Brexit and the Borders of Humanity

Joe Reynolds writes on the phenomenon of the Calais migrant situation as he saw it in 2016, at the height of the media panic, amid Brexit manoeuvrings and a violent French crackdown.

The borders of the United Kingdom are militarised with both the language of fear and the chemical burn of tear gas. From the fall of the Berlin wall to the building of a new wall on the English Channel, the wars and movement of people from Kosovo to Afghanistan; the former humanitarian shelter in France has become a war zone of police brutality and public opinion;

A culture of aggressive indifference that lead its brutal eviction in 2016, following the Brexit vote.

This investigation focuses on the Calais ‘Jungle’ before and after the UK referendum on membership to the European Union. It is told through events that I and those who I spoke to witnessed. The volunteers who supported them, the police who restricted them, the private companies that deported them and, in the case of Jimmy Mubenga, killed them. It is an investigation into our collective responsibilities as humans, in or out of Europe.

“It’s not a meritocracy, it’s authoritarian. You do as you’re told.”
~ Anonymous British Journalist

The definition of collective privilege is putting what we want over what they need. We are trapped on the border of what is human.

They are the language of tabloid and television journalists, the fears of pensioners and the political terror that threatens nationalist culture. They are the parasites, scroungers and asylum cheats – a rag tag army of conscripts massing in ranks on the border, flooding nations, creating havoc, draining the finances for social systems and housing plans – forcing the good citizens of Europe to adopt fascism as an economic necessity.

They are not human. Every human has the right to asylum but not every asylum seeker has the right to be human. Instead, they are illegal immigrants, a term that stinks of the very privilege it mirrors. It is what we call a lie, woven by the gutter press and politicians into a public debate based on dehumanisation, false alarm and the reinforcing of the old myth that those who seek shelter are criminals for doing so. Premeditation for a referendum largely based on ‘immigration.’

Language can be deceptive. In the French countryside, I met a Brexit voting, people trafficking socialist. He sat opposite me, his hand in his wife’s and began to explain the aftermath of the eviction. “The camp was becoming dangerous and police brutality was rising,” he tells me.

We had met before, just three months before the referendum. The French CRS riot police ripped apart the Jungle with tear gas and bulldozers with the support of private companies. The eviction was stopped temporarily, after a group of Iranian refugees went on hunger strike. They sewed their lips together.

“There was only one thing left to do,” his wife says.

The former camp and motorway to the United Kingdom in Calais. ~ Joe Reynolds

Shortly after that first eviction, in a youth hostel close to the port of Calais, two volunteers come and sit with me in the cafe. They introduce themselves, an English Teacher who moved to France to volunteer in Calais, and Sǫlvi, an Icelandic volunteer, who had been building homes in Dunkirk. The teacher shows me a bottle of wine hidden under his jacket and we go upstairs. I pop the cork.

Sǫlvi tells me about the refugee camp in Dunkirk and how it had to be demolished by the volunteers themselves, sliding into squalor and overcrowding. “Only the rotting food and rats remained” he tells me, taking another gulp. They had helped to build the new camp, not the French or British government but the volunteers, the ones who gave up their lives and homes to help, the ones with no logo or uniform.

“This isn’t about the big politics, the no borders campaign and the anarchists”, Sǫlvi tells me, referring to recent media hysteria in the tabloid press, “this about providing the basics. Food, clothing, shelter” he says. We sit in silence as the glasses are refilled.

“Have you told your wife yet?” Sǫlvi asked the teacher.

The Eviction Zone in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

Sweet Tea

Reza watches the sun rise as he walks through the French countryside, the blood from an open wound on his leg drips down onto the morning dew. The sound of a nearby motorway slowly begins to fade and the winter wind from the sea replaces it, although Reza barely notices. The adrenaline released from his injury was still strong in his system.

