The Politics of Exhaustion: Immigration Control in the British-French Border Zone

By Marta Welander

Within a climate of growing anti-immigration and populist forces gaining traction across Europe, and in response to the increased number of prospective asylum seekers arriving in Europe, recent years have seen the continued hardening of borders and a disconcerting evolution of new forms of immigration control measures utilised by states. Based on extensive field research carried out amongst displaced people in Europe in 2016-2019, this article highlights the way in which individuals in northern France are finding themselves trapped in a violent border zone, unable to move forward whilst having no obvious alternative way out of their predicament. The article seeks to illustrate the violent dynamics inherent in the immigration control measures in this border zone, characterised by both direct physical violence as well as banalised and structural forms of violence, including state neglect through the denial of services and care. The author suggests that the raft of violent measures and micro practices authorities resort to in the French-British border zone could be understood as constituting one of the latest tools for European border control and obstruction of the access to asylum procedures; a Politics of Exhaustion.

Eviction of the Calais 'Jungle' Continues, 2016. Photo credit: Rob Pinney.


Across Europe, individuals arriving with the hope of seeking international protection often face severe forms of obstruction of access to the European asylum system and procedures. Arguably a reflection of European states’ attempts to appease the growing ‘populist right’ and anxious populations, and potentially as a reaction to the deadlock surrounding the reform negotiations surrounding the Common European Asylum System, an often unforgiving implementation of deterrence policies signals states’ eroding willingness and ability to uphold their obligations under international human rights law, including the right to seek asylum. The ways in which European states achieve this obstruction of access to asylum are wide-ranging, but could be broadly grouped into three main approaches: the externalisation of asylum and migration management to non-European countries such as Turkey, Libya and Morocco; push-backs conducted without proper legal formalities and deprivation of liberty through restrictions of people's freedom of movement as well as in the context of detentions; and the denial of safe and legal routes to seek asylum in certain countries such as the United Kingdom.

In the specific case of the United Kingdom, its juxtaposed border arrangements with France (Home Office 2017) mean that safe and legal routes to seek asylum in Britain are next to non-existent,[1] and have led to the emergence of a ‘border zone’ stretching from Calais and Grande-Synthe in northern France to the capitals of Brussels and Paris if not further afield. Within this border zone, a violence producing Politics of Exhaustion[2] plays out, with the objective of ‘exhausting [prospective] asylum seekers, mentally and physically, with the ultimate goal of deterring them from approaching Britain for asylum, or indeed other European asylum system.’ (Welander 2019). The article draws both on research and policy engagement carried out by Refugee Rights Europe under the author’s leadership, as well as qualitative field research interviews and participant observations which the author carried out in her capacity of PhD researcher at the University of Westminster. The latter included 75 formal and informal interviews with displaced individuals and volunteer aid workers and volunteers in Calais, Paris and Brussels throughout 2018-2019, and allow for further exploration of the dynamics of the Politics of Exhaustion in the subsequent sections of this article.

The emergence of a politics of exhaustion in the British-French border zone

As part of the Politics of Exhaustion, displaced individuals in the French-British border zone face a high intensity of regular evictions of living spaces, random detention, removals, deportations and dispersals, untreated health problems, below-standard living conditions, and the continuous threat or reality of violence. However, rather than seen as isolated and reactive instances of violence, uprooting and intimidation, the micro practices and measures resorted to here are best understood as forming a high-level strategic state approach aimed at preventing individuals from crossing the British border and enter the asylum system there. This has very serious impacts on the lived realities of individuals in the border zone. The concept ‘Politics of Exhaustion’ was first introduced by the author alongside Dr Leonie Ansems De Vries of King’s College London, in the context of the Calais camp in 2016 (Welander and Ansems De Vries 2016).

