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BOOK REVIEW Global political lessons that have to be learned

The Jungle
By Michel Agier et al
(Polity, £15. 99p)

Between 2015 and 2016, when it was forcibly cleared, “The Jungle” accommodated thousands of migrants and refugees from the area surrounding the French port of Calais, most of them hoping to cross the channel to Britain.

The infamous camp attracted international expressions of solidarity, as NGOs and activists responded to the inhabitants’ experiences of hostile officialdom, fanned by politicians exploiting the situation for reasons of their own.

This is a story that exemplifies so many issues of our times, large-scale movements of peoples displaced by wars and other forms of violence, dreaming of escaping poverty, hoping to find safety and security in less than welcoming places elsewhere.

Michel Agier and his colleagues have provided a carefully researched study, combining detailed empirical research with a critical analysis of the wider context.

The first part of the book explains the background to these developments, with the “Schengen process” attempting to control and criminalise newcomers from outside the EU rather than focusing upon the reception and integration of asylum-seekers and refugees.

The French government comes in for particular criticism for its almost entirely negative responses, showing “firmness” if not so much of the “humanity” that the official approach claimed.

But British governments have been similarly culpable, both sets of government having been particularly inhumane in their shocking failure to respond to the plight of unaccompanied children.  

There is a particular irony here, given the military interventions that triggered so much violence in the Middle East, producing so many refugees in the first place.   

The book goes on to provide detailed accounts of the Jungle itself, described as “an informal place of coexistence between communities with different cultures, languages and trajectories.”

In this precarious settlement, with up to 10,000 inhabitants at its peak, people found ways of surviving, setting up shops and restaurants, making out in diverse ways.

This was perhaps “a caricature of the opposition between two conflicting models for the town of the twenty-first century,” with “authoritarian order, tight security, rigidity, endless controls, the prohibition of personal activities, the negation of individuality” on the one hand, as exemplified by official approaches — contrasted with the unofficial aspects — “disorder and recycling, a logic of makeshift and cooperation” which was also ecological and social. 

This was described as a place of control and chaos, despair but also hope.

Michel Agier and his colleagues also describe the agencies of support, the established NGOs and the less formal activists, including young British activists who came to provide practical support and to offer solidarity in the face of officialdom.

When the Jungle was finally dispersed, this was officially presented as a success story, enabling the former residents to have improved material conditions elsewhere, but there was also evidence of unfair treatment and police harassment.

These were evidently politicising experiences for the young activists involved.

The conclusions point to the ways in which this was more than a shameful and unworthy episode. On the contrary, the experience illustrates global processes too, as nation states tighten their borders against particular foreign populations, “generally the most precarious and those coming from the countries of the South.”  

Readers might have appreciated further discussion of these wider implications, together with the implications for developing more critical understandings of urbanism in the context of 21st century globalisation.

But this is perhaps to ask for too much from such a relatively brief but very accessible account.

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