Memories of home flooded his mind, strange moments painfully isolated from this new reality, this new home. Suddenly the trees give way to a wasteland, an expanse of bulldozed earth littered with the remains of a community reduced to dirt. Reza notices a child’s toy on the floor, a bag of rice and the charred remains of a church burnt to the ground. Signs of violence, he thought.

Reza moves across the wasteland until he arrives at a hamlet of shelters and homes that had survived the teeth of the bulldozer. Next to this was a fence that enclosed containers stacked on top of each other. Reza hated this place but he approached the fence because his friend Mohammed lived there and was drinking sweet tea outside of his container.

The two friends met at the fence saying nothing. Mohammed passes a tea to Reza and watches the sun rise from behind him. “You must go now, before they come,” Mohammed whispers through the wires, looking at Reza’s bloody leg. He watches his friend make his way through the shacks and shelters that they called home. Home was a pragmatic concept for Reza, a day by day struggle.

Reza had been a refugee twice, first from Iran and then from Afghanistan. He had lived in refugee camps and slept on the streets of European cities, travelling through thousands of miles of barbed wire fences and motorways to the English Channel. He is only 19, Mohammed thinks to himself.

A doctor attends to a head injury in a makeshift medical centre in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

The teacher stares at the eggs on his plate, it is 8am. He was alone in the breakfast room of a youth hostel, except for the journalist he had been drinking red wine with the night before. She was also looking at her food with the same malice. The buzz of the refrigerator fills the room and the sterile tube lights burn into the teacher’s hungover eyes.

“Ready to go?” he asks the journalist.

Miles and miles of white fencing flicker past the window of the old Citroen as the journalist stares out at the juxtaposed border. The teacher shifts gears moving off the motorway and down a side road leading to the Jungle. As the van pulls up to the entrance, they are stopped by a police checkpoint.

Papers are taken, questions are asked. “What is this?” The CRS demands, pointing at textbooks in the back of the van. “I am a teacher,” spits the teacher.

Pierre twists restlessly on the handle of his police issue baton as the Citroen drives away. A group of young Sudanese men walk past, their gaze challenging and fearless. “They are animals,” Pierre corrects his new colleague and wonders how stupid he must be to not understand. The squeaking on the handle of Pierre’s baton makes the younger officer wince.

“They must be controlled,” Pierre continues, “or we loose our identity.” Pierre was full of shit, the younger officer thinks to himself.

A man stands behind the fencing of the privatised biometric camp on the edge of the Eviction Zone in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

Deportation

Mohammed finds it hard sleeping these days. The incessant ringing in his ears is caused by a shell that exploded close to his face. The pitch drives him mad and at 4am each morning, he comes out of his container to drink sweet tea and watch the sun rise through the white fencing that imprisoned him to his fate. His fingerprints taken, marked and processed. Tomorrow he would be deported back to Afghanistan.

It was now a safe place to go back to, according to the British government. They tell him he entered France illegally, they tell him that after careful consideration, they have rejected his application for asylum. He stares at the road that leads to the ferry port of Calais and drinks his sweet tea. A man resigned to his fate, Mohammed doesn’t cry any more. He has been sentenced to death.

He looks down at his ragged clothes and remembers when he had a uniform, when he woke up early in the morning to drink his sweet tea before going on patrol. He was a soldier in the Afghan national army and went out on missions with the British army, fighting the Taliban on the streets of Kandahar. He remembered his friend John from Liverpool who also enjoyed drinking lots of tea. They played chess together.

John took the explosion of the shell that causes Mohammed’s ears to ring. The Taliban then killed Mohammed’s brother and destroyed his home. He ran, he walked, he swam and climbed walls. He burnt his uniform as he had entered France, it still had the blood of his friend on the insignia and rank.

Drinking sweet tea and dreaming dangerously. They played chess and now John is dead.

A shop in the Afghan Quarter, Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

The younger cop moved his helmet over his eyes. He was sick already of Pierre’s rage and for some reason, he got checkpoint duty with this ageing psychopath. His dead eyes suggest too many cases of brutality, it gets to a man when you crack too many skulls, hit too many children. Pierre was the kind of guy who wanted to be in the army but his nationalism drew him into the CRS.

“So, have you told your wife?” Sǫlvi asked the teacher again. I noticed he has tears in his eyes. “They’re just fucking children” the English teacher interrupted, tears running into his wine glass.

“We have been here a long time” Sǫlvi told the journalist. “He would like to take one of the younger residents into his home and give him protection.”

“I don’t know, these poor people have no-where to go,” the teacher said into his wine glass.

The sound of beeping fills the airwaves, each beep marking the hour. This is the BBC World Service, the announcer’s voice crackles, and now for an announcement from the Home Secretary Theresa May. In a studio in Brussels, Theresa nervously shuffles her paper in front of a waiting film crew, crumbling under the lights.

She is hot and clears her voice on the podium as she is motioned from the floor. Three, two, one.

The CRS riot police watch from the camp from their vans, blocking the entrance to the motorway in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

Truncheon Ring

“It’s a sickness and a disease,” Pierre shouts at the younger police officer after he made the mistake, 45 minutes ago, to correct Pierre’s pronunciation of the word Quran. The air was heavy with the sweat of eight men in riot gear. The noise of creaking leather and barking fills the minibus with a deafening roar. Some of the officers were looking at their phones, checking Facebook or watching pornographic videos.

He suddenly wants to sleep. For the last year the CRS had placed him in Calais. Maybe it was because he was a Muslim, Khalid thinks to himself.

Mohammed stands in line to his deportation flight, flanked by two private security guards. He could feel the embrace of his coming death, horribly detached from the moods of his fellow passengers. Everyone was focused on their mobile phones, bored at the inconvenience of having to wait for transportation. No-one looked up at Mohammed or acknowledged his existence.

Drones, he thinks to himself.

London! The bus driver yells to a crowd of people waiting on the UK border. They were restless and pushed for position to get on the bus, an English kind of pushing, the journalist thinks to herself as she stood at the back of the line, looking at her ticket and red passport.

“Regardless of the EU referendum my view is this,” Theresa’s voice crackles on the radio, “If we want to reform human rights law, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Mohammed feels a burning in his wrists. “My wife and I always go to Paris this time of year,” a man tells his fellow passenger. “My husband and I have a boat in Greece,” the other passenger replies, “you simply must go there, the food is amazing.”

Ladies and Gentleman, the airline pilot announces, please listen to this short safety announcement before we commence your flight. Please note in emergency: the exits are here, here and here.

Public toilets in the Eviction Zone, the CRS blocking the motorway in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

Ladies and Gentlemen, the bus driver announces, this is London Calling, London Calling. Some of the passengers laugh and a mother explains to her child, that it was the old announcement made to the British colonies over the BBC World Radio. We ain’t got no swing…, the journalist hums to herself.

Khalid steps out the police van to get some air and is called over by border control. “The exits are here, here and here,” the driver mimics and the bus erupts into laughter. The journalist wasn’t laughing, she was watching the old Citroen being pulled over by border control. Mohammed pulls on his handcuffs and the security guards turn their heads. “I think that is the magic of travelling,” the airline passenger summarised. “You can go anywhere.” Laughter.

Pierre lights a cigarette and heads towards the border. He was filled with conviction and fired up, ready to start a fight. Smoke obscures his vision and memories chained to darkness erupt before him. The chemical gas and puddles of blood, the crack of bone against baton pushing relentlessly at Pierre’s mind. He fights back with a rush of nicotine and walks towards the beat-up Citroen.

The ringing in Mohammed’s ears reaches its deafening pitch as the engines start and the plane begins to taxi down the runway. He turns to get the attention of the security guards but they have gone, along with his handcuffs. Next to him was his friend from Liverpool, chess board on lap and smiling. Blood was dripping from an open wound in his head. It’s your move, John tells Mohammed.

