The transience and persistence of the ‘jungle’ in Calais

Jungle container camp. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.The ‘jungle’
in Calais is a space of both transience and persistence. This refugee settlement located on
a wasteland just outside of Calais in France hosts more than 6,000 refugees who
wait for an opportunity to cross the Channel to the UK, stowing away on a
truck, car, ferry or train via the port or Eurotunnel.

It is at
once an informal encampment of makeshift shelters; a town under construction,
with shops, restaurants and schools; and, a space subject to institutional
violence and at risk of imminent destruction.

At the
beginning of February, French authorities bulldozed a mosque and a school, having
previously promised it would leave these buildings untouched. This was not the
first systematic destruction of parts of the jungle: in January, the
authorities gave residents a few days’ notice to move their shelters before clearing
a 100-metre strip of land. This so-called ‘no-man’s land’ was said to be a
measure of security – a ‘buffer zone’ to restrict refugees from easy access to
lorries on the motorway. Access to the motorway had already been restricted by
means of a tall white fence donated by the UK government (and previously used
at the London 2012 Olympics).  


The term
‘no-man’s land’ as well as the contention that the jungle is a ‘completely
unpoliced space’, as recently claimed by Kevin Hurley, former counter-terrorism
chief at the City of London, are an indication of the struggle over this
refugee space.

In addition,
these terms are indicative of the spatial
contestation this involves. Whilst notions such as ‘unpoliced’ and ‘no-man’s
land’ suggest a place of danger and without community, it is precisely because
the jungle is more than a temporary stopover that it has become a dangerous
place to live for refugees. The fact that it has
turned into a lively town hosting a diversity of communities is at least one of
the reasons that the French authorities are keen to get rid of the jungle.

differently, the fact that it has turned into a lively town hosting a diversity
of communities is at least one of the reasons that the French authorities are
keen to get rid of the jungle, and using increasingly violent means to do so.

This fourth piece in our series, ‘Transit points and enduring struggles’, documents the struggles over the
transience and persistence of the jungle as an informal yet securitised border

In short, it can be said that the jungle is a
space of continuous change, where people come and go, and which keeps changing
in character due to practices of refugees, activists, aid organisations and
government authorities, where these actors seek to ensure its transience and
persistence in conflicting ways.

Yet, whilst both the French and UK governments
regard it as a problem to get rid of, it is in large part due to the very
migration management policies of these governments – such as increasingly
advanced border controls, fences and technologies – that the jungle emerged in
the first place, and has become a permanent space of transit and residence.

New ‘jungle’ town

Jungle restaurant. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.Although there
have been many refugee settlements in and around Calais from the 1990s onwards,
what has come to be known as the ‘new’ jungle was established in the spring of
2015, when the French authorities pushed refugees living in various makeshift
spaces in and around the centre of Calais to a wasteland outside of town and
promised that they could stay there without threat of eviction.>

Yet, if it
was thought that the push away from local amenities to a space that seemed uninhabitable
would deter refugees from staying in Calais, the authorities were soon proved
wrong. During subsequent months the area defined in terms of ‘waste’ turned
into a town under rapid construction. Today, the jungle is a town with streets,
including a main street with shops and restaurants, and bars that play music in
the evening. There are schools, mosques, churches, a library, a youth centre;
and, there are different neighbourhoods, which are organised on the basis of nationality/ethnicity.

It must be
stressed that, as a town, the jungle is far from perfect and can be described
as a humanitarian crisis: the streets are muddy; living spaces are makeshift
and unheated; sanitary conditions are poor and insufficient; and there is
physical violence, too.

these conditions, due to the efforts of refugees, activists and aid
organisations a lively town has emerged that is looking increasingly permanent.
In this respect, the persistence of the jungle is a result of eviction from the
centre of Calais to a space of ‘waste’, in combination with informal networks
of organisation and governance that have turned it into something rather


At the same
time, the jungle is a space of transience in the sense that people come and go.
Most of its inhabitants are there because they want to get out of France and
into the UK. In addition, people come and go in the sense of being detained and
released by French authorities. There is a high turnover of living spaces as
well. Whilst shelters are destroyed due to poor weather, accidental fires or
police intervention, new living spaces continue to be built. If you return to
the jungle after a few weeks or a month, it looks like a different place. Moreover,
between the summer and the autumn of 2015, its population increased from
2,000-3,000 to more than 6,000.

There is
another reason for the transience and persistence of this town: the border
regime and the violence that accompanies it. In October 2015, the French
government announced its intention to reduce the number of refugees in the
jungle to 2,000 and to build a more permanent structure to accommodate them. It
has pursued this aim partly through tactics of intimidation and by means of
increasing police presence and violence, both in and around the jungle itself
and at the ferry terminal and Eurotunnel. The notions of a ‘completely
unpoliced space’ and a ‘no-man’s land’ seem rather poor descriptions in this

At least up
until the summer of 2015, police would not enter the jungle, although they
would guard other spaces, such as the ferry terminal. After the summer, police patrols
began in the jungle and officers were stationed at the entrance.

In the wake
of the November 2015 Paris attacks, police presence and activity further
increased. Towards the end of the year and at the beginning of January, these
new “security” policies, purportedly to stop refugees from climbing into
lorries, included heavy-handed attacks on the jungle during the night,
including the use of tear-gas and rubber bullets in residential areas.

This was
followed by the first eviction that created the 100-metre ‘buffer zone’ in
January. Rather than a ‘no-man’s land’ this open space gives the police better
visibility of the jungle and hence enables intervention. Put differently, it is
a space of control and securitisation. However, in character with other spaces
of the jungle, this is also creatively contested. The strip of open space has
also become a
ground for organised football games for youngsters living in the jungle.

Rival camp

The authorities’
intention to contain the jungle both spatially and numerically is pursued
through a combined strategy of destruction, transfer and dispersal. Presented
as a sustainable solution, one policy that ensures both the persistence of the
jungle as well as its destruction is the creation of a new camp consisting of
converted shipping containers, which could accommodate 1,500 people in total.

containers do not have any facilities apart from six bunk beds each – offering
space to 12 refugees – and heating. Registration is required in order to move
into the containers and access is restricted by palm prints. Of course,
refugees are wary of this kind of biometric identification, fearful that it
might jeopardise a future asylum claim in the UK.

In addition,
the lack of facilities and the fencing around and controlled entrance to the
camp make it look more like a prison than a comforting living space. Thus,
besides the great sarcasm of accommodating people unable to cross the sea in
shipping containers, it also constitutes an effort to destroy the more autonomous
community spirit that characterises the jungle as a town.    

Jungle census

On 12 February,
the authorities announced a new round of evictions. This time, it concerned the
southern half of the jungle, which, the authorities claimed, would affect 800-1,000
refugees, 750 of whom would be able to move into the container camp.

organisations and activists swiftly disputed these numbers, arguing that many
more people live in this area, which also hosts a women and children’s centre,
a newly opened youth centre, mosques, schools, a church and a library. In an
unprecedented move, the organisations conducted a census, first of the southern
part and then of the jungle as a whole. They found that – as a conservative
estimate – 3455 people currently live in the eviction area, including 455
children, 305 of who are unaccompanied. The total
number of residents is 5497 (this excludes people living in the container
camp and in the Jules Ferry centre, which hosts 500 women and children). This
knowledge is currently employed to challenge the eviction plans in court. Whilst the census can be seen as a form of counter-knowledge to prevent further violence and intrusion on behalf of the authorities, producing data about a collective group of people can also function as a tool of governance and control.

Yet, the
census is interesting not only because it contests the numbers presented by
authorities, thus enabling a legal challenge to the claim that most people
evicted could move into the container camp. It is also interesting as the first
attempt to record the number of jungle residents. Whilst the census can be seen
as a form of counter-knowledge to prevent further violence and intrusion on
behalf of the authorities, producing data about a collective group of people
can also function as a tool of governance and control. That is to say, it helps
to create a ‘population’ that can be governed. As Foucault reminds us, it is by
making things knowable – e.g. through a census record – that governance becomes

paradoxically, in an effort to save the autonomous space of the jungle and to
avoid the more intrusive databasing techniques of the container camp, those in
support of the refugees have resorted to creating a form of counter-knowledge
that might nonetheless become part of future governance and policing
techniques. In this sense, knowledge of the number of residents is of less
significance than the political implications of creating (counter-)knowledge.
The number of people living in the jungle changes on a daily basis, yet the
creation of numbers constitutes a political stake in the persistence and
transience of the jungle.

Political stakes

political question closely interacts with another paradox and political stake: by
attempting to make the jungle transient – to get rid of the ‘problem’ – the
French authorities are actually ensuring its persistence.

They do so,
firstly, by building more permanent shelters. Even if these consist of
prison-like conditions, this does not mean that this space cannot be
reappropriated in creative ways. Secondly, ultimately, the jungle is becoming
more and more permanent because the border is becoming more and more difficult
to cross. The fencing up of Calais – in the jungle and at the port and the
Eurotunnel – as well as increasingly advanced border control technologies will
only make the presence of refugees and the existence of the refugee town more

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