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Witnessing the Last Gasp of French Refugee Camp

It is the curse of today’s world that companies and organizations, even governments, think it is efficient and cost-effective to run any operation with the minimum number of staff.

It isn’t.

I arrive at a virtually empty house to be invited to take a young man to register with the minors at the refugee camp in Calais, France.

He has mild mental health issues and gets agitated in crowds. Some in the stationary queue have been there for two hours already. It doesn’t look good.

We stayed about five minutes in the melee, and it was clear that he wasn’t coping. We left.

We bumped into a colleague on the way out of the throng and told her what was happening.

She confirmed the understaffed chaos within and regretted that she couldn’t pull any strings to get our friend fast-tracked. We’d have to find another way.

We went off to find other friends under the fly-over and plan our next move.

The only place where the staffing maxim doesn’t apply here is with the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the armored, tooled-up French riot police. The more the merrier.

They’ve booked some 1,500 bed spaces across Calais for the foreseeable future, and now a great phalanx of them is deployed as the prefect’s people arrive for their photo call with the world’s press.

It’s mid-afternoon, an autumn sun is warming the air and the show is about to begin. A spokesperson for the prefecture, a petite, almost chic early middle-aged blond woman in fur-topped wellies (rain boots), tells the waiting media what’s about to happen.

She makes it clear that it is not a “destruction” but a “cleansing.” I turn to my French-speaking colleague to confirm what I’ve heard.

The prefecture would prefer the world’s press to describe the removal of mainly black and Middle Eastern people by a mainly white, European police force as a “cleansing.”

She seems to have no idea of the bloody swathe this word has described through European history, including the recent story of the Balkans. But she sticks with it.

Almost comically, she then warns the press not to speak of the deployment of bulldozers to effect the cleansing. Rather the contractors will be using “bobcats.”

The small machines that appear almost as she speaking are track vehicles fronted with small claw-bottomed hoppers that look to all the world like bulldozers, albeit small ones, but bulldozers all the same.

We point this out later to a journalist on a mobile, phoning in copy, telling the ears at the other end that the machines are bobcats, not bulldozers. He stresses this as if his story hangs on it.

He doesn’t appear to be from Construction News, so we turn to him and point out that a bulldozer is a bulldozer is a bulldozer whatever label the prefect’s spokesperson attaches to it. He looks nonplussed.

And so on cue, dozens of men in pristine orange jumpsuits and white hard hats, equipped with a range of tools from spanners and wrenches to chain saws and hammers, appear and start “cleansing” a shelter.

It is testament to the tireless team of British shelter builders, who put up most of the structures around the camp last winter with the help of the residents, what great work they did. The shelter is virtually indestructible.

For 20 minutes and more, the team pulls and pushes, pokes and prods, bangs and twists the panels, eventually deploying the chain saw to cut some 2-inch by 4-inch timbers at the base, but seems to leave little mark on it.

Eventually, it succumbs and the bobcat comes in to take way some of the bits and deposit them in a skip.

All this is watched by a posse of camera crews ranged on the two vantage points left vacant by the CRS.

At this rate of progress, it will take until Christmas to cleanse the camp.

Of course, this is a stunt for the press. Offer them something compelling for the six o’clock news, and they’ll disappear to their hotels leaving the authorities to scythe through the camp with their usual brutality.

A colleague watches all this, and a Sudanese boy turns up having queued to register and been turned away because there were too many minors and far too few staff. He needs to get his papers.

His caravan is earmarked for destruction and cut off by a line of CRS. A bit of negotiating ensues, and he is allowed to retrieve his documents and a few belongings before having to vacate the site.

Now he has nowhere to sleep. His lack of registration means he has no wristband and does not appear on the lists for the containers. He is homeless.

It’s ironic that this should be the case because the spokesperson from the prefect’s office had said that the authorities had chosen to start the cleansing here in order to create a “cordon sanitaire” around the container park so that the young people housed therein would feel safer. You couldn’t make it up.

Of course, the day after this charade for the press, things get mildly uglier.

Registered and unregistered residents of the jungle, faced with eviction by the French state, burn their shelters, the homes that they have made from the scraps around them, the community they have forged in the teeth of opposition and harassment.

It is their final act of agency in a situation where they are being systematically stripped of any control over their lives, herded like cattle on to buses in some ghastly though far less grisly reenactment of recent European history.

The prefect’s spokesperson, lacking any sense of irony, misses this.

The rest of us turn away weeping, ashamed.

Simon Jones is ministry team leader at Bromley Baptist Church in Bromley, a suburb of London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, A Sideways Glance, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @bromleyminister.