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No Border in Calais

June 30th, 2009 · post by anon · 7 Comments

I’m home again after 5 days of camping and cooking in a park in Calais for the cause of freedom of movement for all. No Border camps have taken place all over Europe and even once on the Mexican border over the last few years to bring people together, highlight issues around migration and provide a radical critique of the inequalities created by capitalism.

The Calais camp was a joint venture between UK and French No Borders activists, significant due to its location as a gateway to the UK in which serious humanitarian issues have arisen especially since the closure of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. Up to 1000 migrants at any one time, mostly young men from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq but also other places, have been living in makeshift camps called ‘jungles’ on the outskirts of town, in the dunes and woods, waiting for their opportunity to cross into the UK where they hope to claim asylum or find work. Their situation is very precarious, and they face constant hassle from the authorities, who detain them at random, will occasionally stage a big round up or clear camps violently, or just plain harass them. Anti police feeling is pretty strong amongst the migrants (something we noticed during the camp).

An exhibition from Greece

An exhibition in the camp

Arrival

We got there with our mobile kitchen on the morning of Wednesday the 24th, at which point the camp set up was pretty much complete. There was running water, electricity, compost loos, a ’shower’ (i.e. some tarps surrounding pallets on the ground with a tap – good enough when it was as hot as it was), and a few large tents and marquees for workshops and extra sleeping spaces. Action medics and trauma support were also present, staffed mainly by UK activists as far as I could tell. And there were 3 kitchens – one from Belgium and one from France, and then us. We worked together to feed the 500 or so No Border campers along with the many migrants who visited and stayed at the site over the days, bringing numbers up to 900 at times.

The atmosphere was pretty unique. Partly amazing, partly quite difficult. For a start, the motorway right next to the camp was a constant, incessantly noisy reminder of the free flow of goods but not people between the UK and France, with a truly mind boggling amount of lorries thundering past at all hours of day and night. I didn”t get a good night’s sleep throughout the camp, especially not with the inevitable ‘Police invading the site! Everyone wake up!’ at 3am calls.

Over 2000 cops were drafted in to deal with the camp. French police are scary. There is also a disconcerting amount of plain clothes cops in deployment, including plain clothes riot police who have assorted bits of non-uniform kit and weapons at their disposal and go round harassing people. As well as making life difficult for the migrants the cops stopped, searched, harassed and arrested campers for minor offences arbitrarily, and even ’shut down’ the site for half the day, not letting anyone leave.

plain-clothes-riot-cop

What was the camp like?

There was a sense of vagueness to the camp. There was a workshop programme, although fairly sparse and with seemingly random timing. One night there was meant to be a gig but that never happened, other times I just really couldn’t tell what was meant to be happening at all. Site meetings were unfocused and went on seemingly forever, while being translated into 5 languages and discussing every detail of everything ever. And despite self organised security, it didn’t feel particularly safe.

This became a bit of an issue over time. At any ‘liberated zone’/camp like this I’ve experienced dfficulties with antisocial behaviour, sexism and violence alongside the prevailing efforts by most to get along and share responsibility. This camp however had more than its fair share of this; one night an Afghan got cut in the chest with a knife by another migrant – some kind of dispute no one really managed to shed any light on – a fair few things were nicked out of tents including out of our kitchen (I’ve yet to check whether my favourite knife is still there.. fingers crossed); and a lot of women especially felt unsafe at the camp with incidents of men hanging round tents asking women if they could come in and sexual harassment. However in true DIY form women organised to improve this situation, taking turns patrolling the area.

Actions

Already in the run up to the camp you could find a whole host of ridiculous right wing news stories of violent anarchists intent on helping migrants flood Britain. This continued during the camp, and Peter Allan of the Daily Mail should be commended for his efforts; his headline in the Daily Mail before the camp claimed “Riot police descend on Calais as anarchists incite migrants to tear down border controls and make for Britain” followed by “Police arrest 47 anarchists threatening to lead swarms of illegal migrants through Channel tunnel to Britain” on Friday.

No such actions happened, of course, but people kept themselves busy. Campers went out to help with the regular voluntary food distribution, visited the jungles, helped resist the eviction in town of a building squatted by Eritreans (which did get evicted though in the end), leafletted in the town centre (which in a shiny example of overzealous policing resulted in 20 arrests!), and made graffittis. One morning 30 people went and locked on to and blockaded a nearby detention centre. One evening in the middle of serving dinner a bunch of people suddenly ran straight from the camp onto the motorway with some banners, then ran off back into the camp. The amassing cops shut down the motorway themselves then for at least an hour, and chucked smoke bombs and gas right into the campsite.