The Politics of Exhaustion is made up of both overt forms of physical violence perpetrated against displaced people by police officers, as well as banalised and structural violence[3] (Galtung 1969), including what could be referred to as ‘active neglect’ (Loughnan 2019) whereby state actors withdraw services and care to produce suffering. Loughnan (2019) introduced the term ‘active neglect’ in the context of asylum seekers at Australia’s doorstep, which she defines as the removal of government support services combined with the erosion of hope and wellbeing amongst refugees and asylum seekers through unfulfilled promises and refusals. Such ‘active neglect’, a form of indirect violence perpetrated against prospective asylum seekers, is an inherent part of the Politics of Exhaustion, and its harmful effects are testament to the violent nature of such policies. As such, the Politics of Exhaustion is a strategic and conscious approach to mobility governance, rooted in the exhaustion of human efforts to cross certain borders. In the case of the UK, it takes shape as an extension of the British domestic ‘hostile environment’, exported to French territory through bilateral agreements (Prime Minister’s Office 2018) and juxtaposed border controls in France (Home Office 2017) as well as vast amounts of British funding (Full Fact 2018).

While northern France has been a migratory nodal point for many decades, the Politics of Exhaustion in this border zone arguably reached its first notable peak during the existence of the so-called Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in 2015-2016; an informal camp built by volunteers and displaced individuals themselves, which at its height hosted up to 10,000 individuals. During this period, the politics of exhaustion mainly took the shape of large-scale evictions and a successively shrinking living space for an ever-growing population, as well as detention, indiscriminate use of tear gas, police violence and the obstruction of aid (Welander and Ansems De Vries 2016a; Refugee Rights Europe 2016a). In March 2016, a court ruling permitted the French state authorities to proceed and demolish the southern part of the camp, which was home to several hundred individuals, including many family units. This inevitably led to the containment of all camp residents within a much more confined space, which sparked heightened tensions and allowed for fires to spread more quickly, and generally created an increasingly difficult daily existence in the camp.

Some seven months later, in October 2016, the camp was eventually demolished in its entirety, partly flattened to the ground by bulldozers and partly going up in flame through explosive fires. Several thousand former camp residents fled the war-like scene and continued to attempt the border crossing from other nearby locations, while others were taken on coaches to French asylum reception centres across the country. A scandalous failure to ensure the safeguarding of children in the camp meant that hundreds of children were unaccounted for and were lost in the process (BBC News 2016; Welander and Ansems De Vries 2016b; Taylor 2016).

The aftermath of the ‘Jungle’ and the continuation of exhaustion

The period that followed, from October 2016 onwards, was characterised by a sustained period of complete destitution and systematic police intimidation, which included seemingly nonsensical if not outright bizarre practices, where the absence of a camp forced individuals into hiding in small forests and woodlands in and around Calais. Repeated evictions of makeshift living spaces, coupled with dispersals, uprooting and sleep deprivation made people’s existence in the border zone riddled with exhaustion and mental health concerns. Many of those individuals who had been dispersed across France to asylum reception and orientation centres (Centres d'accueil et d'orientation, CAO) to have their asylum or family reunion claims processed at the time of the Jungle camp clearance, would start to make their way back to the Calais area in order to ‘take matters into own hands’ (Refugee Rights Europe 2017). During the same period, an investigation by the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations departments found evidence that police has used ‘excessive force and committed other abuses against child and adult migrants in Calais’ (Human Rights Watch, 2017). In the same period, Human Rights Watch found that police in Calais, in particular the so-called Compagnies républicaines de sécurité (CRS), would use pepper spray on both children and adults alike, including whilst sleeping and in other contexts where they posed no threat. The same report highlighted how police officers would also “regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing; and sometimes use pepper spray on migrants’ food and water. Police also disrupt the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” (Human Rights Watch, 2017).

In January 2018, France and Britain signed the Sandhurst Treaty, which involved an additional funding commitment of £44.5 million towards fencing, CCTV and detection technology in Calais and other Channel ports. The amount complemented the previous British investment of approximately £100 million. On the occasion, then-Prime Minister Theresa May stated: ‘The further investment we have agreed today will make the UK's borders even more secure’ (France 24 2018). In stark juxtaposition to this large-scale infusion of additional funding for ‘border security’, aid supplies and donations directed at human security saw a steady depletion due to the systematic confiscation and destruction of tents and personal belongings by police which required constant renewal of supplies at a rate that was often more rapid than incoming public donations in the warehouse run by the aid groups on the ground.

