From Calais to Dover: the widening gulf

Sophie Roumat spent the summer in Calais working with the No Borders Network. This is her account of what she saw in the run-up to the destruction of 'The Jungle'.

Photo © Fil Kaler 2009

Last month’s destruction of a camp of Afghan asylum seekers in Calais, known as the 'Jungle', took place in the full glare of the international media, engendering criticism for the police’s harsh treatment of the migrants. All but one of the long-term squats have now been destroyed, and the war of attrition against the migrants continues. The migrants remain in Calais, either living fully exposed to the elements or trying to reconstruct new communities, which are also getting attacked on a regular basis. Happily, so too does the solidarity offered by international human rights activists.

The Mirage

On a clear day you could see them, the White Cliffs of Dover. Desperately near, the warm August air distorted the image like a mirage. We were drinking sickly sweet Palestinian tea on a platform squatted by migrants, overlooking the Calais harbour front. Cruelly close to the ferry terminal, we were sitting on an old sofa, looking out as they did every day at the boats bringing tourists to and fro. ‘Up to 71 crossings a day’, boasted P&O Cruises.

This was Calais, temporary home to hundreds of migrants seeking entry to Britain. An Anglo-French deterrence strategy forced to live in inadequate conditions in ad-hoc communities, or ‘Jungles’, divided along ethnic/linguistic lines. There were Afghans, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Iranians, Kurds, Vietnamese, Palestinians and Iraqis, and a shockingly large number of children living without their parents. All the communities were squatted, only one had running water, and they lacked any waste or wastewater disposal facilities. In addition to the widespread mental health problems, the outbreak of a scabies epidemic had been the corollary of these living conditions.

The problems were compounded by the fact they were living a day-to-day existence, unable to plan for life in Calais – for to do so would be to admit defeat. Every night they would make a ‘try’ for Britain, risking their lives to cross the Channel – often by climbing aboard moving lorries. The falls might break their bones, and repeated failures – or chancing the wrong truck and arriving in Belgium – would severely damage morale. Some gave up entirely and left after around a year. Yet news of those who made it to the other side spurred everybody on.

Every night they would make a ‘try’ for Britain, risking their lives to cross the Channel – often by climbing aboard moving lorries.The falls might break their bones, and repeated failures – or chancing the wrong truck and arriving in Belgium – would severely damage morale

Like Bilal, a deeply troubled 13-year-old Pashtun boy, they were willing to go to such lengths because their lives had been made intolerable in their home countries. He longed to go to school but said this had become increasingly difficult since Taliban fighters regularly sought young recruits in the Madrasahs.

These people were civilians caught in the crossfire of the ‘war on terror’, ex-soldiers fleeing conscription, and political dissidents.

They are forced to take such dangerous transit routes as British immigration law necessitates clandestine entry. As asylum claims cannot be lodged from abroad (even within the zones of juxtaposed immigration control in northern France), the only real alternative to this highly dangerous method of entry is by obtaining a visa or by the use of false documents. To acquire a visa you must show that you have sufficient funds, as well as an intention to return to your own country. For many asylum-seekers, it is therefore simply out of the question.

The shared language, family connections and sometimes distorted notions about the country made Britain the destination of choice for the migrants I met. Yet their resoluteness was also in part due to experiences of racism and police harassment in continental Europe.

Guarding Fortress Europe

To many Western Europeans, Calais could be any other French tourist resort, complete with seaside restaurants, immaculately kept public gardens blooming with twee floral displays, and that Earth from the Air photography exhibition. Yet just beneath the surface, the French authorities are playing a sinister game. EU border controls are being implemented with shocking brutality. The CRS – the French public order police – raid the communities, destroy their shelters, beat people and satisfy arrest quotas on a near-daily basis.

During my time there, they also resorted to such low tactics as releasing pepper spray on a water point – severely irritating the eyes of the migrants who used it – and pouring cooking oil over an Eritrean’s bedding. In another disturbing incident, an unidentified group wearing masks and white overalls destroyed a camp occupied by Hazara migrants from Afghanistan under the pretext of an anti-scabies operation. They tore apart shelters and sprayed chemicals over their belongings, claiming that they were ‘disinfecting’ the area. All this took place under the gaze of the CRS. It was the destruction of the largest community – the Pashtun Jungle – in September which finally brought the crisis to the fore. Yet the corporate media turned its attention elsewhere, while one by one all the other communities were destroyed, their inhabitants rounded up and held in police cells or detention centres.