People getting onto the motorway

People getting onto the motorway

gas

The cops fire gas and smoke into the campsite

Saturday’s Demo

demo-people

A large demonstration (’manifestation’ in Euro-speak) had been called for the Saturday. We stayed behind to cook (and in the resulting peaceful, deserted atmosphere on site, we engaged in a bit of necessary cleaning!) but this is what my mate who went told me:

“We left the campsite with about 400 people, in a big block to meet the demo; the cops wanted to search everyone and made a cordon, but so many people managed to get around it they gave up on the idea. They stopped people a couple more times, and randomly blocked routes, but let us get to the meeting point at the lighthouse in the end.

banner-fight2

There was a loudspeaker van, a lot of French groups such as CNT-AIT (syndicalist union) and NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) and about 1000 to 1500 of us in all. The route that had been twice revised in the negotiations with the cops was a bit shit, it kept us out of the city centre and we wandered around deserted roads. The cops seemed to be expecting Strasbourg mark 2 with every bit of equipment you’ve ever seen – water cannon, full body armour, teargas launchers, mobile fencing, horses – and they blocked every side street. We were even followed by a fire engine – just in case! We ended up back at the lighthouse and there were some speeches and music.”

cops

There were very few migrants on the demo, understandably concerned for their position amongst that many cops! The demonstration didn’t seem to make a strong connection to the camp, for example the unionists bussed in got bussed straight out again, without so much as a cup of tea at the camp.

Practical Support

Also on Saturday we made some extra food in our kitchen and some people took it out to distribute. One of them recounts:

“Two organisations, Salaam and Belle Etoile, have been organising food distribution to migrants. On Friday we went along to Belle Etoile’s lunch which they serve every Monday-Friday at 2pm – for 15 years! It’s done in a big carpark next to the police station, so the cops will watch it from afar without interfering. Helping illegal migrants is actually illegal, but it’s tolerated in this case, especially as Belle Etoile have links to regional government. Salaam, who serve up dinners every day of the week, get more hassle. So on Friday, Belle Etoile told the migrants that we would be there on Saturday wiith lunch. So we showed up there, a little bit late but with lots of food, and the few who were there went off to tell others to come. We probably fed about 100 people there. We also handed out bars of soap the medics had given us. People seemed pleased to see us and were chatty, asking us who we were. We also went and got some fruit and chocolate for people. This French dude came and said he had friends in the Afghan jungle, so went there together with the rest of the food. It looked like a protest site there, without the treehouses or munters. There were maybe 30 people there, and we all sat down together and ate, it was a nice atmosphere. They made us makeshift seats to sit on and we got a lot of thank yous. Tomorrow we’ll be going to another jungle some others have already visited, with food and also to build treehouses.”

Action medics got stuck in with practical support too; visiting the food distributions, squats and the jungles. A friend told me how on Sunday they treated people with a whole range of health issues, however there was a lot of scabies and impetigo which really needed hospital treatment which the migrants have very limited access to.

graff

I left on Sunday, easily getting a lift onto the ferry as opposed to having to hide underneath a lorry. The people at the ferry check in didn’t even heap scorn on us as they easily identified us as campers; instead they agreed that the massive police presence was overkill and the situation was difficult for migrants. Back home and away from the stresses of cooking, the unease at the underlying threats of sexism and more, as well as all the police harassment, I’m glad I was able to participate in such a unique coming together, to attempt to overcome divisions and challenge the foundations of society based on exploitative inequalities.

http://calaisnoborder.eu.org/

For an incredible photo documentation of migrants in Calais have a look at http://www.contre-faits.org/spip.php?article78 – the article is in French but scrolling down you will find the black and white photographs

calais21

→ 7 CommentsThis entry belongs to the following categories: Articles · resistance

7 responses so far

  • Malik posted:
    Jul 2, 2009 at 10:06 am. Comment #1

    Nice post, I really felt the same way about it, I think with some of the organizational problems in mind: Too long futile meetings centered around how to make a camp instead of better workshop etc. We now maybe how to make an even better and more constructive no borders camp. Anyway the police repression was also a serious stress factor the really pissed me off, I mean so many cops just to survail a peace event of sharing knowlegde.

