their borders. The French and British governments, however, managed to find a workaround on that front. So long as there is no official count, the governments are not aware of the children, in a binding or official sense. Thereby, that pesky human rights law need not apply.

I saw children in the Jungle who looked as young as six, eight, or ten-years-old. A man I met told a story about an afternoon he spent in on of the makeshift cafes in The Jungle – with names like “Welcome Cafe” or “Jungle Books.” A social worker from Citizens UK was interviewing one of the unaccompanied children. It was at the height of summer and the child was shivering. The man asked if the child was ill. The interpreter replied: “Not exactly.” Rather, having been alone in the camp too long, he had been driven mad with fear.

The People of the “Jungle”

So what are these people doing here?  Virtually all of them are fleeing war, and they are trying to enter the UK. Some have family there and plan to (re)unite with them. Some prefer to enter the UK because they already speak English, and want to use their already-there language skills to start rebuilding their life in diaspora. Others are perhaps motivated by a pipe-dream about the better conditions in the UK, and still others have intractable or complex asylum-cases and cannot apply in their country of entry into the EU (often Italy, Greece, or Croatia).

That’s the thing about the refugee crisis–there are no accountability structures. So some countries have simply quit processing asylum applications. With none of the pressure that comes from a system of political representation, the bureaucratic machine often just grinds to the halt with no explanation, no recourse.

There are 10,000 people in Calais, and there are other camps like it across Europe and the Middle East. It makes no sense, and it makes perfect sense. What else could result from such “finger in the dyke” public policy? And such a desperate market of 10,000 would-be-channel-crossers has attracted human traffickers in no short supply. Nighttime ”trying” takes many forms. The more affordable traffickers are quite ineffective but manage spectacular and violent scenes.

They cause disturbances on the highway, stop the lorries (18-wheelers), threaten the drivers, and load their cargo compartments with would-be border crossers. This almost never works. Some refugees forgo traffickers altogether; they try to walk through the EuroTunnel and often die trying. Rafts across the English Channel will not do. It is one of the busiest commercial shipping routes in the world and the most crowded. Some however still try to cross in cargo containers.

The ineffective traffickers stop the lorries. But there is a network of highly effective traffickers as well. The sticker price when I was there was 8,000 pounds – if a refugee can somehow pay this premium they will be taken overnight by the traffickers, blindfolded. They wake the next morning in central London or Manchester or some other city with no idea how their safe passage was effected.

The Figure of the Migrant

The Jungle is viscerally shocking. As a friend put it, entering is like entering Kabul or perhaps Malakal, but to exit is to ten minutes later you find yourself in a sleepy French coastal town. The camp is shocking, but it is not new. On my visit to Calais, I revisited a text, The Figure of the Migrant, by Thomas Nail. It is a dense work of political theory with an ambitious objective: to “rethink political theory based on the figure of the migrant rather than on citizenship,”(17).

Classical theories of citizenship are based in philosophies of stasis and surrounded with all of our clunky mythologies concerning the Nation-state. Nail’s analysis is predicated not on and assumption of stasis but instead of movement. He argues that both citizens and non-citizens are shaped and created by networks, flows, forces and distributions of political and economic power. He breaks the figure of the migrant into four figures that face distinct methods of social exclusion–the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat.

For our purposes, we will focus on that key distinction between the barbarian and the vagabond. Nail conducts a genealogical history of the migrant, in that Foucauldian style. The Barbarian mode of exclusion is illustrated by the power dynamics of the empires of the ancient world – Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Barbarians were those separated from the life of the polis by geography, language, or both–“the non-Greek, non-city-dweller” (53).

The unique centrifugal force of empires made use of these two modes of distancing. Barbarians were used as slave labor in large public works projects. They were not considered citizens but merely surplus labor to be utilized for greater accumulation; their labor was more of the order of natural resource than anything else. Barbarian, in fact, “in the ancient world was often etymologically or literally the word for ‘slave by nature,’” (135).

The great innovation of the Middle Ages vis-a-vis human exploitation was the invention and application of the category of vagabond. Vagabonds are different from barbarians in that their movement is criminalized. Those jobless and landless were not only unfortunate, but criminal. Their loss of tie to the feudal system and thus lack of any gainful employment was used as a legal justification to deny them gainful employment.

