The Calais Jungle

For many Britons, the refugee camp at Calais must have seemed like the crucible of the European migration crisis in 2015. It was the focus of British media coverage: the place where British drivers became trapped in endless tailbacks as police searched vehicles for stowaways attempting to reach the promised land of Kent.

But though the plight of those in Calais was as wretched as anywhere else in Europe, it was nevertheless just one small part of a much wider conundrum. At its peak, the camp probably housed no more than 8,000 inhabitants - a tiny fraction of the more than one million people who arrived by boat on Europe’s shores that year. As The Guardian’s then-migration correspondent, I reported from 17 countries along the migration trails to and through Europe in 2015. I only reported once from Calais.

How did this happen? Let’s rewind a bit.

People have always tried to reach Europe (and Calais) by irregular means. In most years, since the turn of the millennium, around 100,000 people have attempted the trip, usually smuggled in a boat to Italy, Spain or Greece - or over Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey. These arrivals tended to stoke sporadic media outcry. But in comparison to the European Union’s total population (of around 500 million) or the number of people displaced worldwide (roughly 60 million), they were almost statistically irrelevant.

In 2011, a wave of uprisings along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coastline, known in the West as the Arab Spring, began to pose a more serious challenge.

The bloodshed that ensued either forced many more people to flee certain Arab states (in particular, Syria). Or they destabilised others (in particular, Libya) to the extent that their governments were no longer able or willing to stop their shores being used as springboards to Europe.

At first, Europe was not particularly affected. The vast majority of displaced Syrians initially stayed in the region - in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. But by 2014, a sizable minority had had enough of living in limbo.

The Syrian war showed no sign of ending; troops from Iran and Lebanon had joined the Syrian regime in fighting back the revolutionaries, while the revolutionaries themselves, lacking meaningful international support, were falling increasingly under jihadi influence. So for most Syrian refugees, returning home was not an option.

But neither was staying put in the neighbouring countries of the Middle East. The vast majority of Syrian refugees were not allowed to work legally, while many children did not have access to education. Then their United Nations handouts were cut. And it eventually became apparent that Western countries like Britain had no interest in allowing many of them to enter legally, through the various resettlement schemes run by the UN.

So in 2014, thousands reached the logical conclusion that there was little point to staying on the other side of the Mediterranean - and decided to move to Europe for the chance of a better life. That year, a record 170,000 people reached Italy by boat. The biggest proportion of them were Syrians, followed by Eritreans fleeing the totalitarian dictatorship in Asmara.

In 2015, a similar number of people left Libya for Europe - but most of them were sub-Saharan Africans rather than Syrians. Instead, Syrians had found a new route: across the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, and then onwards through the Balkans, across Hungary, to wealthy countries in northern Europe like Germany and Sweden. A relatively small number tried to make it to Britain.

It was this discovery of the Aegean crossing by so many Syrians - accompanied by smaller numbers of Afghans and Iraqis - that created the crisis of 2015. Suddenly, refugees realized that they no longer needed to risk the dangers of Libya to get to Europe. They could travel just a few miles in a rubber dinghy to Lesvos, Chios and Kos, to name three of the Greek islands that became the most popular entry points to Europe that year. This new route was marginally less dangerous, and considerably shorter and cheaper - allowing families to travel together, instead of just their fathers or brothers.

By early September, a new record annual number of migrants had already arrived in Europe - but mainly through Greece this time, rather than Italy. Their passage through the continent created chaos in train stations and border posts throughout Central and Eastern Europe, with governments unsure how to respond.

The crisis came to a head on 2 September, when newspapers published a picture of a Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, whose drowned corpse had washed up on a Turkish beach.

Attempting to manage an unmanageable situation, the countries along the migrant route, led by Angela Merkel, began to streamline how people moved through Europe after landing in Greece. A series of special buses and trains shunted people towards Germany, often within just a couple of days. The move brought a sense of order to the chaos - but it also encouraged even more people to brave the journey to Europe.

Even when Hungary built a fence along its southern border, migrants were undeterred, shifting westwards through Croatia instead.

The flow only really ebbed in March 2016, when the Turkish government agreed to crack down on the smuggling industry, in exchange for billions of euros from the European Union. Smuggling was drastically reduced, almost overnight. Some migration to Greece continues to this day - but only at pre-crisis levels. And once people reach Greece, they find it harder to leave. There are no more buses and trains to ferry them towards Germany. Instead, thousands find themselves stuck in limbo in squalid camps on the Greek islands.

For more than a year, flows between Libya and Italy remained at peak levels. But in August 2017, they tailed off - after Italy paid off several of the Libyan militias involved in the smuggling business. Like in the Aegean, some smuggling continues in the southern Mediterranean — and across the straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco. Some 30,000 people arrived by boat in Europe in the first five months of this year — and a small minority of them eventually reached Calais, hoping to cross the Channel to Britain. But the Jungle is no more — it was destroyed by police in October 2016. The crisis of 2015 has ended, leaving two new quandaries in its wake: The challenge of integration, and the rise of the far-right.

Patrick Kingsley is the author of The New Odyssey: the Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis