How many asylum seekers have returned to Calais since the Jungle was dismantled in the autumn of 2016? A year after the camp’s residents were dispersed across France, nearly half opted for asylum from the French authorities and got it. But there are still people mustering in Calais – perhaps one thousand – and Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk), hoping to reach the UK, where they have relatives and networks that can help them resettle, after arduous journeys from points east and south. The Calais Jungle had a poor press in Britain, and the recent arrivals on the Channel coast are faring no better. They also have a local enemy in the mayor, Natacha Bouchart, who rose to prominence during Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-and-markets presidency. Last month Bouchart announced to the Daily Express: ‘They have smartphones and nice clothes. They’ve been told that they have rights, but no duties. They drink themselves senseless – they down litres of vodka – and get into fights.’ Well prepped, you can’t help thinking, for rapid assimilation in their dream destination, Brexit Britain.
At the Jules Ferry refugee centre in Calais on Saturday there were hundreds of men clamouring to get in to listen to Handel’s Messiah but the gates were closed, with 700 people already inside. I was there with Play 4 Calais, an offshoot of the Lexi social enterprise cinema in North London, spearheaded by the actress Alix Wilton Regan. The aim was to bring four days of film screenings to some of the Jungle refugee camp’s estimated 6500 inhabitants, including children who are waiting to be reunited with their parents in the UK.
The Jardin des Olieux is a small park just off the Boulevard Victor Hugo in Lille. Twenty-five or so homeless migrants have been camping there for a couple of months. Several of them are teenagers. Mamadé from Guinea, who is 16, told me that every morning they walk to a day centre near the train station for a meal, coffee and a wash. But they have nowhere to sleep except the park, and the police have taken away their mattresses. The French state in theory guarantees appropriate accommodation and support for unaccompanied migrant children, but there is an effective ‘presumption of majority’, according to a local lawyer, as well as long delays in the process which leave many on the streets for weeks.