CALAIS: A EUROPEAN REFUGEE CAMP September 30, 2009

As the UK continues to fortify its border with increasing use of technology to intercept people travelling in the back of or under trucks, hundreds of migrants from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere, find themselves stuck in the French port town of Calais for months on end.

At the No Border Camp in Calais (23th-29th June) migrants interviewed by activists talked of waiting for up to a year, attempting several times a week to break through the border. According to local humanitarian groups working with the migrants, the numbers have been increasing since the closure of the Red Cross camp in Sangatte in 2002. This is despite the lack of the most basic services such as food, water and medical care and in the face of constant harassment by the French authorities. The destruction of belongings, tear-gassing of tents and detention are a daily occurrence for many of the 1,200 or so residents of what is known as ‘the jungle’ - make-shift camps in the industrial waste grounds, parks and scrub land on the outskirts of Calais.

A bottleneck of Fortress Europe

In 2004, the French and UK governments agreed to swap border posts, moving the UK border into France. This has meant that people are unable to claim asylum at the border and can be easily intercepted and sent back to France. In order to claim asylum, people must instead pay traffickers to get them across the border into the UK before a claim can be made at one of the UK Border Agency screening units.

Those wishing to claim asylum also have to navigate the complexities of the Dublin II Convention, which states that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. This means that, even if someone has family ties in the UK or has been displaced from war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea or Sudan (where UK foreign policy has often stoked conflict and increased poverty), there is no right to claim asylum in the UK. The automated fingerprint identification system that catalogues ‘irregular’ migrants, EURODAC, ensures that many of those claiming asylum in France face imminent deportation to Greece or another ‘frontier state’. Thus, for many, the Dublin II Convention has turned the task of seeking asylum into an elaborate game of evading the arrests and fingerprinting that will mean deportation back to Italy or Greece, both countries being considerably more unpleasant places for asylum seekers than the UK or even Calais.

The Calais No Border Camp

Between 23rd and 29th of June this year, around 500 activists and campaigners from across Europe gathered in Calais for a protest camp aimed at highlighting the situation in Calais and the border controls that are the primary cause of migrants’ suffering. The activists were joined by a significant number of the Calais migrants over the course of the week, many attracted by the idea of a space offering comparative safety from the daily bullying of the French police and the provision of food, water and showers.

From the outset, it was clear that the camp was unlikely to provide a good base for direct action. Over 1,000 riot police were drafted in for the event and any movement off the site of the camp resulted in constant ID checks. Even handing out leaflets in the town centre led to the arrival of over 100 cops in full riot gear, two helicopters, the temporary detention of the activists and public panic. Actions did happen during the week, however, with over 30 activists blockading a detention centre in Lille; activists from the camp blockading the road to disrupt the ‘freedom of movement of goods’; and one protester gluing himself to the Mayor’s office demanding that the latter provide the showers she had promised. The mass demonstration on Saturday 29thJune saw a broad coalition of over 1,500 people marching behind a banner calling for ‘no borders’ and ‘freedom of movement for all’.

After the camp: mass arrests and deportations

The camp was always intended to be the beginning of more joint action between activists in France and the UK on issues relating to the Calais border in particular and borders more generally. Since the end of the camp, small numbers of activists have remained in Calais to organise actions against the ongoing attempts to evict migrants from the ‘jungles’, The French authorities have been talking, since January, about making Calais a “migrant-free zone”. As a result a call-out for activists and legal observers was made in July following rumours that a planned destruction of the largest Pashtun jungle, housing over 800 people, was imminent. Although this did not happen, it is clear that the authorities are stepping up attempts to clear migrants from the area as arrests and deportations are reportedly on the increase. In the town itself, squats used by Sudanese and Eritrean migrants have been raided by police.

A new group, called Calais Witnesses, has now been set up to monitor and campaign on the current repression in Calais and to spread information about the situation to human rights organisations, lawyers, refugee organisations and so on. Meanwhile, No Borders activists are working to build a campaign against the mass deportation flights and to set up a more permanent presence in the town. Anyone wishing to go and help in Calais or from outside Calais can find information and contacts at http://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com.

 
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