News from the borders: Calais and Dunkirk

Since the highly publicised “clearance” of encampment The Jungle in Calais three years ago migrant struggles in the area have been largely ignored other than a minor panic over refugee dinghies in the Channel – but that doesn’t mean the situation is resolved, writes Chiara Lauvergnac.

The Calais Jungle is not “finished”. There are still several hundred people in the Calais and Dunkirk areas, and there are people all over the coast, trying to reach the UK. Thousands more are in Brussels and other big cities, especially in Paris, who are surviving in dreadful conditions. People are all trying to settle somewhere and rebuild their lives, defying the border regime with their own bodies. And they are many thousands. 

To cross the border has become exceedingly difficult for those who have no money to pay smugglers, and prices have gone up.  In 2016 Britain built a border fence in Calais and reinforced border controls on French soil. “The police handcuffed me with my hands behind my back, then they beat me all over my body,” said one person at the time. Others complain being pepper-sprayed, insulted, abandoned in the middle of nowhere. There were at least three deaths at the border In July, and one in August.

Since getting in by lorry has become so difficult many are risking their lives on boats, which prompted a series of high-profile interventions by British higher authorities and a lot of media blablablah. Other than the boats “scandal” there has been very little coverage – the media circus has moved elsewhere. 

Dunkirk currently holds up to 1,300 migrant people, according to some estimates. Most are in or around a very big gymnasium, which is now being evicted. In the gym people are warehoused in miserable conditions, sleeping on the floor without any privacy. Many sleep outside in tents  because inside there is no room. However horrible, it is a place  where people are allowed to stay without being chased by police. Most are Kurds from Iraq, but there are also Iraqi Arabs and Iranians. There are 60 families with lots of young children who look after and protect each other. Things will get worse when the gym closes and people are dispersed. 

What strikes me most, coming from Calais, is that migrants are in the town, move about freely and people are not afraid of them. It is a very multi-ethnic area, with a strong Muslim presence and a pro-migrant administration. Public transport is free, allowing poor people to move about. In Calais there is a racist administration headed by mayor Natacha Bouchart. People with no documents can no longer go to town without fear of being arrested or beaten by police. Segregation in the jungles is complete. The only respite is a day centre open by Secours Catholique.

How many people on the move are in Calais? An accurate count  is impossible. There are five informal  camps, two large, one very large. The number of main meals distributed in June averaged 735 per day, but not everybody eats at the same distribution – in June there were well over that figure. The total number of people in Calais may be well over 1,000 if counting all those  coming and going.  The head of police however is saying that numbers have gone down to 300. Francois Guennoc, vice president of the association Auberge des migrants,  is giving numbers similar to those of the police. Calais Migrant Solidarity, who are usually reliable, have given similar numbers to Corporate Watch

On July 11th all three main camps were evicted,  everybody went back. Previously the largest camp had been evicted twice and they are now facing another eviction, requested by the owner of the land on which they have resettled, though a legal challenge has been made. This camp is hosting people of all nationalities, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, people from other African countries, Afghans, Iranians, Kurds especially from Iran, and others. There are “cleaning operations” every 48 hours. People are forced to move at 8.30am, lots of police (gendarmerie aided by CRS) close the area and kick everybody out – most people move onto the road with their tents ahead of the police. Council cleaners collect some rubbish, some tents are confiscated, a few people arrested.

There are many unaccompanied minors, most from Afghanistan and Eritrea, some very young. There are very few women and small children, nearly all from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Most are sheltered by volunteers and local people, but sometimes there are women and children sleeping in the jungles. People are quite friendly, and incredibly cheerful. Calais is a place of hope. Some people have been here for two years or more. Some are newly arrived. Many applied for asylum in France, Belgium, Germany, other countries, and were refused.  

Since the beginning of 2019 the time arrestees are held in detention has been doubled to 90 days, creating an explosive situation in the detention centres. There have been a series of protests and hunger strikes. In Paris the Gilets Noirs, a new Sans Papiers movement, occupied the main airport to protest deporations.

“I am from Sudan, from Darfur. I am an air pilot. I had to flee my country to save my life. When I arrived in France I liked it, and decided to stay here. My asylum claim was refused. I was detained five times and they wanted to deport me back to Sudan. If they send me back to Sudan I will be killed,” said one. He was speaking a matter-of-fact way, as if what is happening to him was normal. 

There are other Sudanese men in detention in Coquelles, near Calais. There are Afghans being sent back to Afghanistan.  Plus there are lots of Dublin deportations. Calais Migrant Solidarity activists are doing good work supporting people in the local detention centre of Coquelles, and raising the alarm.

The charities’ sell-out of self-organised resistance

This year there have been a series of demonstrations in Calais to demand dignity and rights for the people in the jungles. They are organised by a collective called Appel d’air, including refugees, activists and volunteers. After the last, very peaceful protest, the police went to the jungle and beat up everybody they could find in revenge. Refugees say the associations are failing to defend them. “We do not need food, blankets or clothes. We need to be given our rights”!

Nearly 10 years have passed since the first wholesale evictions of Calais Jungle in September 2009. In June 2009 there was a No Border camp in Calais, where Calais Migrant Solidarity was formed. No Borders activists have maintained a continuous presence in Calais even since, offering solidarity not charity and working with refugees and other migrants on an equalitarian basis. 

In 2016 we were overcome by volunteers and startups. The Auberge des Migrants, the smallest association in Calais, became the biggest thanks to Help Refugees. Most other associations including the Info Bus, the Refugee Youth Service and the Refugee Community Kitchen are based with the Auberge. The Auberge / Help Refugees did a great job collecting and distributing humanitarian aid. However they also co-opted the solidarity movement  in a direction convenient to the State.

They helped in building the big jungle-ghetto and keeping people there. When migrants organised demonstrations demanding an end to racist segregation in the jungle,  open border and an end to police violence, the associations were not interested. They organised a large but pointless demonstration of their own and they did not even consult with the migrants in struggle,  The warehouse from where the Auberge operate has a policy not to allow anyone without papers inside.

The justification given is that the police threatened to close the warehouse if they found undocumented people there, but in the past that had not happened. Further, the Auberge and their partner Help Refugees (now renamed Choose Love) obliged all their volunteers to sign a paper in which they promised NOT TO TALK TO REFUGEES. Why? Are they not human beings like us? Are they dangerous and why should they be more dangerous than anybody else? The refugees were deeply offended! 

Many volunteers signed the paper, disobeyed, and kept talking to refugees.  When Cazeneuve, the minister who created that horror of the big jungle, decided to evict it in one week,  without any real solution for thousands of people there, the associations decided to collaborate with the government, expressing their approval in a letter to then-president  Francois Hollande. The Auberge and Help Refugees took the government to court, but did not ask for the eviction to be halted until real solutions were found for everybody. They just asked for human rights to be respected, which of course is ridiculous, thousands of people cannot be displaced in one week without infringing their human rights. They asked for minors to be taken care of, and some minor points.

The associations totally failed to make the point that people have a right to stay somewhere, other than temporary accommodation centres far away.  Clare Moseley of Care4Calais, who grassed up and took to court various refugees who did not want her in the jungle, also falsely accused the people who ran the Kids’ Restaurant Jungle Books of stealing money destined to the kids. Moseley’s accusations were instrumental for the police to close shops and restaurants ahead of the eviction of the big jungle.

A longer version of this article is available here.