The planned closure of the Calais Jungle refugee camp has been dismissed by a leading medical aid agency as “political posturing” which could worsen the humanitarian crisis in northern France while playing into the hands of people traffickers.
Leigh Daynes, the executive director of Doctors of the World UK, told The Independent he had little confidence in politicians on either side of the Channel properly managing the complete dismantling of the camp, which has now been promised by French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
The result, Mr Daynes said, could be refugees facing conditions even worse than those in the Jungle – which at least has some rudimentary facilities – while still plaguing truck drivers and motorists around Calais with increasingly extreme attempts to sneak into Britain.
“I think this is just political posturing again,” said Mr Daynes. “I would be highly surprised if it amounts to anything meaningful.
“Without question, the fear is that political posturing will exacerbate the situation and make the whole thing worse.”
With new Doctors of the World statistics showing that the number of minors in the Jungle has increased 151 per cent since May to 865, with 676 of them (78 per cent) being unaccompanied, Mr Daynes added that he was especially worried about the fate of child refugees.
He told The Independent: “Without question the fear is that there will more of what we have already seen in some parts of the Pas-de-Calais region: 10-year-old unaccompanied little Syrian boys living in ditches by the side of farmers’ fields, traipsing around in the mud, riddled with Scabies, with only flimsy bits of plastic for shelter.
“Without a proper exit plan, you will also see more people smugglers preying on even more desperate people, including unaccompanied children, who are at their lowest ebb and their most vulnerable. That problem will be pushed even further underground and become even harder to solve.”
Mr Cazeneuve promised the complete closure of the Jungle on Friday, ahead of Monday’s blockade of the main motorway route into Calais by French famers and lorry drivers demanding the camp be shut.
The farmers and hauliers also called for action against increasingly desperate tactics by some migrants who have reportedly resorted to trying to block roads and cause traffic accidents in order to sneak onto lorries in the ensuing delays and confusion.
Mr Cazeneuve pledged that to “unblock Calais”, France would create accommodation for refugees elsewhere in the country.
He said places for 8,000 refugees would be provided this year, with accommodation for thousands more becoming available in 2017.
Paris is also due to open its first refugee camp, with capacity for 400 people, in mid-October.
But there have been fears the alternative accommodation plans will be insufficient – especially as the French authorities and aid agencies seem to have very different estimates of the numbers currently in the Jungle.
Official French estimates put the camp’s population at about 7,000 but last month Doctors of the World said the true figure was closer to 9,100.
Mr Daynes said that he feared a repeat of the 2002 closure of the Sangatte Red Cross refugee camp: “That closed with no clear exit plan because of the posturing of the British Government of the day. It did not deter refugees from seeking sanctuary.”
Instead, said Mr Daynes, Sangatte was simply replaced by the unofficial shanty town that became the Calais Jungle.
“If backed by a proper plan to resettle and relocate,” added Mr Daynes, “The closure of the Jungle would be an opportunity to end once and for all a human emergency of the first order just an hour away from British shores.
“But what we have seen in the past is just political posturing by the British and French governments. And the cruel thing about that is that it only exacerbates the trauma of people who are already extremely traumatised and living in dreadful conditions.
“It is time politicians on both sides of the Channel stop playing to the gallery.”
The British Government, he said, could help the effective relocation of refugees by allowing UK asylum claims to be decided in Calais.
“That would be a pragmatic way to settle asylum claims once and for all,” he said. “As Monday’s understandable protests showed, it is in no-one’s interest for the current situation to continue.”
Mr Daynes’ fears were echoed by refugees in the Jungle. When The Independent approached one group of about 20 Sudanese men, none seemed to have any idea where they would go once the camp closed.
Samuel Ismail, 26, from Darfur, said: “The Jungle is not a healthy environment. We live worse than animals. But of course I am worried I could end up somewhere worse, sleeping on the streets. If they destroy this place, where can I go?”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies