Calais, 01.18 – It’s a cold morning in January, and we’re standing in a clearing beside a muddy forest on the fringes of Calais. We’ve followed two police vans and a clean-up truck to an area Afghans are known to camp. We watch the police get ready. They pull plastic protectors like bags over their boots, as though entering an infectious area. The clean-up team look clinical, head to toe in white plastic overalls. They head into the forest and we follow them. A damp pair of socks and a t-shirt hang off a nearby fence, but there’s no further sign of life. The police however are better informed, and zone in between two bushes with precision. A stick and tarp structure emerges, camouflage and nestled deep in the bushes. A boy appears frantic, roused from sleep. I know him: it’s Ahmed,* 16 years old and not the first time I’ve watched with him as his home is destroyed. When he sees us, he exclaims “Wallah, what can I do?”, and for the next half hour we watch as the men in white suits tug and tear. One worker pulls out a kitchen knife and cuts into the branch structure that held the shelter together. The tarp-roof, blanket walls and sleeping bags clatter into the clean-up truck. When the police drive away taking Ahmed with them, four men emerge from the bushes. One rummages in the high grass and pulls out a saw, the others gather branches. With few words between them, they get back to work building a structure from anything they can find—it won’t be long before night falls. * name has been changed

Today, the displaced in Calais are campless. Their lives are lived furtively in forests on the fringes of the city while they seek clandestine passage to the UK. Just a few years ago in 2015 & 2016, this border zone was home to the notorious makeshift camp known as the Calais Jungle. The Jungle was visually impressive: home to over 8,000 people at its largest, it was chaotic, sprawling and filthy yet organised, a dense little city of its own. Despite the makeshift precarity of the camp, remarkable places of commerce, learning and religious practice emerged (Mould 2017). These were built by camp residents assisted by volunteers who came from across the UK, France and beyond in their thousands, to lend a hand while confronting the dehumanizing living conditions for migrants at the border first-hand (Sandri 2017). As the Jungle grew it became hypervisible in the media, putting pressure on the state to act. In October 2016 it was razed to the ground; its residents sent to processing centres across the country.

When the Jungle disappeared, attention to the border zone largely went with it. Inevitably however, the displaced were quick to return to the border. Yet the destitution of life in post-camp Calais has been far less visible, less outwardly overwhelming. No more makeshift schools and restaurants, no grocery shops to humanize those living in shacks sinking into the northern French mud. Remembering the spectacular nature of the former camp that so etched itself onto a collective European imaginary, it is difficult to conceive of the understated, immaterial conditions that have replaced it. I spent six months in Calais in 2017 & 2018 trying to understand just what the new situation was, how the re-emergence of a makeshift camp was being prevented. In the two and a half years since the demolition of the camp, a ‘no point of fixation’ policy forbidding encampment at the border has been enforced. The Jungle tainted France’s hospitable self-image, and the state is determined to prevent its re-emergence at all costs.

Creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants is not what you would call an original strategy in the race between EU states to deter the displaced from seeking humanitarian protection within their borders. However, while most states apply this strategy figuratively, France is enforcing a hostile environment very literally. Shelter-building is constantly suppressed by police, and the displaced are routinely stripped of possessions and forced to live life in literal exposure to the hostilities of the natural environment. Objects and makeshift structures that might remind us of a shared humanity are actively destroyed; violence against the displaced becomes less visible, less affecting. In January 2018, there were 1,130 police and gendarmes stationed in the region for what local authorities estimated to be just 600 migrants. In the first fourteen weeks of 2019 alone, 275 camp destruction operations took place across Calais and Dunkirk. The displaced and the humanitarians who assist them are constantly worn down: it becomes near impossible to acquire enough donations to meet the insatiable pace of camp destruction.

Bearing witness to a shelter destruction operation. Source: Author’s image January 2018.

‘Protecting’ the natural environment

It is obvious that routine shelter destruction is designed to punish migrant presence at the border, and yet the violent policy is shrouded in a discourse of environmental protection. The northern French border zone is messy. In the absence of shelter, campfires scar the earth; clothes and sleeping bags are soaked, ruined before their time and abandoned en route. In the absence of skips and sanitation infrastructure rubbish accumulates, and the migrant is framed as wasteful and disrespectful of the natural environment. Local newspaper articles describe public areas as “occupied by migrants and covered in rubbish”, emphasising how authorities face the chore of removing as much as “750kgs of rubbish and 23 tents” from a wood on the 3rd clean-up operation in just 30 days. Sundberg & Kaserman (2007) observe a similar exclusionary discourse at work against undocumented immigrants at the Mexico-US border, who are strategically funnelled towards protected areas where their presence is portrayed as a threat to nature. Notions of the displaced person as an environmental and social concern are conflated: “protecting nature is equated with protecting the national body from social contamination” (ibid, 471).

