On Tuesday 23rd April I set off with some friends in a minibus filled with cooking equipment to the No Borders Activist Camp in Calais. Held in a field bordered by a motorway on one side and a residential area on the other, it was a less than idyllic setting for a few hundred activists from France, Belgium, England, Germany, Spain, Austria and Slovakia – possibly more, but these were the places I heard mentioned – to gather together for a week of workshops and meetings, planning towards a big demo on the Saturday.
I had decided to just come to the camp and cook, stay out of trouble and maybe go to the odd workshop. On coming to Calais I had little idea about the situation there. I knew there were migrants living in slums known as ‘The Jungle’, that their situation was not good and that most of them were trying desperately to reach England. What I did not know was the scale of the problem. There are actually more than two thousand people living in Jungles. There are different jungles for different nationalities, some of which have better facilities than others. I have heard of one jungle that has shops and a mosque, while the ones we visited had shack-type dwellings made mostly out of wooden pallets and bits of tarp. They did not look unlike many of the protest sites I have visited – minus the tree-houses, the brew crew, and of course the fact that these people are not really living this way out of choice. There was no water supply in the Jungles we visited and we heard that somebody had recently died trying to wash in the canal.
Helping ‘sans papiers’ migrants in any way is a criminal offence in France. Despite this, there are two humanitarian organisations that have been feeding people in Calais for free for several years. The food distribution points are fixed and it seems there is a begrudging acceptance of it from the police. The local authorities are supportive inasmuch as they allow the food to be distributed and they allowed the camp to happen. I was initially surprised that we had the support of the local government (although not the mayor apparently), but then realised the council probably don’t want thousands of starving people on their doorstep either and would be more than happy for Britain to open it’s border – the only closed internal E.U. border, making it in theory legal to apply for asylum here, but giving no legal means to actually get here.
La Belle Etoile have been feeding migrants in Calais for free at 2pm every weekday for the past fifteen years. They said a few of us could come with them on the Friday and help to see how they do things. On hearing that there was no lunchtime food distro at the weekends, a few of us had decided to see if we could take some food down there ourselves, given that there were three kitchens onsite and we had more than enough food for the people there. So we went to help. As well as the food, they give out these little plastic bags filled with a few slices of bread, a bit of patisserie, an apple, a plastic spoon and a toiletry item. We set up an assembly line. I put a toiletry item into each of the bags handed to me. There were mini and full-sized tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, sample sachets of face cream, body lotion, small bars of soap, plastic razors… I had images of people getting their daily plastic bag and peering inside with dismay to find the 5th tube of toothpaste that week, when all they needed was a bar of soap. I wondered if people swapped with each other, or if most of it ended up in the bin.
When all of the 500 bags were full we walked down to the food distribution point as there was not enough room in the van. We could easily see why it was in the best interest of the police for them to let it happen there: a large open car park right next door to the Gendarmerie. A few almost-undercover cops stood around the edge or sat in cars staring at us. The food given out was not the most appetising I have ever seen: basically stock-based soup with butter and rice in. Not very filling, and some people travel miles by foot to get there from the furthest Jungles. La Belle Etoile get a bit of funding from local government and some donations, but it hardly seems enough for them to feed so many people. The whole thing felt a bit like a soup-kitchen. I have been on both sides of a soup kitchen so this was something I could relate to. The whole thing is a bit demeaning, with people being basically herded into lines.
Of the migrants I spoke to on site, most were Afghan, Kurdish, Iraqi or Iranian. We also met some Eritrean guys living in a large squatted house near the food distribution point and also about six women, who came along late and went straight to the front of the queue along with any injured men. These are the only migrant women I saw for the entire duration of the camp.
There were lots of meetings. I went to one. Usually I would go to lots, but it just didn’t feel appropriate for me. It was heartening to see migrants going to meetings as well as the usual activist types, and that there were an increasing number of languages being translated. It seemed more worthwhile for me to just hang out with people. I made friends with a small group from Iran and we had a lot of conversations. Listening to people’s stories taught me more about the situation than any meeting I’ve ever been to. Dancing and hanging out taught me more about their cultures. Visiting the Jungle and sharing food felt more to me like solidarity than going on a demo. So I didn’t go on the demo. Instead we cooked up more food than the camp could possibly eat and took the excess to the Jungle. We went first to the food distro point and fed the people who live nearby. We bought a bit of fruit and chocolate and tried to make sure there was a good amount of protein in the food we cooked. Then we went to the Jungle. The first day we went to one near to the ferry port, relatively small and hidden away in the sand dunes. After serving the food it felt odd to just stand there watching, so I crammed in my second portion of food that hour. Sharing food felt more natural than just serving it.
