Calais Belle Ma Ville
In October 2016, the Calais ‘Jungle’ was demolished. Most of the asylum seekers who had lived there boarded buses to accommodation centres across France, though some chose to stay and continue their attempts to cross, taking shelter in nearby woods. A small number of minors were transferred to the United Kingdom for family reunification and foster care.
As the main point of departure for sea and rail travel to Britain, Calais has become a ‘hotspot’ for asylum seekers hoping to build a new life in the United Kingdom. In the months leading up to its demolition, the ‘Jungle’ became a regular fixture in British newspapers and a focal point for public anxiety about the possibilities of unregulated migration into Britain post-Brexit. Perceptions of what was happening in Calais were often binary, pitting a unified and nativist Calaisian population against the asylum seekers who had found shelter in the 'Jungle'.
But Calais' relationship with migration is deeper and more intertwined. Far from a city blighted by its location on the border, this remains one of its defining features – simultaneously the last stop before England and the gateway to mainland Europe. Calaisians are not uniformly right-wing, though almost all would rather the city’s second population were not there – a sentiment shared by the migrants themselves, for whom the UK is overwhelmingly the destination. But with an ever-tightening border regime, the product of a bilateral agreement between London and Paris, it is difficult to shake the sense that this is a small, peripheral place saddled with a big problem – and largely abandoned by those with the power to change it.
Calais is home to France’s largest passenger port, and the fourth largest cargo port. But the signing of the Le Touquet agreement in 2003, which extended the “juxtaposed controls” border arrangement between Britain and France, has had a bottleneck effect. From around 2006 onwards, the city began to see the appearance of the first “jungles” – the makeshift camps with which the city has now become synonymous.
Since 2015, £63m has been invested by the British government to secure the port at Calais against the efforts of asylum seekers to cross the border. Qurenso, a young Ethiopian Oromo asylum seeker, said that: “Some lorry drivers are good, some are not good. ... When the lorry driver sees me, he stops in a police area and says a person is inside my lorry. But the good one will not say anything and go to the port.”
The lace industry first emerged in the city at the start of the 19th Century, growing to employ some 30,000 people by the beginning of the 20th Century. But from the 1960s, demand for lace began to decline and some factories closed down, while others were relocated to other parts of the world where rent and labour costs were cheaper. Today, only 600 people work in this once-flourishing industry. A museum to preserve the memory of the industry opened in 2009.
The Second World War took a devastating toll on the city. Many Calaisians experienced forced displacement themselves, and the city was heavily bombed in 1944 as part of deception measures designed to ensure the success of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Almost three-quarters of buildings in the city centre were destroyed, wiping out almost the entirety of its architectural heritage.
In March 2018, unemployment in Calais stood at 14.2 per cent, well above the national average of 8.9 per cent, and one-third of the city’s population is considered “poor”, living on less than 60 per cent of the national median income. “It feels a bit like Calais was abandoned”, Pauline Simonneau and Rémi Crombez said, explaining that there is now little keep young people from leaving the city.
In the second round of the 2017 Presidential Election, Front National candidate Marine Le Pen won 57 per cent of the vote in Calais, well above the national figure of 33 per cent. Abstention among voters also reached a record high of 30 per cent, and in the first round of voting, the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon also won a significant number of votes in Calais – more than Emmanuel Macron, the eventual winner.
Though it is now seen as a right-wing stronghold, Calais has a long left-wing history: for decades it had a Communist mayor, and was at one point the biggest Communist city in the country.
'I don’t know the word in English, but in French we say ‘the strategy of the guilty person’. They need to find somebody guilty for this situation, and right now it is the associations [charities]. It’s fundamentally not the case, but it’s more easy to say that there is a problem with the associations than to say that there is a problem with the border, with European asylum laws.'
'If there’s one reason people know about Calais, it’s migration. ... This cycle is going to go again and again and again until everyone understands that you can’t just deny the reality. There are refugees in Calais, and there always will be as long as England is attractive to them. ... So let’s do something with it!'
— Rémi Crombez, co-creator of the Use-it alternative tourist map of Calais