The impediment of aid work, exhaustion of supplies, and widespread sense of hopelessness in the face of destructive and unforgiving state policies would start to induce an increasing burn-out and depression amongst volunteers and aid groups (The Guardian 2017). Sustained over time, the same policies and practices have contributed to an increasingly deteriorating mental health situation amongst sleep-deprived and abused displaced people. In October 2018, a team of mental health experts on the ground noted ‘clear signs of depression, anxiety and hopelessness as people get trapped in a cycle of rejection from countries across Europe and in the case of northern France, at the border, with no obvious way out of their predicament’ (Lloyd et al, 2018). A few months later, in April 2019, a trauma expert stated with concern:

‘There’s a lack of sleep, degradation of humanity, people not feeling human. All of this has significant impact on mental health. […] I think it’s got worse, increasingly, worryingly.’ (Anonymous interview in Calais, 24 April 2019).

Politics of Exhaustion, a subtle yet inherently violent approach to immigration control

Politics of Exhaustion is a relatively subtle approach to mobility governance, compared to the more drastic and overtly illegal alternatives of mass-detention, blanket returns and refoulement. This makes this particular approach to immigration control more difficult to challenge from a legal perspective. As such, the Politics of Exhaustion could be understood as a manner in which liberal democracies continue to both counter-act and seemingly uphold their status as law abiding nations at the same time, operating functioning asylum systems and paying lip service to international and human rights law. Equally, from a moral stand-point, the Politics of Exhaustion is propped up by the prevalent British policy and media narrative of so called ‘illegal migrants’, providing a moral alibi for the violent maintenance of a sealed border obstructing the access to asylum, unfolding before the eyes of their national constituencies and international watch dogs.

In sum, the concept of Politics of Exhaustion helps to make sense not only of direct physical violence in border zones, but also more banalised violence and micro practices, aiding to our understanding of the inherent role which violence plays in European countries’ immigration control. Taking the French-British border zone as an example, this article has explored a range of measures and micro practices which, taken together as a whole, could be understood as constituting a harmful and violent system of contemporary European immigration control. This approach, which may succeed in appeasing the growing populist right and anxious European populations, stands in tension with states’ ability to uphold international human rights law, whilst arguably adding further fuel to the now widespread toxic rightist and xenophobic discourses witnessed across Europe.

Marta Welander is the Executive Director of the non-governmental human rights organisation Refugee Rights Europe. Under her leadership, the organisation has conducted extensive field research in refugee camps and settlements across Europe, interviewing and surveying more than 6,000 refugees and displaced people, subsequently conducting human rights advocacy work. Marta is a PhD candidate and visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, where she researches European violence and rights violations in the context of the contemporary 'refugee crisis'. Marta holds an MA in Human Rights & Democratic Governance from the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights (EIUC), and an MA in International Relations from King’s College London. Prior to that, she obtained a BA (Hons) in International Relations and Arabic from the University of Westminster.


The author would like to express her sincere gratitude to those displaced individuals, aid workers and volunteers who took part in the various aspects of the field research.

[1] This article refers to safe and legal routes to reach the UK from other European countries (specifically, via France) in order to seek asylum, whilst not referring to resettlement schemes of prospective asylum-seekers of individuals with refugee status from other parts of the world.

[2] The concept is being further developed as part of the author’s ongoing doctoral research project at the University of Westminster, UK. Situated within critical border and migration studies, the project draws explicit attention to the ethical and moral implications of European immigration control in the British-French border zone. It is one of the very few in-depth academic research efforts that have taken place amongst displaced people seeking to cross the British-French border to-date.

[3] Galtung (1969: 170) suggests that undercurrents of violence may be equally harmful: ‘…there may not be violence in the sense that anyone is hit or hurt, but there is nevertheless the threat of physical violence and indirect threat of mental violence that may even be characterized as some type of psychological violence since it constrains human action.’ Written 50 years ago, Galtung’s notion of structural and indirect violence is highly relevant to these contemporary forms of immigration control.


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