Criminalization of the migrant as ‘vagabond’ “allows juridicial kinopower to expand and legitimate its apparatus of enforcement.” (Nail, 145)  In other words, there’s money to be made on the policing of the movements of migrants. Today prisons and border checks and expanded policing become national job-creation programs.

In the process of criminalization, migrants are also stigmatized. And while stigmatization is more of a function of soft-power, it is crucial to the enactment of the hard-power of the enforcement apparatus. The vagabonds of the Middle ages were “the tramp, the debtor, the beggar, the pauper, the vagrant, the heretic, the witch, the Jew, the minstrel, the foreigner or the homeless.” (145).

Many of these categories of exclusion carry over to the present. And this exclusion is cyclical. The disenfranchisement of the migrant is met with hate from the more established classes, and this hate then generates more disenfranchisement. The lines between the unfortunate and the criminal become blurred–they both bear the same stigmata. 

This cycle of stigmatization plays an instrumental role in the history of the camp. The Jungle at Calais, while shocking, is nothing new in Europe. During the 14th through 16th centuries it was common practice for towns and cities to expel those infected with the Plague. They formed unofficial, makeshift camps.  They became shadow cities.  These sick camps also happened to be the same place where criminals and vagabonds were sent.

Through this undifferentiated exclusion criminals were infected with the actual plague and the sick were infected with the stigma of criminality. The lines between sickness and criminality were blurred such that the two became indistinguishable and mutually reinforcing; “Hoards of expelled migrants and the sick roamed the European countryside searching for food and shelter. Everywhere they turned, they were beaten, criminalized, and expelled.” (75).  Plague also sowed seeds and stoked flames of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages. Jews were accused of both plotting and carrying the plague. For this they were killed in pogroms, they were expelled to camps.

From here, for the sake of brevity, I won’t connect all of the dots on this issue of camps, outsiders, Jews, foreigners, stigmatization, European history, crows. Suffice to say, we’re experiencing a repetition. 

Wisdom in Superstition

There is a significant wisdom in the superstition surrounding Brân the Blessed and the Tower of London. Empires need their ravens. They depend on them, in ways both economic and emblematic. In the Hughes poem, in facing the sea, a Crow faces the searing profundity of his own isolation. The sea surrounds him, the sea is a trap, and he is just a crow.

It is an easy walk from the Jungle to the seaport. Sometimes I imagine the friends I met at the camp walking there and facing the ocean– just like Crow. It’s a 35 km gulf that divides them from prosperity, citizenship, from the people that are allowed to exist. And that is how the world is and how it has always been–there are people that are allowed to exist and there are those that are not. Making use of Nail again, “the border acts as a sieve or filter, as it allows capital and the global elite to move freely but, like a yoke, catches the global poor.” (31).

I stand on the other side of that gulf. I get to exist, no problem. And whatever love I may have developed for the people I met in the Jungle, it effects nothing. I cannot save them, I cannot make them pass through the sieve. All the money in the world won’t guarantee them a safe border crossing, or a favorable asylum decision. It is not simply that they are empirically poor, they inhabit the category of the poor and this both predicates and transcends actual conditions of poverty. And whatever my privileges, my power doesn’t exceed by too much the power of the people stuck in Calais. Because that’s the dirty little secret–I’m really just a crow, too.

We expel the crows, subject them to hunger and madness and death and the elements. And then we blame them, somehow, for their expulsion. Whatever our pretensions to the contrary, this is the world that we’ve made, that we allow to continue. It’s effected by those hard-to-comprehend but  just-rightly-timed waves of  collective hate and collective indifference. And as Crow intimates in the Hughes poem, it’s bigger than life, it’s bigger than death.

This is the world that we have made. I can show you in the Jungle the lives that have been blown open by it. And we can continue to ignore the sea, as is our overwhelming preference. But there it stands. The sea, the Crow, the stigmata, and the camp is our heritage. So long as we refuse to face that, nothing will change.

Kieryn Wurts is an intern and part-time pastor with Projekt Gemeinde in Vienna (a student outreach project of the Austrian Baptist Union) working with refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  She has a degree in philosophy and religious studies from the University of Denver and graduated with distinction in 2015 with a special thesis project on the history of the emergent church in America.

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