From today until the end of the month, student campaigners from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), including some from Warwick For Free Education, will be travelling to the Calais refugee camps in a solidarity convoy. They will provide essential items called for by those on the ground in Calais, including English dictionaries, sanitary items and waterproof clothing. The trip is loosely coordinated with Calais Migrant Solidarity, a group of activists working to help those passing through and living in the camps challenge the barriers that face them – from police violence to the dangerous Channel crossing.
The situation in Calais is a result of political processes and decisions. From the Horn of Africa to Brussels, from Damascus to Downing Street, cynical power centres are creating the conditions within which the ‘crisis’ in Calais has arisen. As such, the ‘Student Convoy to Calais’ is intended to provide more than just much-needed aid and solidarity. It is as much a political intervention as a humanitarian one, designed to subvert the dominant political discourse pervading the mainstream.
Disciplining and Punishing Refugees
NGO workers in Calais relate how at least two thirds of those passing through the network of camps are asylum seekers, fleeing persecution and war in states such as Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The other third are ‘economic migrants’: those abandoning a life weighed down by poverty and hardship to seek what they hope will be better conditions and treatment in Europe.
The conditions for migrants and asylum seekers in Calais are described by Doctors of the World as “appalling”. They explain: “They all lack essentials such as safe drinking water, adequate food, sanitation and proper shelter. This is causing a huge number of health problems among the migrants, including respiratory and skin problems, diarrhoea as well [as] mental trauma.”
As one Eritrean woman in Calais said to the Guardian, “You cannot even call this a camp”.
These horrific conditions are directly manufactured by the British and French governments in a sick (and doomed) attempt to ‘deter’ migrants from even attempting to come to Europe. As Theresa May wrote in a joint letter with the French Interior Minister:
“We are also working to ensure that people in the horn of Africa understand the stark realities of a dangerous journey that will result in their being returned to their own countries […] Many see Europe, and particularly Britain, as somewhere that offers the prospect of financial gain. This is not the case – our streets are not paved with gold.”
In 2002, David Blunkett, then-British Foreign Minister, met with the French Interior Minister and pressured France to close down the Red Cross centre at Sangatte, one of the few institutions that was able to provide basic shelter and dignity to those who found themselves stranded in Calais. Sangatte was closed because, as Human Rights Watch points out, it was “labelled by the French and UK governments as a pull factor for undocumented migrants seeking to enter the UK”. Our governments saw basic shelter for migrants as a ‘reward’ for their having come here; instead, what they needed was punishment and deterrence.
Another massive eviction occurred in 2009. As a precursor to the latest furore, the French government demolished hundreds of makeshift homes in May and July, “in most cases without any adequate alternative accommodation being provided” (HRW). Despite migrants continuing to arrive for over a decade, the authorities persist in this attempt to discipline and punish refugees through the vicious destruction of what little comforting accommodation they are able to construct. Rather than magically disappear, the evicted sleep rough until they can reconstruct their shelter.
Compounding this, the French police regularly attack and beat migrants, pepper and CS spray them, and break their bones. Numerous correspondents in Calais have reported this, and research from Human Rights Watch has confirmed it:
“In November and December 2014, Human Rights Watch spoke with 44 asylum seekers and migrants in Calais. […] The migrants and asylum seekers described what appear to be routine abuses by police officers when they tried to hide in trucks or as they walked in the town. Nineteen, including two of the children, said police had abused them at least once, including beatings. Eight had visible broken limbs or other injuries, which they alleged were caused by police in Calais and surrounding areas. Twenty one, including two children, said police had sprayed them with pepper spray.”
The UK’s Historic Debt
Two further aspects of the debate are regularly ignored.
Firstly, many refugees are fleeing as a direct result of US and UK foreign policy. After providing massive aid to the Mujahidin in the 1980s against Soviet Russia in Afghanistan, Britain and America invaded the country in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban government that took over in the wake of their covert operations. Tens of thousands have died, and millions fled; only a small fraction ever make the 6000 km journey to the borders of their ‘liberator’. Those from Iraq, to an even greater extent, are fleeing in the wake of the complete destruction of the country meted out by the US/UK assault in 2003.
Secondly, numerous others hail from former British colonies. The indigenous populations of most of the countries Britain sent its white settlers to – America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – were so decimated that few inhabitants remain who could, post-colonisation, seek to enter the UK. But others – like Egypt (UK), Syria (France) and Somalia (Britain, France and Italy) – now have large migrant and refugee populations. Given the crushing effects of colonisation – economically, physically, psychologically – the contemporary moral indebtedness of the nations responsible is not hard to see.
As Mekki Ali, a refugee worker in Calais, related to the Telegraph: “I say to the British government, ‘you have to accept these people’. Particularly the Sudanese… because the Sudanese were colonised by Britain.” An elementary sentiment for those familiar with basic history and values – but far beyond the pale for the overwhelming majority of British politicians and media apparatchiks.
The state’s response
Instead of facing up to these basic truths and responsibilities, David Cameron has likened the migrants to “swarms,” a classic tactic of dehumanisation intended to legitimise Cameron’s brutal assault on their rights and dignity. Our Foreign Secretary warns of millions of “marauding” migrants, rendering Europe “unable to protect itself”. The language and practice of an Orwellian ‘security’ predominates: Britain’s latest policy is to spend another £7 million on sniffer dogs and fencing, designed to keep the roads free for the freight industry, and refugees in squalor on the other side.
Cameron speaks with great passion about how he “sympathised with British holidaymakers and promised they would get through,” inconvenienced as they are by the refugees trying to attach themselves to trains and lorries in a valiant attempt to cross the Channel. Sections of the M25 were even shut down when four migrants departed from a lorry they had stowed away in. The full weight of the British and French states is being utilised to crack down on these ‘un-people’, so stripped of their humanity and denigrated that barbaric assaults and militarised responses are carried out with little protest. UN officials even leak that EU governments are making secret deals with the totalitarian Eritrea in an attempt to help the brutal East African government improve its ability to imprison its subjects within its borders.
Given this context, we travel to Calais not so much to provide aid, but to provide an apology to those residing there for the policies of our government, which the British populace is shamefully complicit in. It is to show that not all in Britain are willing to stand by and shrug, or vehemently cheer on, as the French and British governments carry on their five-century old tradition of utter disregard for the lives of non-Europeans.
Sadly, the UK’s policy of reminding those from the Global South that British human rights don’t apply to them, seems to be having some success. Khalid, a young Syrian toddler passing through Calais to seek asylum in the UK with his mother, begins in a Guardian documentary full of hope and naivety: “I love so much UK,” he says in response to questions about his hopes for the future. By the end of the film, after a failed attempt to jump onto a train across the Channel, and with his wounded foot left medically unattended, his expression becomes more cynical. “Why is Britain treating me like this?” he asks his mother.
You can still donate to the ‘Student Convoy to Calais’ here.