Life at the edge: reflecting on Calais, borders and camps
By Ricardo Marten Caceres, on 26 April 2016
Two weeks ago, as part of a preliminary research supported by the Urban Transformation and Social Diversity clusters, a DPU group visited Calais and Dunkirk to better understand the dynamics around refugee camps in Europe, particularly ‘The Jungle’ camp close to the border checkpoint. We visited a few sites and met with activists and NGOs currently engaged in humanitarian or logistical responses; this brief piece is an initial reflection on our visit.
In the past months, it has become frequent to find accounts of life in the Jungle from different perspectives: its spatial implications, the plight of individual life stories, the political dynamics around it, the impact it has on Calais’ citizens. The Jungle has become the most mediatised camp in northern Europe for many reasons, to the point where its semantic value has been stretched and fitted into multiple narratives. On the one hand, it serves anti-immigration supporters as the perfect example of a problem exploding beyond control, the arrival of lawlessness right at the gates of jurisdiction, with the implicit suggestion that European values (whatever those may be) stand before a cultural clash that may break them apart for good. On the other, it has raised awareness on the transformative wave of migration that currently crosses the continent; thousands upon thousands of people fleeing their countries searching for a better life and the illusion of opportunity, in need for help and support along the way. Of course, reality lies somewhere in between these views because migration, camps and border control are not homogenous blocks with absolute variables of exchange.
At the heart of the current Jungle camp, there is a new government-sponsored container camp hosting nearly 700 refugees. Its sanitized white aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the slum-like informality of the surrounding group of densely packed shelters. Those who live in the new camp have to comply with fingerprint scanners in order to enter one of the three checkpoints, all set up with security rooms, metallic gates and narrow, rotating barred doors that only function if the registered hand palm has been identified by the device. The container camp has no real social life, as it lacks social spaces and, fundamentally, has no area for cooking in the shelters. The administrator of the camp, La Vie Active, is an NGO that has little experience with either camp management or with supporting vulnerable refugee populations, having focused on elderly care initiatives. Yet this is the NGO contracted by the local government to make of this typology an example of a successful intervention, one that appeases the local citizen’s concern while implying the authorities remain in control of the situation.
While South and Eastern Europe are filled with all sorts of camp typologies (from humanitarian shelter compounds to detention centres) dealing with millions of refugees, this tiny region in Northern France is struggling to find an adequate response with the few thousands that make it here. At Grand-Synthe, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has recently built and opened a camp in partnership with the local authorities. Driven by the local mayor’s desperation at the lack of governmental support, this camp currently hosts around 1500 refugees in rows of identical wooden shelters. MSF were given the right to buy the land, taking over the whole construction process and delivering the camp in three months. Regardless of this camp’s constraints and limitations, it shows light on the paradoxical state of humanitarian response: Grand-Synthe is a more inclusive, strategic solution than the Jungle’s new container camp and yet it is an anomaly because it came from political will and institutional support. Despite its constraints, this camp’s original vision is anchored on basic solidarity principles, and its construction signalled to its dwellers an acknowledgement, however limited, that their agency was recognised.
Visiting these camps in order to build grand overarching conclusions is an exercise in futility, not because it is impossible, but because it is a disservice to the complexity in place. The jaded, introspective learning process of young volunteers who, in a matter of months, have dealt with troublesome issues around human right violations and basic needs, reflect a problematic that transcends specific camp design or typological debates. This is a humanitarian crisis at the core, about people in movement following chaotic patterns and transforming the spatial axes out of elemental urgencies. The urban, spatial responses appear to be always one step behind, reactionary instead of thoughtful, punitive instead of engaging. Planning has been eroded from political dialogue and established camps have fallen, at least in character, into monocultural instruments of control, becoming the designated spaces of illusory social corrections.
The local bookstore in The Jungle has maps where refugees have pinned and drawn their personal trajectories from their place of departure all the way to Calais. Next to the pins are post-it notes describing the time spent at different countries; months of displacement that brought them closer to the UK. In that context, where distances travelled and experiences acquire an additional power by being diagrammed, the Jungle feels like a brevity, an impasse that will be sorted one way or another. At least that seems to be part of the collective ideal. Proximity can play with illusions easily, because despite the layers of security and the implacable transparency of the border’s militarization, the destination is almost at reach. To the north of the camp are a set of barely usable emergency tents, marking the edge of the Jungle proper. A stretch of thick marshland follows, a few meters later the beach, then the sea, and beyond them the infinite imaginaries constructed for weeks and months; a conclusion of innumerable journeys drifting away.
This process is now part of the European reality, reminding us that migration, cultural assimilation, and the legacies of war are permanently shaping our perceptions about society and space. And in that spirit, we are eager to continue this research, in an effort to further understand the intricacies surrounding this unparalleled period of continental transformation.
Ricardo Marten Caceres is an architect and urban designer, graduated from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) and with an MSc degree from BUDD. He has worked as an architect in between studies, leading a studio practice in Costa Rica focused on residential projects, as well as being partner in a design practice based in Germany working with several NGOs in Haiti, the Philippines and Tanzania. His academic interests lie in the urban dynamics between informal settlements and territorial variables. Ricardo’s current PhD candidacy looks to examine these elements, particularly focusing on the urban legacy of official spaces of exception and the resulting informal counter-narratives.