The uncertain future of France's refugee camps

The uncertain future of France's refugee camps
Comment: NGOs in France have built a model refugee camp and the state now wants to take it over. But do their long-term intentions involve anything other than dismantling it?
6 min read
09 Jun, 2016
An absence of 48 hours from the camp can result in eviction
For those news readers who rely on headlines and front pages to keep abreast of the refugee crisis, they'd be forgiven for thinking that the Calais Jungle or the "disgrace" of Dunkirk, as Jeremy Corbyn described it, had disappeared.

Little is made of the fire that burned down 250 shelters in the Calais slum and the fact that the French state tried to block the building of a new installation in Grand Synthe.

The arrival of Camp in La Liniere made for a blip in newsfeeds, but its contrast to the old camp in Basroch, is noteworthy.

A perfectly humanitarian response

From the "landfill" like conditions of the old camp, the new one - built by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and run by Utopia 56 - is something of a model, and the only refugee camp in France that has met international humanitarian standards.

Tarpaulin tents have been replaced by 368 wooden huts, 10sq metres in size, each fitted with a kerosene stove, raised off the ground to prevent flooding. A health centre is available on site with four consultation rooms, two for general use, one for gynecology and one for mental health consultations - it also has a dental office.
The camp seems to work well - it's well organised and there are still many volunteers
MSF themselves conducted 2,104 consultations between January and April this year and the medical situation is now stable, while many refugees in the unofficial camps of Dunkirk still suffer ill-health.

Three daily meals are provided, as well as an all-day tea and coffee tent, communal areas, a "school", six sanitary units that provide 126 toilets and 66 showers and a laundry service. Quite significantly, there is also no mud.

The state takeover

The camp seems to work well - it's well organised and there are still many volunteers, although they could always do with more. Its residents are mostly from the Kurdish region of Iraq, many specifically from Sulaymaniye.

Ensuring capacity and sustainability were perhaps reasons in favour of the state taking ownership, and as of 30 May, it did exactly that.

Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, commissioned La Vie Active to take over the camp - Utopia 56 may have some role still in providing volunteers but a state service provider, Afeji, would be managing things under the supervision of local Mayor, Damien Careme.

However, this is unlikely to yield the response that humanitarian and human rights observers might have hoped for.


French authorities have already set a precedent of worrying actions: police in the Calais Jungle have often deployed riot tactics and the local prefecture arbitrarily evacuated and destroyed parts of the camp, even contradicting the advice of a French court, which asked that no force be used.

The state's "official" camp in Calais (which incidentally cost approximately 12 million euros to build, around four times the cost of Liniere, which has the same capacity but none of the communal spaces), has been unpopular.

Firstly, this is due to the heavy handed tactics of state authorities and resistance to the influx of migrants, resulting in a lack of trust in the state's intentions.
There are rules to staying in the facility, which have ultimately deterred uptake: these include bio-metric scanning to gain entry, and an absence of up to 48 hours resulting in eviction
Secondly, there are rules to staying in the facility, which have ultimately deterred uptake: these include bio-metric scanning to gain entry, and an absence of up to 48 hours resulting in eviction.

Bearing in mind that many in Calais do intend to reach England via irregular means, providing fingerprints to the state and sacrificing the opportunity to stow away aren't natural choices.

This has meant that the Jungle, even after the south part of the camp was destroyed, still hosts the same number of residents as it had done previously - estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 - in considerably less space in the north part of the camp.

Who wants to stay in a camp like this?

By contrast, numbers in Dunkirk are dwindling. Before La Liniere was erected, approximately 2,000 people lived in the old camp and after the move, the camp reached capacity at 1,500.

A census conducted by the police on 11 May revealed 1,020 people living in the camp and these figures have further reduced to an approximate 750 - just half the camp's capacity.

Only speculative explanations can be made: the presence of smugglers in the vicinity and within the camp has been said to have made some residents nervous; but also talk of the government take-over is thought to be responsible for the lack of commitment to the camp.

Rumours have been circulating that the state is looking to close down the camp before the end of 2016. These rumours are unsubstantiated and possibly untrue but there is no reason to believe that the state has any intention of allowing the camp in La Liniere to remain for much longer than that.
Talk of the government take-over is thought to be responsible for the lack of commitment to the camp
Long-term volunteers like Paddie Marlow-Barnes told me that there is scepticism although no-one knows what to expect. She believes that the terms of the new contract state the camp's capacity is to remain at around 300 to 400 people, and that it will eventually be dismantled.

She also told me that only last week, Afeji staff tried to dismantle some of the shelters but were met with protests from the residents. For now they remain where they are but other stakeholders have confirmed that there was always to be flexibility around capacity and that empty shelters would be taken down.

The police presence, a familiar feature of the Jungle, is also increasing, with guards at the front and back entrances and patrolling the camp.

Ironically, they have been nitpicking about the distance between huts and compliance with fire safety, though the mud and dire conditions of the old camp never appeared to present an issue.

Furthermore, their heightened presence is another concern for the freedom of movement of residents. It was incredibly important to the previous guardians of the camp that those seeking asylum in France, as well as those looking to continue their journey and who chose to stay in La Liniere, were not treated any differently to other residents of France. Transgressing this expectation is a problem in practical terms and from a rights perspective.

Remaining vigilant

The French government claims that they are starting to take humanitarian focused and rights-based approaches to the increased migration flows affecting the country. In addition to Calais and Dunkirk, the commission of a new camp in Paris was announced this week, but more in-depth analysis of the context and peripheral circumstances is needed.

Better support around information on options and access to legal recourse as well as other services all need to be taken into careful consideration.

France's ports have always attracted migrants, forced or otherwise, looking to make the trip to England for various reasons, whether economic or because of family connections. France has not opened a facility since 2001, when Sangatte was closed, which was hailed as a key diplomatic act for bilateral relations between the UK and France.

It is very unlikely that France will be willing to upset this relationship now. However, taking control of the refugee situation in the country allows members of the French government to pay lip service to legal and moral demands, while reducing the undocumented migrant population within its borders and preventing as many as possible reaching the UK.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.