This has had the effect of forcing the migrants onto the streets, and some are simply setting up new ‘Jungles’ elsewhere. These are being immediately attacked. Many have consequently sought shelter under the bridges near the free food distribution site, and children as young as 10 are sleeping rough with even fewer possessions than they had before.

Dismantling the Fortress

Back in June, in response to news of police repression, activists from the No Borders Network mobilized to set up a different kind of camp. They created an educational and social space for migrants, No Borders activists, and locals alike. Calais residents were encouraged to show solidarity with the migrants in the face of police violence, and demonstrations and direct action took place in a bid to highlight the crisis.

But it was only with the Interior Ministry’s announcement of plans to permanently destroy the Jungles that a sustained No Borders presence in Calais was launched.

Yet the corporate media turned its attention elsewhere, while one by one all the other communities were destroyed, their inhabitants rounded up and held in police cells or detention centres

Under the banner of ‘Calais Migrant Solidarity’, activists from Western Europe patrolled the various sites when the squats were most vulnerable. Our presence was very effective, with the police repeatedly driving by when they saw us, but returning to attack upon our departure. We also managed to thwart arrests by showing up with video cameras and directly confronting the CRS. Our other activities included providing medical assistance to the migrants – lack of water often results in injuries turning septic – and disseminating practical information about the asylum process in Britain and guidance on French immigration law. We also donated blankets and helped transport water and other supplies.

Following the destruction of the Hazara camp, we joined forces with the migrants and a number of small charities working in the area, supplying tents to reconstruct the camp that same day. We also mobilized to help resist the destruction of the Pashtun camp by forming a human chain around its inhabitants – nearly half of whom were by this point frightened children. We provided banner-making materials enabling the migrants – many of whom spoke little French or English – to communicate their frustration. We always acted in solidarity with them and never carried out an action which directly concerned them without their consent.

In turn, many migrants welcomed us warmly, showing incredible hospitality. We shared meals and discussed politics. They recounted moving stories about the situation in their homelands, or about their journey to Calais. Ahmed – the gentlest man you could wish to meet – fled military conscription in Eritrea. When I asked him about his wristband, inscribed with the words ‘I Miss You’, he told me it was a reference to his wife, with whom he had fled Eritrea and crossed the Sahara. Like so many others, they then endured a long period in detention in Libya, before crossing the Mediterranean in a heavily laden boat. Yet upon arrival, Ahmed and his wife were forcibly separated and held in different detention facilities. He hadn’t heard from her since. Two years on, he had almost given up trying to make contact with her.

Some wash up in Calais traumatized. One new Eritrean arrival immediately recounted his story, as though I were the first person to listen to him. He thanked me profusely for doing so. Simply befriending people and listening was one of the most valuable things we could do, particularly in view of the racist assaults and hostility they had experienced in Europe. It is cruelly ironic that the Pashtuns, often regarded as some of the world’s most hospitable people, should simply have the door of Fortress Europe slammed in their faces.

In spite of – and perhaps as a result of – their precarious existence, there were many attempts to create a semblance of normality in Calais. Migrants – children in particular – always take up the opportunity to have a ride on our bikes. The Hazaras adopted a stray kitten and gave it the affection its mother couldn’t. The Sudanese on the harbour front angled their sofa and chairs in the direction of a broken TV – creating a sort of mock living room. Yet even this familiar scene of domesticity, exposed on the harbour side as it was, offered little shelter from the harsh manifestation of a deeply divisive and inhumane EU border regime.

What you can do to support migrants in Calais

The only direct solidarity the migrants are receiving comes from grassroots charities and the No Borders Network.

*Come to Calais! Please see the Calais Migrant Solidarity website for more details: *Help with translation, first aid, counselling, or legal advice *Help publicize the human rights abuses in Calais *Donate to the Calais Migrant Solidarity campaign. We desperately need funds to provide migrants with shelter post-eviction: Please make a transfer to the Calais No Borders bank account. Unfortunately, as this is an international bank account (IBAN), transfers can only be made over the phone, and not over the internet. Account Holder : ASS A L D I R IBAN : FR76 1350 7001 4747 0335 7190 547 BIC : CCBPFRPPLIL Bank: Banque Populaire du Nord