The ‘Jungle’ is closed, but the chaos of EU migration policy continues

Every single historic period is defined by one or two major issues that reflect and leave deep marks on an entire era

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Demolishing the infamous refugee camp in Calais, known as the “Jungle”, closes a chapter in the mistreatment of migrants in Europe with no signs that a more humane one is about to open.

Every single historic period is defined by one or two major issues that reflect and leave deep marks on an entire era. Migration, no doubt, is the one that consumes the political, economic and intellectual energy of Europe in the early part of the 21st century. It divides societies and has long term repercussions on attitudes to human rights, adhering to domestic and international law, international cooperation and the ability to form effective policies in face of great challenges.

The international community as a whole failed quite badly in all of these challenges, leaving Europe’s migration policy broken and marred with nationalism and racism. Calais exposed the best and the worst in us as people and as societies. On the verge of its demolition last week the biggest shantytown in Europe hosted around 6000 people, mainly from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Eretria.

The anti-migration movement in France called to repatriate them back to their home countries, while their UK counterparts resisted any of them crossing the British channel, regardless of what fate was awaiting them. On the other hand, there were enormous expressions of kindness and support from individuals and NGOs. They ensured that almost everyone was fed, clothed, sheltered, enjoyed adequate hygiene, as much as possible, and that kids had access to education. Yet, this unofficial refugee camp was never an answer to the plight of the people who resided there.

Considering the conditions that the inhabitants of this makeshift camp had to endure, one can hardly shed too many tears about its demise. Nevertheless, what is in store for the evacuees is of great concern, especially for unaccompanied minors.

The manner in which we deal with refugees, the least privileged in our world, also tests our sincerity in adhering to international law and commitment to international conventions

Yossi Mekelberg

No fault of theirs

For now, the former occupants of the “Jungle” are in French “reception centers”, waiting to hear who will be the lucky ones to be granted refugee or asylum seeker status, and who has the dangerous misfortune of being forced to return to their home countries.

The demolition of the “Jungle” in Calais may remove the blemish of keeping human beings, especially very vulnerable ones, in dreadful conditions, as if it were their fault that they needed to flee from the dangers of war, conflict, political persecution, and yes, sometimes just in search of opportunity to escape extreme poverty.

Nevertheless, it does not remove the stain of not finding an adequate solution for those removed from the camp, and even worse not forging a comprehensive European policy towards migration, in particular for those whose lives are in danger.

It would be irresponsible and counterproductive to dismiss the fears and concerns expressed by many ordinary citizens across the continent vis-à-vis migration, even if on most occasions, anger towards migrants is misplaced and instead governments’ policies are to blame.

Population movement results, in some cases, in pressure on infrastructure and services, tensions between local and newly arrived communities and in the short term increases competition over jobs. In the longer run economic migration will be Europe’s salvation. Figures show that as a result of an ageing population, EU countries will move from having about four people of working age for every person over the age of 65 years, to two working-age people by 2060.

Proactive planning

Instead of vilifying economic migrants and cynically exploiting deep-seated xenophobic tendencies among some segments of the European population, it is time for a pro-active planning that projects the economic needs of Europe and how they correspond with proper migration policies.

This can also feed into addressing the plight of refugees and asylum seekers that are reaching our shores. Instead of seeing them as competitors and a threat to the European way of life, they could alternatively be treated as potential contributors to economic and social life. Especially if one takes into account their relatively small numbers in terms of the EU population. Most refugees flee to neighbouring countries and remain in their region of origin.

Turkey is the host country of more than 2.5 million refugees and Lebanon with its small population of 4 million is the host of 1.1 million refugees. Both of these are countries with a much lower GDP per capita and less advanced infrastructure than most European countries.

There is no escape from admitting that our attitude to the less fortunate, reflects on the quality of our societies. The manner in which we deal with refugees, the least privileged in our world, also tests our sincerity in adhering to international law and commitment to international conventions.

Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries, and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, established the principle of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are likely to be subjected to persecution.

Among those evacuated from the “Jungle”, there were many unaccompanied children under the age of 15, who are the most vulnerable, especially girls. Around 1,000 of them are left in the demolished Calais camp. Many of them have the right to asylum in EU countries, where they have relatives, but no one bothered to inform them about their rights, or in many cases the bureaucracy is deliberately slow and grinding.

Surely, it is our obligation as individuals and societies to protect these kids from being exploited by criminals and extremists – for their sake as much as ours. Only an approach free of bias and prejudice will equip us with much needed wisdom to look after refugees with humanity, which will also serve the wellbeing and prosperity of our own societies.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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