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The future of Calais

The future of Calais

Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, has written on the emptying of “The Jungle,” the refugee camp, or bidonville, at Calais for Episcopal News Service, and on its implications for Europe and the world. He described a recent visit there:

The word “bidonville” comes from the French for “jerrycan,” the metal gasoline bottles once seen riding on the back of World War II jeeps. Discarded ones are cut up to make dwellings, along with boards, canvas, plastic sheets, sheets of metal roofing, and so on. An agglomeration of these bidons becomes the “ville,” the city. In other words, a bidonville is a slum, always found on the edges of cities. There are plenty of terms to describe these, the world’s offscourings: favelas in Brazil, colonias populares (“people’s colonies”) in Mexico, villas miserias (“misery cities”) in Argentina, poblaciones callampas (dwellings that grow like mushrooms) in Chili, umjondolo (shacks) in South Africa, shammasa in Sudan, iskwaters in the Philippines. Bidonvilles are ubiquitous.

As I walked through the Calais camp that day in a driving cold rain, slipping in the gray mud, I was reminded of other camps I’d visited that were created entirely by the people who had clustered together. The classic refugee camps one visits that are built by governments or the U.N. (such as the ones preparing to receive fleeing residents of Mosul) have a logical layout, like the military camps of the Roman legions. On the other hand, bidonvilles are organic, so to speak. They develop out of necessity, and become little cities, little communities. The tent cities of Port-au-Prince, Haiti come to mind. I remember visiting these tent communities after the 2010 earthquake. They were remarkably well-organized, confounding the economics experts who had flown in to advise the government.

The U.K. as well as France has a responsibility to these refugees, who are currently being relocated by the French government:

Historically, France has been the most or the second-most solicited nation in the world for asylum. Some, like Saudi Arabia, do not grant it at all. “The land of asylum” is a popular phrase describing France, and many thousands have benefited over the decades, including at one time, American writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver. But the refugee services have been stretched to the maximum. (AEMO no longer houses refugees in the official centers, we place them with host families, who very generously open their homes to refugees for several months on end.) With thousands who want to cross France to get into the U.K., the government has been on the horns of a dilemma: what to do with illegal asylum seekers who can’t leave?

The dismantling of the Jungle has taken far longer than it should have. Letting minors into the U.K. to be reunited with family has taken far longer than it should have. While the Church of England has tried to change people’s minds — Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby hosts a refugee family at Lambeth Palace — the Brexit vote has made welcoming refugees politically difficult. The politics of fear in the U.K. and the inertia of the French government combined into a perfect storm for thousands of people left in that cold gray mud. What will become of them now, who find themselves offered a place in a country they did not desire, and which has so far given them no reason to want it now? The “Leave” voters gave the refugees their reply: go anywhere but here. These refugees are the first casualties of the “post-truth” era in Britain, in which brazenly lying billboards announced the imminent arrival of 72 million Turks, while Turkey is not in the European Union and now has no chance of getting in.

Parishioners of the Episcopal Cathedral in Paris and others have volunteered many hours and given much to help the refugees. He concludes with hopes for welcome, and concerns for the future of that welcome:

But I fear the era of new bidonvilles might be commencing. When will this massive movement of peoples end? The aging peoples of Europe (except the Irish and the French) cannot pay out pensions without a new influx of young workers. Today’s billion Africans will likely become two billion by 2050. Not to mention the desperate, angry millions in the Middle East. In Pakistan and India. And yes, China too. Will the West know what to do? And will the churches of the West lead, or hide? Will we be the sheep of Jesus’ parable, who saw him among the wretched and sought to help, or among the goats who refused?

Read his full column here.

Photo from ENS story published in March.

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Paul Fromberg

Pierre - Thank you for this clear, compassionate report.

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Prof. Christopher Seitz

Not a bad account. Fairly reported, and accurate. The UK does not come across very positively....

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