When carrying out camp destruction operations around Calais, police are assisted by clean-up teams whose plastic white overalls evoke epidemic. The prefecture measures the success of destruction operations by the weight of objects removed from sites of encampment. In August 2017 alone for example, 103 sites were dismantled and 31,000 kgs of objects destroyed. Local authorities justify camp destructions as clearing the natural environment of rubbish, of objects and things ‘abandoned’ by migrants. And yet for a time, it seemed these expulsions were strategically timed to coincide with when the displaced were unlikely to be ‘home’ to protect their possessions.

On occasion, the displaced even receive assistance from the authorities in their ‘contamination’ of the environment. Shelters are damaged but not ‘cleaned up’: slashed or dissected they are left on site or thrown into puddles or ponds nearby, not only polluting the environment but making it less liveable for the displaced. Tear gas too is used generously, not only on people but on shelters which, doused in the sour product, become unliveable. Posters pasted on billboards in Calais protest: “We are not insects! Stop spraying us with [tear] gas!” The act of spraying is both physically and symbolically violent, undermining the humanity of the displaced while actively reducing their homes to rubbish. By actively helping generate the environmental ‘threat’ informal settlers pose, authorities in Calais are taking the exclusionary discourse Sundberg & Kaserman (2007) describes to a new level. Migrant dispossession and environmental concern are made to work in tandem.

“We are not insects! Stop spraying us with [tear] gas!” Source: Author’s image July 2018.

“Landscape Reconquest”

Jungle, Calais 08.16 – It’s a bright morning in August. I’m standing in an empty field dotted with yellow flowers not far from the A16, noisy with lorries heading to and from the port. Rubber gloves on and bin bag in hand, I have a morning of litter-picking ahead.Following a trail of discarded food wrappings, razor blades and muddied items of clothing, I move towards the motorway and the entrance to the camp. I cross paths with a riot police officer. He has strayed a little way from his colleagues, who are manning the entry. I greet him, bin bag in hand. He replies, and as I move away towards the glint of an energy drink can, he calls out after me: “What is it you do in life that you are here now, cleaning up after these people?” The disgust in his tone is clear. I smile back at him weakly and move on, thinking how easy it is for him to be totally unaware of the invisible sanitation infrastructure within which he lives. How his own body produces rubbish and waste as well, yet he is oblivious to how seamlessly it disappears.

Nowadays, the site of the Jungle is an area of ‘ornithological and ecological excellence’. The age-old strategy of using environmental conservation to displace and exclude the informally settled (Doshi 2018; Ramutsindela 2014) has been mobilised to keep the displaced in Calais off the grounds of the former camp. The site has been renamed the ‘site des Deux-Mers’ and restored for flora and fauna to flourish, in a prime location for migrating birds. Les Deux-Mers is a place for locals to wander, birdwatch and enjoy the natural environment—camping, however, is not permitted. This transformation is ironic: in spring 2015, it was the very undesirability of the site that led local authorities to designate it as a tolerated site of encampment, to clear the city of scattered migrant camps and squats.

Although the camp had formerly been acknowledged as ecologically valuable, the site it emerged on was sacrificed in extensions of the Calais port. By the time it was designated as a space of life for the displaced, it had become an informal dumping ground, and was classified as at moderate risk of exposure to dangerous substances because of its intimate proximity to two chemical plants (Davies, Isakjee & Dhesi 2017). Broken pieces of white asbestos were even found on site, posing an alarming threat to the health of camp residents (ibid). Environmentally valuable yet potentially toxic: it is perplexing that thousands of displaced people were made to live there.

“Ecological restoration and landscape reconquest”. Author’s image: August 2017.