  • Ronel posted:
    Jul 3, 2009 at 11:34 pm. Comment #2

    Hi! Thanks for the post. it was important and interesting to read about it. I didnt know of this convention but it sounds that if it would ran well it could yield interesting results. however it also sounds a bit intense and frustrating. I really appreciated the sincere tone of the article. I think it really helps to think about future conventions. I think it would be really good if organizing committee would start thinking more about how to make a safer space regarding sexism..
    anyways thanks alot :)

  • camper posted:
    Jul 7, 2009 at 12:20 pm. Comment #3

    one of the main things missed from this article is the particpation of migrants in last meetings of the camp – as far as i know – (from the three previous no borders camps i’ve been too) a first.

    while conflict amongst the migrants is hardly any surprise, and i wouldn’t wish to cover that up, people – calaisians, afghans, kurds most of the time got on well – particpated together in the putting together of the camp – and in the final decsion making. in retrospect, there was clearly going to be sexism issues – which i think it is fair to say that no one had given any serious thought too before the camp. i guess

    i don’t want to diminish the importance of the potential loss of your favourite knife, but given the massive issues we were attempting to address at the camp I question whether the minor theft (s) were really worth reporting ?

    workshop wise, i put on the workshops that had been offered, the call out for workshops only went put 2 months before the camp started, and with uncertainty about structure (whether we would have any!) the workshop co-ordinator done the best he could. sorry if it wasn;t good enough. – maybe you could contribute to it next time if you have any better ideas/ more time to put into it.

    thanks for the food though.

  • anon posted:
    Jul 19, 2009 at 7:40 pm. Comment #4

    Thanks for all the comments! I think the article sounded more frustrated than I actually was; I thought the camp was really inspiring. I agree with the 3rd comment that I should have included more on the positive migrant involvement that happened, it would have made it more balanced too. I do think the – definitely minor – thefts and other incidents were worth reporting but only in the context of acknowledging safety as a general problem in autonomous spaces, and thinking about how to make this better in an inclusive and autonomousway.

    An important update: The French government are planning to evict one or more of the jungles THIS WEEK, in a big ‘clear up’. Solidarity and support is needed – there is a demo at the French embassy on Monday 20th July, 12.30-2pm at Knightsbridge in London SW1X 7JT; also see http://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/

  • george posted:
    Jul 22, 2009 at 11:04 pm. Comment #5

    What puzzles me, is why these migrants are not able to just settle in France. Why do they want to come to England? Are the pavements made of gold in England, or something?

  • bod posted:
    Jul 24, 2009 at 1:05 pm. Comment #6

    This last week in Calais, with some migrants who spoke good English, we were able to have some decent conversations about the NB camp, and in particular why people want to come to England. A lot of the responses were along the lines of people had learnt English, to come to England, not French, and they wanted to see that through. Also there are more migrant communities in England, whereas in France people felt it was a more racist (they hadn’t experienced England yet) and assimilationist country. ie in France you had to become French, in England you could be what you wanted. And there is more opportunity to moonshine in UK.

    When asked about the camp, chatting with a group of Iranians and Kurds still living at the NB camp site, they said they were happy with the camp, they appreciated the showers, the food and the police relatively left them alone during the camp, though it was difficult to get into the camp past the police. It was quieter in the ‘jungles’, but after the camp the police have been worse (one of our concerns), “you fucking asylum seekers” was quoted as a common bit of French community policing. More racism was mentioned.

    People liked lots of activists coming, but then when everyone goes, and it’s still hard (or impossible) to get to England, they wonder where people are who can help them. Also there have been more plain clothes police patrolling the lorry park up on the other side of the motorway from the camp.

    Talking to an Afghan in another ‘jungle’, when asked how we could work together more, WITH migrants not FOR them his two main suggestions where to get action medics over here (he was interested in the whole action medic set up we have) as he could put them in touch with migrants with medic skills and they could work together to provide medic aid – the PASS clinic is near the centre of town and it is common for police to pick people up on the way there, especially as lot of people if they are injured can’t run away, and drop them off 3km out of town. Nice eh? Common injuries are from police attacks – physical beatings and asthma related stuff from tear gas, and injuries from attempting to get onto lorries, either from the lorries themselves and their contents or being stabbed by people smugglers of you have a go without having paid your fee.

    The other suggestion was to get in touch with Afghans (in the case of his community) with status in UK who could come to Calais and offer solidarity. This would deal with language issues. Problem here though is that if you have Refugee status in UK you still need a visa to travel (to France as well I think), and it’s obviously not a safe place for anyone who isn’t white.

    Nice article above by the way, and interesting comments. Refreshing after ploughing through the shit that stands for comment on indymedia at the moment ;)

  • maria posted:
    Sep 18, 2009 at 9:25 pm. Comment #7

    george said:
    ‘What puzzles me, is why these migrants are not able to just settle in France. Why do they want to come to England? Are the pavements made of gold in England, or something?’

    Well, they are obviously not paved with gold and the food is shit also.
    But, maybe they have family/friends in england or feel they have a better chance at work there. The point is – why shouldn’t they come to england and see for themselves if they want to? Afterall, you can go to France whenever you feel like. can’t you?