CALAIS, France — French truck drivers and farmers began a massive demonstration on Calais’ roadways on Monday, threatening to block the northern French port until the city’s major migrant camp is dismantled.
The blockade was largely symbolic, with columns of large trucks and tractors arranged on a major access road into the port, the busiest passenger port in France. On Monday, the Port of Calais confirmed that harbor traffic continued without impediment, with the ferry service for Dover operating as usual.
Monday’s protest was the latest escalation in the long-brewing political drama over the “Jungle” camp outside Calais, one of the most visible symbols of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis, nestled between two of the continent’s wealthiest capitals. In squalid conditions seldom seen in Western Europe, thousands of migrants and refugees — no one can agree on exactly how many — live in stateless limbo, outside the authority of any government.
Last month, local authorities here said that 6,900 migrants and refugees live in the Jungle, but humanitarian aid organizations such as Help Refugees and Auberge des Migrants place the figure much higher, about 9,000. Whichever is correct, Monday’s protesters say the number of migrants outside their city is far too high, and they are demanding an immediate solution to what they are describing as a recent spike in violence on nearby roads.
Even after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union in June, a majority of the migrants and refugees in the Jungle are still desperate to reach Britain, just 20 miles from Calais across the English Channel. Truckers complain that in recent weeks, the migrants’ desperation has translated into staging dangerous barricades and other diversions on major thoroughfares in order to climb aboard British-bound vehicles before they enter the Channel Tunnel.
“We are determined to show that we are not happy with the situation,” Jean-Pierre Devigne, an official with France’s largest trucking union, the National Federation of Road Transport, told the BBC’s Radio 4 on Monday. “We [will] stay for the time we need.”
In advance of Monday's protest, Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister, said Friday that France would pursue demolishing the Jungle “with the greatest determination.” He also said the government would create shelter spots for an additional 8,000 refugees and migrants, to be followed by thousands more in 2017.
But the government’s partial demolition of the Jungle’s most populous area six months ago led to few material changes. Since that initial demolition, the Jungle’s population has grown, according to the government and aid organizations. Thousands of migrants and refugees are still living on the outskirts of Calais, and the squalid conditions they inhabit have hardly improved.
In the French and British media, some drivers have reported individuals with knives and other weapons waiting by the sides of roads, but aid organizations insist that these are most often people-smugglers, not migrants themselves. Demolition of the Jungle, they argue, would only exacerbate a general situation that has worsened in the past year.
In a statement, Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, a nongovernmental aid organization, said that “demolitions do not act as a deterrent. The refugees come because they have no choice — they are fleeing war and persecution. Destroying their homes achieves nothing more than making living conditions so much more inhumane.”
Despite Monday’s demonstration in Calais, the Jungle’s frequent invocation in talks between French and British leaders belies its actual significance in Europe’s migrant crisis. It is merely the largest migrant camp in France, where only about 70,000 of the 1 million migrants and refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 have claimed asylum, according to Eurostat, the E.U.’s statistical agency.
As Greece and Italy become front lines for processing arrivals, nations such as Germany, Hungary and Sweden have all welcomed tens of thousands of migrants — or in Germany’s case, hundreds of thousands more than France. But increasingly vocal French officials — including the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, now eyeing a second term in office — have insisted that the Jungle’s demolition be a priority.
Last month, Cazeneuve met in Paris with Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, and they issued a joint statement pledging to strengthen their border cooperation and beef up security. “We are committed to working together to strengthen the security of our shared border, to strongly diminish the migratory pressure in Calais and preserve the vital economic link supported by the juxtaposed controls in Calais,” the statement read.
But the issue has been raised repeatedly in the run-up to next year’s French presidential election. “Since most of these foreigners come to Calais to enter the U.K., I want our British friends to now assume the processing of applications from those who want asylum,” Sarkozy told a northern French newspaper.
In Britain, most parties involved have rejected these calls out of hand. “The French know just as well as we do that this would be a disaster for both nations,” Charlie Elphicke, a Conservative member of Parliament representing Dover, wrote in the Mail on Sunday.
Instead, he said, it is “critical
to smash the people-traffickers. These modern-day slavers must be caught and jailed — put behind bars for at least 20 years and have all of their assets seized.”
In the Jungle on Monday, a misty fog kept most migrants inside their makeshift tents and shelters, structures typically meant for three or four people now often made to house eight or more.
Among them was Kumar Youns, 36, who has been in the camp for three months, having traveled from his native central Sudan through Libya, the central Mediterranean and, finally, France. Like so many others here, he wants to enter Britain, where he hopes his wife and two young children will be able to join him. Youns said his first reaction when he arrived in Calais was one of surprise. “France is a big country that has power,” he said, sitting in a tent littered with clothes, food and dirt. “This is not the first world.”
And as Calais citizens and truck drivers report violence on the roadways, Youns said he also sees violence — such as the time a car stopped as he was walking on the street and a man threw a bottle of rum at him, the night of the France-Germany soccer game during the Euro 2016 finals. “They refuse to treat us like we’re human,” he said, noting that he never tells his family any of these stories during their weekly phone calls. “I won’t tell them the truth,” he said.
Adam reported from London.