The environmental status of the land the camp emerged on meant local authorities could prevent settlers from building permanent structures, on the grounds that this would compromise the environmentally ‘valuable’ terrain they had themselves neglected. After the destruction of the Jungle, the poor condition of the land was easy to blame on the thousands who had scrambled to survive on it during the 18 months of its existence. Shortly after the clearance, a signpost erected at the entrance to the site described the restoration as an act of ‘landscape reconquest’ partly funded by the UK Border Force, emphasising the territorial logic underpinning the project.The eradication of any trace of migrant presence on the site ensued: what couldn’t be removed by machines had to be meticulously collected by hand. When laughable efforts to get citizens to clean the site failed, 16 tonnes of camp ‘leftovers’ spanning ten hectares were handpicked by hired professionals, after which machines for scouring and sifting the soil were brought in. This amounted to a meticulous effacement of the national shame that the Jungle represented. On photographs the new site looks idyllic; noise from the nearby motorway and the stench from neighbouring chemical plants however, are ineradicable.

Tearing the ground from underfoot

Bois Chico-Mendès, Calais 12.17 – In a slice of forest between a motorway and a residential street, a rudimentary pétanque terrain stretches across the grass like an abandoned ruin. The low wooden structure is empty and looks unused, devoid of the bed of gravel and sand required to play the popular French bowling game. My companion seems oblivious to the purpose of the terrain. When I refer to the game, he frowns and clarifies: “This is where we come to pray.” We walk through the trees along a path towards the structure and he gestures for me to take a seat. We sit side by side on the wooden ridge that outlines the pitch. It’s a cold morning, and over the next half hour more people arrive, filling the space with chatter. As they enter the space they greet us and sit, until there are forty or so of us facing one another all along the rectangular perimeter. Eventually a young man moves to the front of the pitch and we form rows behind him. We remove our winter hats, a candle is lit, and mass begins.

The invisible church of Calais. Source: Author’s image, February 2018.

The Bois Chico-Mendès posed a particular challenge. It became clear that it was not so much material as immaterial presence and social practices that marked the Eritreans’ appropriation of the wood. In summer 2018, however, local government found a way around this problem that echoed the fate of the former Jungle: the status of the space was simply changed from a ‘wood’ to an urban ‘park’. Where a wood is an open public space, a park is what you might call ‘actively public’: it may be fenced, equipped with video surveillance cameras, with access restricted to set times. This is a fascinating instance of nature being mobilised as a tool for exercising biopower (Foucault 2003): local authorities exclude the displaced from public space through the inexplicit rationale that it is in the interest of protecting both the environment and local population. The fencing around the Bois Chico-Mendès was completed in January 2019, and so the community has been displaced once again. Determination and faith, at least, are something the Eritreans may carry with them. It seems a sad irony that the park draws its name from Chico-Mendès, the Brazilian environmentalist who fought for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, and advocated for the human rights of peasants and indigenous peoples.

Cleansing cycles

Calais is a city of paradoxes. For some it is a symbol of mobility, its port and Channel tunnel facilitating the movement of people and goods. For others it represents immobility and extreme deprivation; a border zone in which fundamental objects and infrastructure are wastefully confiscated or destroyed. This essay has shown how microscale strategies are constantly being thought up to displace people relentlessly within their displacement, and these are increasingly bolstered with environmental justifications. When tearing the roof of a shelter from overhead is insufficient, the new strategy appears to be to metaphorically tear the ground from underfoot on environmental grounds, as was the fate of those displaced from the Bois Chico-Mendès and unable to resettle on the protected site of the former Jungle. Ramutsindela (2015) argues in favour of bringing the study of the environment to the heart of border research, and the shift towards conservation and the greening of public spaces inhabited by the displaced in Calais outlined in this essay are a valuable example of how attention to the environment may offer insight to insidious new forms of border control.

Environmental protection and immigration are issues at the top of both the French and EU political agendas. In Calais they are framed and performed as irreconcilable, even mutually exclusive at the service of border control. Where the erection of walls and fences is controversial, the multiplication of green spaces in and around the city is less so: it is disarming even when it is clear that the investment in green spaces has a double motive. The issue of migration polarises deeply but the environmental argument is cross-cutting, effective for undermining arguments against the constant displacement of migrants at the border. At the rate the greening of northern French border zone is going, Calais may become an ecological ‘haven’ before long. But why exactly, and at whose expense? This marks a new and underexplored chapter of migrant governance in France, of which the detailed analysis of microscale struggles outlined in this essay sheds light.


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