The people on the move in Calais are now 2.000, according to Human Rights Watch’s estimates, but they used to be at least 10.000. Their numbers have dwindled since the times of the Calais Jungle, when migrants had organised a city, as often occurs in refugee camps (Agier 2018). But the Jungle was razed down and the people moved: they now live in mud fields. Today, the living conditions in Calais are appalling, due to police and municipal actions informed by the externalisation of the British border onto France and by state authorities’ obsession with the need to avoid the creation of “pull factors”. Combined together, these tensions create a situation in which migrants are kept in France, where they are clearly not wanted.
Today, migrants – “the guys,” as humanitarian workers and volunteers in Calais usually refer to them – live in the outskirts of the city, grouped amidst the mud and harsh climatic conditions of Northern continental Europe. The spaces they live in are liminal spaces: neither city, nor industrial area, nor countryside. Importantly, Calais represents a liminal space per se. It is a place of transit, neither home nor arrival country. It is a frontier city from which Dover, where British border control operates, can be seen; but it is also unmistakeably French. And the guys are painfully aware of this duality, which is reflected in their personal condition. They are not asylum seekers yet (they will be if/once they cross the Channel), and even though France is understood, generally, as a “good place” to be, their living conditions are abysmal. And they are not quite themselves – many use fake names and ages. One among the guys arrived to describe what he was living as a “fake life.” Their communities too are not quite such: they get torn up by the police every other day and are divided within themselves. They are spaces with visible power structures in which all the migrants live in extreme vulnerability.
After the so-called migration crisis, people on the move have generally been relegated to liminal spaces (Paynter 2018). Physically speaking, they have been placed in detention centres far away from cities or “at the frontier,” a fluid space that eschews easy geographic definition. Legally speaking, they have been marginalised in a limbo of unavoidable criminality. In Calais, this is especially visible: they are often seen walking along the freeway that rings the city, and in the first period after their arrival they live in the spaces normally occupied by the homeless: under bridges, around train stations. Rather than being pressed together into a formal camp, as is the case in European hotspots, they are scattered on the outskirts of the city. Ever since the infamous Jungle was definitively destroyed, in October 2016, the guys can be found in three main “living sites:” Old Lidl, Coquelles, and BMX (or at least these are the toponyms used by the NGOs operating in Calais). Here they live in the open fields surrounding the industrial areas of Calais: this makes people on the move functionally invisible to the city’s residents and tourists. Here, the guys sit around fires, feet in the mud, while having some sort of natural cover beside a tent is a blessing in Calais, where the wind blows violently and relentlessly.
It is not only the spatial liminality that is striking. In Calais, its temporal dimension is also immediately visible. The camps do not stay up for more than a couple of days, as police raids are carried out every 48 hours. These are not meant to carry people away; rather, upon arriving at the living sites, the police draw a perimeter – it is not clear following which rationale – and inform the guys that they cannot live inside it. For the duration of the raid, such a perimeter becomes a space managed by the police. Tents and personal belongings may be seized or destroyed. The raids are justified by the zero points de fixation, a policy adopted by the French Ministry of the Interior after the destruction of the old Jungle and later embraced by the Calais municipality, which strives to eliminate all possible “pull factors” that may encourage migrants to come to Calais. The policy was harshly criticised by the French National Consultative Commission for Human Rights for the inhuman living standards it leads to. The frequency with which the raids are carried out makes it impossible to form any sort of community resembling what existed in the old Jungle. In addition, the psychological toll created by the regularity and intensity of the evictions is inevitable (Darwin 2017).
People on the move are hence kept in the liminal spaces of Calais through a combination of administrative policies and heavy police deployments on the ground. The CRS – Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, i.e. the French riot police – are the law enforcement agency carrying out evictions and generally dealing with migrants in Calais. As of 2018, 67 agents were deployed by the CRS’ Pas-de-Calais Saint-Omer detachment, which covers the township of Calais. It is unclear how many agents were added in later years, but in 2021, at least 10 officers were hired; in addition, 35 new agents from border and/or immigration control and 71 for the judicial and the “public security” police were called in. The CRS have an official mandate to deal with people on the move: “they regularly work with the border police to control the circulation of people at land, sea and aerial borders, in order to fight clandestine immigration and the entrance in France of dangerous individuals (terrorists, for example). In order to do so, they carry out identity controls, questionings, and track the people who enter the French territory illegally” (author's translation). The language employed in the CRS official website speaks for itself in terms of prejudice with regards to immigrants: the terrorism/migration narrative is employed lightly, alongside the assumption of irregularity. For what regards their methods, there have been reports of heavy racial profiling and excessive violence in Calais (Agier 2018).
In the case of Calais, rather than controlling people illicitly entering France, the objective of the police is to prevent people from getting out. This is justified by the different payments, in the order of millions of pounds, that the UK has made to France to “tackle illegal migration along the shared border”. These exchanges follow the 2003 Touquet Accords, in which the UK pledged to finance border controls in northern France, hence externalising their southern frontier (Dover) onto continental Europe (Calais). This inflow of money has made it possible to hire more police agents. However, the overwhelming presence of CRS officers – who can be seen driving around in convoys of several vans and buses, especially on occasion of bigger evictions – is somehow compensated by the presence of volunteers in the city. One NGO, Human Rights Observer (HRO), strives to be present at every eviction in order to document police practices. Brutality, violence, and generally demeaning behaviours are routinely reported.
Overwhelming police presence is not the only mean used to control the people on the move of Calais though. The city’s urban architecture itself has been modified in order to keep migrants out. The spaces where the old Jungle used to be is now empty again, with only dunes, barren land, and cameras following the rare visitor. It seems as if there were the intention to make it look like nothing had ever been there, as if the Jungle, with its long history as a transit hub, were to be forgotten (Agier 2018: 2). But the migrants did not disappear into thin air: they moved to places that used to be woods, where tents could be pitched and the rain avoided. But with time, these spaces too have been flattened, with trees felled to erase their function as natural shelters. Now, all there is are mud fields. Smaller interventions have also been performed, from purchasing land to prevent camping, to building ditches and placing boulders on roadsides so that NGOs cannot easily distribute food and other basic items. These actions have materially and dramatically changed the environment around the city of Calais: here, the landscape is visibly “the product of human labour and as such encapsulates […] all the injustices of the social system that make it” (Mitchell 1998: 94).
Calais is a city where the liminality characterising migrant lives is blatant. Here, the criminalisation of movement and of people on the move has resulted in dramatic alterations to the landscape of the city, brought about by the willingness to manage, marginalise, and confine migrants to liminal spaces. While in the outskirts of the city the police are hyper-visible, driving around in impressive convoys, the migrants hide in ditches and between the few scattered trees. The willingness to keep migrants in France in respect of the Touquet Accords and the imperative of not giving them any points de fixation has created this distorted situation in which the guys can neither run nor can they be. Resistance within the liminal, subaltern spaces of Calais has been ongoing for a long time – the guys are staying and living, occasionally managing to cross the Channel, while NGOs continue to support them. Whether or not to end this mouse-and-cat game, which produces inhumane living conditions for many, is entirely up to European countries, France and UK in the first place.