The teacher steps out of the van and meets Khalid at the back. “Can you open the back of your van, sir?” Khalid asks. Reza wakes in the darkness to the sounds of French voices.

They’re killing me, I can’t breathe!” Mohammed screams with the jet engines, as he is overwhelmed by the two private security guards. Strangled by the restraints, the cold air hits his brain and the ringing in his ears is finally replaced with silence.

“What is this?” Pierre’s voice comes from behind the teacher.

A child’s toy, abandoned in the Eviction Zone in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

Movement

“He was my student,” the teacher tells me, cradling a hot cup of tea. With his other hand, he was holding the hand of his wife tightly. He asked me what had become of my story. I asked him what had happened to the young man he mentioned in the youth hostel in Calais.

“We took the young man into our home, before the destruction of the camp in autumn,” the teacher says slowly.

“He lived with us for months. It was a tough time for everyone… in the end,” the teacher trails off… “In the end he became very depressed and we were worried for him,” his wife says. “The camp was becoming dangerous and police brutality was rising,” says the teacher. “There was only one thing left to do,” his wife finishes.

Over 600 separate cases of police brutality were documented in this time, a violence towards both refugees and volunteers, including widespread intimidation and surveillance. 90% of those interviewed said that the police had used tear gas, a chemical weapon.[Targetting Solidarity/ Amnesty PDF] “We have recently seen migrants beaten by CRS,” a volunteer who distributes food and clothing in Calais tells Amnesty, “For example, we once saw police giving migrants bananas and calling them monkeys. During Ramadam this year, they put a plastic pig on the windscreen of a CRS van.”

Perhaps the definition of collective responsibility is putting what we need over what we want. For those who seek justice, a form of practical humanity to aid in movement, there is the reward of 15 years in a British or French prison. My responsibility as a journalist is to counter the long standing campaign against asylum seekers and refugees in the British Press, to document the humans struggling for survival and not the ‘invasions’ of ‘parasites’ portrayed by the media.

Graffiti on the edge of the Eviction Zone in Calais ~ Joe Reynolds

A media that intimidates journalists into slanting articles, using either age or gender to pressure those into writing malicious lies. This culture of aggressive indifference has resulted in the insanity that is Brexit. Perpetuated by politicians from all major parties, reflected back from the ‘tabloid public’. A void of responsibility.

For others, there is a culture that defines us as humans. This culture of solidarity is a crime. “I don’t care if I go to prison,” the teacher says. The myth that those who seek shelter are criminals is our collective crime. The premeditation of violence needed for what became of this humanitarian shelter;

Food distribution bans, police violence and intimidation against refugees and volunteers. A constant state of the eviction of ‘attachment points’ or human dwellings. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent to create a war zone on the border to the United Kingdom, privatised and separated by a wall. We are trapped on the border of what is human.

“I put him in the back of my van,” the teacher tells me resolutely, “and drove the boy across the border.”


Joe Reynolds is an anarchist investigative journalist, he focuses primarily on stories examining the housing crisis and the movement of refugees across the European Union. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, he has been based across Europe, investigating struggles in Greece, France, Spain and Germany.


Note: The names of those mentioned in this story have been changed to protect their identities. Their experience and news events before and after the referendum on Europe have shaped the narrative of this story. Reports by human rights organisations and volunteers are evidence that those who still work in the area are under the constant pressure of police brutality. [Police Harassment of Volunteers in Calais/ PDF]

The photographs featured were taken in the aftermath of the demolition in Spring 2016 and all subjects have given their consent to have their pictures taken. These pictures were part of an exhibition with the war journalist David Gould at the Dublin Castle in Camden, London, an event to raise awareness and gather resources from the local community, sending the support on to Calais.


Main pic: An entrance point to the former camp in Calais.