The second day we took food to a different Jungle – a massive one. I asked how many people and was told 700. Some others from camp had been trying to build a tree-house with the idea that it would be harder for the police to evict it. It took a while for them to get across the language barrier, but it eventually seemed like a welcome idea. Every day the police come and take people – 10, 20, or 30, sometimes 100. Migrants in Calais are used to constant arrest. Sometimes they are put in detention centres, sometimes beaten or tear-gassed. The police often trash jungles and the people we spoke to had been told that this would happen there soon.
It seems the great cultural levellers are food, football, dancing and American pop stars. The day after Michael Jackson died, everyone was talking about it. We went to a Jungle where only one person spoke English, but all of the others told us ‘Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson!’ eyes wide, hands making slitting motions across throats. One of the Iranians I made friends with was into Britney Spears. He asked what ‘gimme gimme gimme’ means. I tried to explain ‘give me’. But he refused to believe. No ‘gimmmmmeeee gimmmmmeeeee…’
My two favourite moments: the Iranian disco on the second night and the traditional Pashtun dance – there must have been over one hundred people dancing: a rare glimpse of a threatened culture.
Now that I have used the word ‘migrants’ a lot, as well as referencing several nationalities, I should point out that there was a bit of controversy over wording. I’m using the words ‘migrants’ and ‘activists’ to relate to people who were at the camp for very different reasons, with different degrees of privilege, etc. I’m mentioning different nationalities as I believe it gives a more thorough picture of where people are coming from, and also because that’s the way those people labelled themselves and I think that imposing our Western anarchist ideas against nationality onto people is a bit arrogant. At one point I was basically told that it’s racist to say that there are cultural differences between different countries. From what I saw the cultural differences were very obvious to everyone.
Gender was a particularly overt issue. About halfway through the camp a feminist security team formed to respond to some of the problems that were emerging as a result of very young males getting very drunk (often for the first time) and dancing with women (often for the first time!) There were a couple of reports of men trying to get into women’s tents, although it is unclear whether these people were actually just looking for a space to sleep in. More cultural misunderstandings? It’s easy to speculate. The vast majority of people I spoke to were very respectful.
The other kind of misunderstandings were also awkward. Having to explain to people that we were only there for a week. That we would be going home to England. That we could not open the border for them. We were there to protest, but ultimately have no more power than they do – just a little square document that allows us freedom of movement and restricts theirs. I have never felt my privilege so strongly as walking to the ferry with a cardboard sign saying ‘England’ and bumping into some of the people we had shared food with. ‘Yes, we are going home now. No, you can’t come with us. Sorry. See you in England. Good luck!’
Something I keep being asked by people when I talk about this is why all these people are so desperate to reach England. I’m not completely certain I know the answer. Some have family and friends here. Some were in the Uk for years and have since been deported and made it all of the way back to Calais. Most of the people I spoke to have a very high regard for England. ‘You are from England? Very good country, yes?’ ‘Hmm… sort of’ was the only reply I could muster. It’s difficult telling people that even if they do make it across the water, their lives may not be much better. Only 30% of asylum claims are actually granted. Many people will be deported or locked up in detention centres. Many will be killed trying to cross the channel. A lot of people we spoke to had their fingerprints taken crossing the border into Greece – often the first EU country if you come by land from the Middle-East. I had to break the news to one man that as his fingerprints were now on record in Greece, he can only legally claim asylum there. He was devastated. He said he had paid 4,000euros. Undeniably there are many people traffickers around making a lot of money by misleading people.
The camp ended on a sad note. All of the activists were packing up to go home and people with the wrong coloured skin and wrong coloured bits of paper in their pockets were becoming less and less. Some stayed to help prepare food and to tat anything not needed from the structures being dismantled. Unfortunately a lot of other stuff went missing too, including several mobile phones, mp3 players and a couple of wallets. Also the donations tin from one of the kitchens. A boy of about twelve years old was seen coming out of my tent. A friend and I made a vague attempt at confronting him about it with the aid of two translators. What followed was bizarre and I can’t say I understood it completely, but we were made to wait while the men went off and spoke together with the boy, one or other coming back every now and then to ask a question. There was much apologising and this seemed to put even more of a downer on the mood as word spread around the camp. We saw the thefts as the actions two or three people, but the men seemed to feel shame on behalf of their whole community. More cultural differences!
The camp at Calais deeply affected me. I felt a strong emotional connection to the people I was there with – some of the activists who I am now closer to, and some of the migrants I made friends with. That we had to just leave them there seemed ridiculous and selfish. I am still processing my emotions about all of this but I am committed to going back there soon to do something else. What can I do? I don’t know.
There is another personal account from the camp –>here<–
Further reading: http://london.noborders.org.uk/node/177