Speculation has run high in the French media in recent days about the probability of violence as the Calais Jungle, home to between seven and ten thousand desperate people, all attempting by wild and ingenious means to cross Britain’s protective strip of water and find sanctuary there, is razed to the ground. Rather than be rounded up and herded on to a bus to God knows where, some have already melted away into the forest, jumping trains to central Paris to hide amongst their own, preparing for another try later.
The exodus began. Riot police were on hand and as night fell last night, fires began to rage and battles followed. For us, we had hoped to insulate ourselves from possible disruption by sailing to Dunkerque instead of the shorter and more convenient Port of Calais, since running a gauntlet of migrants possibly with stone-throwing, was not a particularly tempting proposition. Leaving the boat, the road sweeps in a wide arc around the port of Calais, the lights of the Jungle burning like the fires of Hell. Without warning, we were aware of large numbers of young men on the hard shoulder of the highway, all marching determinedly, so numerous that some were spilling over into the inside lane. The road was dark. An obstacle loomed in the gloom – a large tree was blocking all three carriageways of the highway. I applied the brakes so hard that the wheels spun on the wet road before we lurched to a stop, a few metres away from its stripped trunk. We were surrounded by young men, faces hidden behind the ubiquitous shemagh and for a moment I was reminded of stone-throwing Palestinians in East Jerusalem. We locked the car, hazards blinking, and waited.
The men milled about, aimlessly. The objective seemed to be to allow the cars to pass while stopping the lorries where some might be able to climb aboard undetected – a forlorn, desperate hope indeed. Eventually, the tree trunk was pulled aside and we were given just enough room to squeeze past and be on our way – the stopping tactic seemed to work since enraged Belgian and Dutch lorry drivers were standing on their horns as the migrants surrounded them. We came to no harm; we were not the target. The sheer futility of the manoeuvre left an echo in my memory. They had to have planned for a robust police presence arriving within minutes, so the trucks had to be stopped, boarded and on their way within a very short window of time. We did not see the police arrive, but assuredly they did and would almost certainly have taken trucks away to be searched.
I cannot imagine the despair these people feel. A busload of unaccompanied ‘children’, some with crows’ feet and a five o’clock shadow found its way to the UK yesterday, windows firmly curtained, lest the media attempt to guess their ages should any be rash enough to smile. Despite the fact that obviously adult men have cheated a child out of a place on the bus, I cannot help but feel a certain sympathy for them. Some, perhaps most are fleeing war zones. Inevitably, because the Home Office seems both bumbling, incompetent and, truth be told, to have been spectacularly wrong-footed, there will be a few whose motives are less than peaceful. Hidden in the huddled masses, some will almost certainly have slipped through, waiting to plant devices of mass destruction and share the glorious reward of the shuhada. As usual, anarchists, busybodies and activists were on the scene in the Jungle last night, some, ashamedly, were British. They came prepared to disrupt the evacuation and simply get in the way. My fervent hope is that the French police were, let’s say, robustly determined to get the job done, in spite of for many, serious moral misgivings. The existence of these squalid shanty towns is a symptom of Europe’s failure to manage the refugee reception crisis, as well as the broader issue of migration and closing them does nothing for the underlying problem. In France, the process is driven by a wish to clean the place up, dispersal creating invisibility which can be managed politically far better than thousands in a Calais ghetto. One representative had the chutzpah to suggest on live TV last night that the French were behaving to the migrants as the Nazis behaved to the Jews. I hardly think that taking people to safety on a bus has quite the same resonant cadence as a trainload of cattle trucks disgorging a cargo of misery into the gas chambers.