Last Post From Calais… for now

–> Read this first! <–

A text message from a friend: “Are you Sans Papiers? Am I going to have to come and feed you?”

After an emotional morning I was overjoyed to hear that my passport had arrived in the post. I could go home! I decided to leave that night as I would still only have four days in Brighton and lots to do while I was there, preparing for my big traveling adventure (more on that soon…)

Cycling down to the ferry I passed lots of Afghan men carrying boxes and bags full of food. I waved from my bike and nearly swerved into the pavement as my front basket was also laden with food. They saw me and recognising me, shouted “Jo! Jo!”

To my shame I’m finding it very hard to remember anyone’s name. I have enough trouble with this under normal circumstances, but my efforts are even further frustrated when I can’t even pronounce the name properly to begin with! I recognise people often, but usually have no idea where from. These people were obviously heading towards the Hazara Jungle – one I spent some time in on my last visit but didn’t go to at all this time. Why had I not gone back there?

I shouted “I’m late! I’m sorry! Goodbye! I’ll be back soon!”
They shouted their goodbyes after me.

After buying my ticket and infiltrating a line of cars with my bike I saw them again, passing by on the other side of the giant white metal security fence. I was painfully aware of how much each of them wanted to be in my place. Why should I have such privileges, denied to so many?

We waved to one another again through the white metal bars and they were gone. I will be back.

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Ethiopian Squat – 12th August 09

–> Read this first! <–

Last night P and I went to visit the Ethiopian Squat – two large buildings with a courtyard in-between near to the railway tracks. This is the one the police boarded up so I got first hand experience of the plank of wood and the rickety ladder.

It was dark by the time we got there, good thing I brought my head torch as this squat has no electricity. We brought them some candles as well.

A few of us sat huddled around two tealights in the courtyard, attempting to position a magazine page as a windbreak, picking it up quickly whenever it blew into the candles.

There are women at the Ethiopian Squat and the atmosphere felt to me different from some of the other Jungles, perhaps because of this. I wanted to find out more about the women and their stories, but the girl sitting with us was very shy and quiet and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable by asking too many questions. She and the man she was with had both been in Calais for fifteen days. I asked the man how long it was since he left Ethiopia. I thought he had misunderstood me, but no, his English is very good. It has taken him four years to get to Calais. He was put in prison for crossing one of the borders he passed over in order to get here. I asked if his family knows where he is, if he is in touch with them? He said no, he has not spoken to them in a long time. This is no life he is living. He does not want them to know where he is. If he gets to England, then he will contact them.

There were only four of us left around the candles and we realised this was a bad time for a visit. P has spent time there before and knows a little of how the Ethiopian community works. They are apparently one of the most organised Jungles, with a rota of who will try to cross and when. Freight train hopping is a popular choice, rather than paying Mafia to stuff them in trucks. The success and casualty rates are both quite high.

I have just read an update on wwwcalaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com that a delegation from No Borders South Wales has just delivered some 12volt car batteries, lights, LED lamps, a volt meter and a car battery charger to the Ethiopian squat. This has made me smile.

Iranian Jungle – 11th August 09

–> Read this first! <–

Some of us met some Kurdish guys in the park the other day with very good English. They lived in Liverpool for a few years before being deported back to Iraq. Now they are back in Calais and again trying to reach England. They are young, around 18 and dress like typical London teenagers. One of them calls himself J. J was here during the No Borders Camp and he and his friends remember it well. They say they enjoyed it, lots going on and the police could not get onsite. The camp was held in the park we were sitting in, a regular hang-out for Kurdish people. I asked J if he could translate our ‘Who We Are’ statement into Kurdish and he agreed, so today M and I went back to find him.

We found the Iranian Jungle first in the same park, and had just sat down with the men there to ask about Persian translations and how to find the Kurdish people when three CRS suddenly appeared, seemingly from nowhere. Neither the migrants nor us had a chance to go anywhere. They checked M’s ID and asked if I could speak French. I replied no, only English. They asked for my ID. I said I don’t have it. One of them saw my bag and told me to open it.
I asked “for what are you searching?”
He said “Just open it.”
I said “Why?”
He replied “Because I am a policeman.”
I said “That’s not a reason”
But he said “Yes it is.”
I opened my bag. I don’t know French law and I didn’t have my passport. I wanted to do the minimum amount possible to get them to leave me alone.
He saw my notebook and went to read it, but I grabbed it from him and said, “that’s my notebook! What are you looking for?”
He saw my wallet and asked for it. I feigned shock and said “you want my money?!”
He said something about ID so I opened my wallet, took out my bank card and gave it to him. He looked at it and handed it back. That seemed to satisfy him.

