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How will Britain’s cities cope with migrant shanty towns?

Ellis Woodman
  • 1 Comment

Brexit or no Brexit, we may have little choice but to respond to the challenges presented by mass migration, says Ellis Woodman

France’s economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, recently warned that if the UK exits the European Union, the agreement which allows British authorities to conduct border checks in France will be rescinded. In such a scenario, the Jungle, the informal encampment on the edge of Calais that currently shelters more than 5,000 refugees and migrants, is likely to relocate to this side of the channel. The UK has seemingly washed its hands of responsibility for resolving the major humanitarian crisis unfolding on its doorstep. Can it continue to do so once a shanty town has taken root at Folkestone?

Brexit or no Brexit, mass migration will be a defining issue for British cities over the coming years and not for the first time. The word ‘refugee’ entered the English language in the 1680s to describe the protestant Huguenots who arrived here fleeing persecution in their native France. Between 1685 and 1688 more than 13,000 arrived in London at a moment when the city’s population stood at a little over half a million. Most settled at Spitalfields – just outside the jurisdiction of the City Guilds – on land that then comprised nurseries and market gardens.

Is it unimaginable that a British city might undergo expansion to accommodate an influx of migrants from Syria or Eritrea?

Is it unimaginable that a British city might again undergo a large localised expansion to accommodate an influx of migrants, this time from war-torn Syria or Eritrea? Such a prospect may not sit easily with the value that our multicultural society places on integration but, given the scale of the crisis – which will only increase if the predictions about the effects of climate change on North Africa prove well-founded – we may have little choice.

German authorities are already finding that the number of refugees they are dealing with can only be adequately accommodated by means of strategies that operate at the scale of a neighbourhood. In Mannheim, a former army base has been appropriated as refugee housing, while in Berlin the redundant Tempelhof airport has been co-opted. There is no way of knowing whether these sites will prove to be ‘camps’ from which refugees will ultimately be repatriated, or new ‘urban districts’ in which they will find permanent residence. For resident and city authority alike, that categorical ambiguity is deeply unsettling. How can one assess the wisdom of making a financial or emotional investment in such a place?

That conflict is nowhere more evident to see than in the Calais Jungle. As desperate an environment as it represents, this settlement has developed an undeniable sense of urbanity, having established shops, restaurants, a church, radio station and other communal facilities. Many were built by volunteers, such as the remarkable Irish architect Grainne Hassett, who was among the speakers at Papers, a festival staged last week by the Architecture Foundation, which addressed cultural responses to the migrant crisis.

Jungle Road, Calais

Jungle Road, Calais

Source: Eddie Blake

Jungle Road, Calais

A number of the buildings Hassett and her team have built at Calais were destroyed within months by the French authorities, who viewed them as perpetuating an environment that is illegal, unsanitary and dangerous. The architect sees it as her duty of care to improve the lives of a community in desperate circumstances. The authorities see the same actions as offering an encouragement to illegal migration. Both, tragically, are right. According to Ben Harrison, a 20-year-old volunteer who also spoke at Papers, many of the Jungle’s residents themselves are resistant to improving conditions there. This is not a place they want to develop any attachment to – or remember.

In our age of mass migration, camps and cities are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish – both places in which residents’ desire for stability and escape are in conflict. The morally complex issues that Hassett is attempting to negotiate may become familiar to a great many more architects soon.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • 'Shanty towns' in the making in places in West London have received coverage in the media (though not, as far as I'm aware, in the architectural world) - a growing proliferation of dormitory sheds and shacks in people's back yards, a reflection of the lack of housing, the demand from low paid workers legal and otherwise, and the fat sums of money to be made.
    And an apparent collapse in building and planning control in some London boroughs - or perhaps seeping corruption.

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