Calais’ Jungle camp is being closed and its occupants moved around France

What does this mean for those seeking refuge in Europe and for EU policy?

As work to demolish the so-called Jungle migrant camp near Calais continues and its occupants are moved around France, now seems a good moment to consider the wider significance of this development for France, the UK and the rest of the EU.

  • Parts of the camp are still in flames resulting from fires set overnight and this morning
  • The French government has declared the operation over and all of the residents, officially said to be 7,000, have apparently been removed
  • There had been skirmishes with the police – stone throwing by migrants and the use of tear gas by police
  • Having grown since 2002 and become a magnet for asylum seekers, the camp had become an embarrassment to the French government

The nightly attempts to climb fences, illegally stow away in lorries, enter the cross channel rail tunnel or even on one occasion storm the ferry port have gradually become routine on the one hand but an international embarrassment to France on the other. Despite repeated comments from French politicians implying that the migrants’ desire to reach the UK made this a UK problem, the world saw a chaotic camp where third world conditions prevailed and unaccompanied children seemed to be left unprotected and vulnerable.

What is surprising is that it was allowed to exist for so long in a country which claims to be one of Europe’s most civilized; what is not is that it has now been removed and with it a symbol of how the European Union and its member states find it hard to work together on the migrant issue.

The focal point might be gone but the problem remains. Even how we describe those fleeing war and persecution has become entangled in the murky waters of ambiguous language and governmental public relations. We have moved from refugees and asylum seekers to illegal migrants to migrants, but not moved much closer to agreeing how the EU as an institution shares and shoulders the burden of failing states and civil war.

In theory every EU country should take its share, according to its means and size, but this has not happened due to a mixture of fear, politics, the how many is too many question and the genuine problem of economic hardship among some member states. How could Greece, for instance, which was initially blamed for not doing more to halt migrants on its shores, be expected to cope with huge economic problems but find the funds to cope with the biggest influx of displaced people in living memory.

Germany, almost inevitably perhaps, has played the role of top destination for many people fleeing Syria and other war-torn parts of the globe.

Whatever the arguments about Angela Merkel’s signals to these people about coming to Germany, some might well say that there is natural justice in the biggest European economic power shouldering most of the burden – with power comes responsibility. There is also perhaps a degree of schadenfreude from those EU countries which feel that they have had to toe the Berlin line more often than not in EU negotiations.

Eastern European countries and the UK have had a more or less closed door policy, pandering to perceived fears and political pressures in the UK case and to a general reluctance in eastern Europe, at least at government level, to open the door to outsiders and challenge attitudes in conservative societies.

So what we have so far is a disunited Europe, where there has been no consensus on how to share the burden of huge numbers of people in real need.

If the heartbreaking scenes in Syria and the plight of some people in Afghanistan and Iraq – countries the UK and others have had an undeniable impact on – does not move populations and governments across the EU to some sort of humanitarian consensus, it is hard to imagine what might. Even the very visible destruction of eastern Aleppo and the terrible impact on its people has not led to mass demonstrations in European capitals, to call on governments to open our borders to those who can escape.

On the basis of understandable fears about terrorism, Muslim culture, the difficulties of integration and the fear of opening a floodgate, we seem to have moved to more hard-hearted times, where fear of the outsider is growing, sympathy is waning and Europe proves once again that when challenged to answer really big questions it is unable to do so.

And where does this leave these victims of war, those risking their lives to cross Europe, or cross the seas in overcrowded boats, divide their families and pay huge sums of money to unscrupulous smugglers?

It leaves them desperate and unsure where to turn, but clear that most of Europe is not a safe haven and that rich countries have other priorities. Moderate Muslims seeking a new life away from oppression and fear may become bitter about this failure of civilized societies on their doorstep to take them in and offer protection.

Of course the Jungle was just one camp in one European country and perhaps its destruction was necessary to try and give those living there a new start elsewhere, even though this will disrupt their already damaged lives. However, the symbolism of a shanty town existing for over ten years in one of Europe’s richest countries, populated by people desperate to get to another which does not want them, does not bode well for an integrated, fair and humanitarian solution to a problem which is not likely to go away for the foreseeable future.