POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018 Sarah Osei-Bonsu

We Are Humans; Let’s Act Like It

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter

Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer

The Jungle is no place for humans. We know this of course, we are the civilized world. Imagine humans living in a jungle of makeshift tents, crossing streets of mud to crude churches and mosques because God might be the only one who’ll listen. Imagine waiting six hours for the chance to shower, and waiting even longer to eat. Voicing your frustration and being beaten down by police. This sounds like an unpleasant fiction – humans have more dignity than that, especially in the European Union.

“We are humans, not animals,” said Karzan, a refugee who lived in the Jungle, right here in the EU, in stark contrast to the human rights Europe preaches.

In October 2016, the Jungle was demolished after being deemed illegal. 7,000 people were forcefully resettled. Now we speak of the Jungle in past tense. A brief lapse in our beloved union which so prides itself on social welfare. Reporting on the Jungle is not popular anymore, the hashtags are no longer trending. The world watched this shameful spectacle unfold and now the world can forget again.

Humans not animals… Europe needed that reminder.

The refugee camp in Calais, France, known as the Jungle, was the horrific climax of Europe’s ‘migrant crisis’, where conditions for refugees were deplorably inhuman. Informal camps have been continuously appearing in the area around Calais since 1999.  The town’s connection to the Channel tunnel, as well as its position as Europe’s informal border with Britain, has made it a popular transit-location for migrants looking to enter the UK. When Europe’s migrant crisis recently came to a head, the Calais camp festered and expanded like never before, becoming ‘the Jungle’. The Jungle received increasing scrutiny due to its lamentable conditions. Unparalleled by any other encampment it became the horrific symbol of the migrant crisis. By May 2016, an estimated 7,000 migrants were living in the Jungle, in brutal conditions, in improvised shelters lacking proper sanitary facilities. As an informal camp, the Jungle enjoyed none of the proper amenities or state assistance mandated for refugee settlements within the EU. Aid was supplied only by NGOs and other private donors and was, therefore, nowhere near enough.

Unable to meet basic human needs, with its crowded conditions and limited medical care, the Jungle took many lives, while those who survived did so in the most hopeless conditions. For the living, the Jungle was a hell. Despite these dismal conditions, the population continued to grow, with migrants increasingly foregoing EU asylum procedures and seeking out the ‘border-town’ with hopes of entering the UK rather than claiming asylum elsewhere in the EU. Numerous attempts were made daily to cross the UK border, often ending fatally. Hoping against hope, the people of the Jungle persisted. Aside from the occasional visits of masked policemen and police dogs the EU did not intervene.

There were outcries across Europe, voices that condemned the Jungle’s existence and the fact that nothing was being done. A dog that barks but doesn’t bite. Alas, nothing was done, for two reasons; because legally nothing had to be done and because the people of Europe refused to forge a way where the law would not.

The EU has one of the world’s most sophisticated human rights systems. It adheres to a collection of human rights charters and conventions, forming a complex legal framework to protect asylum seekers. Wherever they find themselves in the asylum process, their human dignity is to be safeguarded. This guarantee is not extended to the ‘illegals’. Those who forgo the asylum process, who want to exercise their own agency instead of being relegated to asylum centres (which resemble prisons more than refuge), who insist on reuniting with their families instead of being detained by their country of ‘first entry’ (the only country legally required to take responsibility for them).

Precedents exist outside the asylum procedure to unequivocally safeguard all humans  – they are fundamental human rights and should be inviolable in any state. They clearly stipulate that no human should be exposed to degrading treatment. Was France somehow incapable of meeting its duties? French nationals continued to enjoy their rights while the people in the Jungle suffered, meaning that protection was applied hypocritically, and so, as a governing body, the EU should have intervened.

Photo by Anthony Delanoix

In the debate over the Jungle, the popular consensus was that the EU had failed to act, and Europe was duly appalled. Yes, it is important to acknowledge that the law is faulty if it is unable to protect the rights of the vulnerable, and that the EU’s failure to uphold its own laws is one of the main reasons for the tragedy of the Jungle. But instead of being satisfied with criticising the application of the law, it is better to change it. The EU has a democratic system sophisticated enough to correct its own shortcomings. The absence of legally-mandated action does not have to mean the absence of change. If we cannot rely on the law as it stands then something else must be done. We need to go beyond the mere displeasure of knowing injustices exist and demand change collectively.  

I want to propose a break in the trend of political and social idleness. We live in a great time of accessibility, transparency, and freedom of information. Yet, for a lot of us it is a one-way road from informed to disinterested. The Jungle is one unfortunate case of this. In the midst of our interest and shock in the story we forgot, or didn’t realize, that we had the power to impact a change.

Despite its shortcomings, the EU is a democratic body. A willing public can propose and urge legislative changes. The EU recognizes, and values, protests, and petitions. The European Citizens’ Initiative, for instance, stipulates that Europeans can propose new legislation with at least 1 million signatures (only 0.2 percent of the EU population). This is more than just logistics, it means we can exercise direct democracy on an EU level. What it requires, is a driven, well-informed public sphere. We need to insist on knowing what is happening in the world around us, especially in our own political space. I believe, a lot of us are already informed and mentally engaged enough to care.

In the Calais case, it was not enough to know the atrocities going on, but to recognize our own power to change them. To avoid another Jungle we should insist that asylum is expanded to all refugees within EU territory who live in degrading, inhuman situations, even when they forego asylum procedures. We must remove clauses in the asylum regulations which delay refugees receiving the aid they need, leaving them in limbo. Let’s get rid of the ‘first entry principle’ and instead demand that all states claim legal responsibility for refugees within their borders regardless of their ‘legality’. A state that fails to protect the lives of refugees and fails to accommodate their basic needs,  should not be able to excuse its failure on the basis of law. That defeats the purpose of the law – to protect us. Let us not be satisfied with criticising the asylum system that allowed the Jungle to happen, when we have the power to amend the law to better suit our beliefs. By creating and contributing to discourses we care about we become connected and can be active in the change we want. We have the numbers. Now what we need is the action to make change happen.

Unfortunately, we were too late to prevent the Jungle. Europe built a fortress, reluctant to let anyone in. A jungle on the peripheries was a nuisance, nothing more. Instead of addressing the institutional problems it represented, the EU’s solution was to burn it down. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Jungle was an ecosystem breeding hope and despair. Where predators wore uniforms and wielded batons. Where humans were treated like animals as we watched on. The Jungle is not an anomaly. It tested Europe’s human rights system and, unfortunately, Europe failed. We failed too. The Jungle and other examples like it will continue to fall through the legal web if we, the people, don’t take up our role in weaving it. The Jungles will not stop until we demand the EU recognize in practice, without prejudice, that all humans are equal and deserve dignity irrespective of their circumstances and origin. The Jungle deserves redemption. Let us not forget. Let us not fall silent. We must fight for what we believe, for we are humans.

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