On Saturday 23 January, residents of the Calais refugee camp protested the destruction of the their shelters and the French government’s attempts to forcibly move them into new accommodation, described by many as a ‘prison’ or ‘concentration camp’. Duncan Thomas reports.
At some time between 9:00 and 10:30 in the morning, we crossed the border. The precise moment passed without notice, as we sat on our coach beneath the English Channel. Border controls, such as they were, amounted to a cursory glance at our passports at the entrance to a service station. I bought an overpriced notepad and pen, and a packet of crisps. I had a pee. I sat back down on the coach. And then I was in France.
It was, in every way, an unremarkable crossing. And why would it be otherwise? I am a British and European citizen; my skin colour and surname shield me from even the most fleeting inconvenience. The border control officers who waved me through may as well have been Tower of London Beefeaters or Papal Swiss Guards – mothballed anachronisms of state ceremony, preserved purely for nostalgia and show.
But of course, the UK has two borders: one, for people like me; another, for people like me in every respect, save for their place of birth. The first is where you would expect it to be from looking at a map. The second is dispersed across an entire continent, shared with other core European states. To the south, it used to begin in Gaddafi’s EU-funded holding cells, since replaced by the waves of the Mediterranean. To the east, its barriers include a 175km-long fence, built by Hungary’s quasi-fascist government.
Its final stage is in Calais – or rather, the camp outside it – where ever-increasing numbers of desperate people grind to a halt, confronted by a heavily policed labyrinth of barbed wire, marshland and submarine tunnels. Today, they set out in force – not to enter Britain, but to protest the destruction of their shelters by the French state and resist their forcible relocation to what many described as a ‘prison’ or ‘concentration camp’.
Ostensibly organised by the French left, the march was unmistakably led by refugees. It was their slogans which dominated, their bodies that formed the front rank. We were there to offer solidarity and support, not leadership – as if European activists could teach anything about protest to people who have crossed continents and survived bombs.
A crowd of 2-3000 people, we made our way from the camp to the centre of Calais, a once staunchly left-wing town which now votes heavily for the Front National. Apart from us, it was largely deserted, windows and doors bolted shut in disapproval. The occasional resident observed from a safely-distanced balcony. With a group of Sudanese men, I waved at a watching child. He smiled and waved back. His parents stared impassively at the sea of black and brown bodies, temporarily confident and secure in their right to access La Republique’s public space.
It is not always so easy. One Middle Eastern man told me how he had been attacked by a group of ten people in the town’s market place, surrounded and then chased back toward the camp. Several people claimed that both police and armed groups of fascists had been entering the camp itself, dishing out beatings with increasing regularity, recently leaving three Syrians severely injured: “we came from one war and arrived in another”, as an Afghan man said.
While the British media have railed against the refugees’ widespread refusal to be rehoused in what the front pages describe as cushy new accommodation, their reasons for doing so are clear. “In the Jungle, conditions are terrible”, a Syrian resident told me. “But we have meetings, we can decide some things ourselves. I can decide who to share my tent with, and I can tell him not to smoke inside. We have some kind of community. We can organise politically, and they don’t like that. It is horrible, but we have a few small freedoms.”
In the new hyper-policed accommodation, all this will be gone: “They want to put us into a concentration camp, take our fingerprints, make us apply for asylum in France. Everyone here is here for a reason, we don’t stay here for fun. Everyone has a logical reason for wanting to get to Britain”.
Many have family members here; some speak a little English and want to work or study. Rightly or wrongly, they often believe that life will be easier in Britain and that they will treated better – hardly surprising, perhaps, when our ruling class has spent the last 250 years going round the world telling everyone how fantastic the country is, and continue to promote it as a ‘humanitarian’ power. In any case, their daily experience of the French state can hardly be a welcoming invitation to stay.
The anger is palpable throughout, and yet the overall mood of the march is festive. When we get to the town centre, there are more speeches. But the crowd soon begins to disperse around the square: all most people want to do, it seems, is hang out, listen to music, chat – almost as if they’re just normal humans with ordinary needs, as if this is really their town to enjoy as citizens.
But it isn’t. We leave and get back on our coach. Others will die trying to make the same journey, but we cross the border once more in our nondescript, mundanely privileged way.