They then moved onto their intended victims: the four Iranian men we had been sitting with. As the police were talking to them I began quietly writing a text message to send out to the emergency number, but I was seen by ‘hands-on-hips CRS’ and told to stop. We basically had to just sit there and watch while the cops took the men, despite protests from them that they had already been picked up early that morning. The CRS simply replied that this was “not possible”. Before the cops arrived the men had been telling us of how there had been 11 arrests at 6am that morning when the police came and woke everyone up and took them all. Twice in one day! They wouldn’t even let one man put his bag away in his tent.

P turned up as they were leaving and managed to take some pictures. My hands were shaking like crazy as I sent texts out saying what was going on.

www.calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

The Palestinian Jungle – 10th August 09

–> Read this first! <–

We have a piece of writing about who we are that has already been translated into Pasto and Dari. We still need some other languages, especially Arabic and Kurdish. B and I headed down to the “Palestinian Jungle” to say hi and hopefully make some contacts there.

As with all the Jungles I have visited, the people sitting around makeshift structures in the port were friendly and pleased to see us. We brought them candles and some oranges, which they shared with us.

We chatted to a weathered-looking man from Sudan who told us he has been living in Calais for the past eight years, in the structure nearest to where we were sitting. B and I were both shocked. Eight years is by far the longest any of us has heard of someone living in the Jungle. I asked if he was trying to get to England but he shook his head slowly, pointed to his hair, his knees, his tattered clothes. “I am fifty-seven, nearly fifty-eight. I stay here in Calais.”

We spoke with some of the other men, mostly from Sudan, one from Eritrea. Most spoke reasonably good English. There were no Palestinians in sight and I have since discovered it has been mis-named, although some people report having met at least one Palestinian there previously. This is the most international of the Jungles with a mixture of different nationalities living together.

After three games of dominoes in which the winner was unclear (I never did understand the rules of that game), the CRS police suddenly showed up. Some of the men got up. Some shouted, some ran away and were chased by police with truncheons. One man hid behind the sofa we were sitting on. The remaining men stayed where they were sitting and laughed at the others being chased by the cops. This was obviously such a familiar scene that it had become a source of some amusement. To us it came as something of a shock. B went over to the police to confront them. I was on my way to back him up when I saw them check his ID Shit – I still don’t have my passport! I backed off and went back to the guys still sitting around the dominoes table. Some of the others were standing near to the waters edge, pretending they were about to jump whenever the cops came near. It seemed to work really well. The police obviously weren’t too keen in jumping in after them. The men by the dominoes table thought it was a hoot! Eventually I managed to figure out that I had our emergency phone number in my pocket and after a couple of botched attempts I succeeded in remembering the French code.

Within a few minutes around ten activists were on the scene on bikes, some with cameras – filming the cops filming us. The CRS were clearly not very pleased to see us. They were checking IDs and photographing people, sometimes a few cm’s away from people’s faces, an intimidation tactic familiar to me from experiences in the UK.

To my shame I stayed well back, fearful of arrest without any ID. The migrants have to put up with this everyday – sometimes more than once a day. Yes, I am a coward. But I am getting better. At least I am here in Calais.

The police left without arresting anyone, but unfortunately returned later when most of us had gone and took three people.


www.calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

A Sunrise Cycle-Tour of Calais Slums

–> Read this first! <–

My alarm went off at 4am. This is the earliest morning I have seen since my first retreat. Knowing that in England it was an hour earlier made me feel the cold and dark even more. Still, the spirit of adventure was with me as three of us crawled out of our tents, unlocked our bikes and peddled out into the night. We were going to check out a rumour told to us by some of the street cleaners – that the CRS gather at 5am every morning outside the train station, before moving off to the Jungles to carry out dawn raids and arrests.

We positioned ourselves opposite the station and sipped black coffee in plastic cups while keeping a bleary eye on the road opposite. Nothing. We waited until around 5:30am, moving a little into the park behind us when we realised how conspicuous we must look.

I hadn’t seen this park before. It currently has a display of aerial scenes from around the world with an environmental focus. Some of them are really stunning. This is the place activists recently fly-posted pictures of migrants, making connections between migration and environmental crises, as well as saying, “look – this is what’s going on here, in Calais, right under your noses!”

The moon was still high in the black sky and deep in the even blacker waters of the pond when we left the park and I was given a cycle-tour of Calais. I can report that even Calais is beautiful at sunrise.

We didn’t enter any of the Jungles as early morning is when people try to sleep after having spent the night attempting to stow-away or cling under trucks, jump trains, steal boats or swim…

I saw the squat by the railway that the Ethiopians live in. The police recently bricked it up, with wounded and a pregnant woman still inside. Activists came and knocked through a doorway while the cement was still wet, but police came back again. Now access is only via a wooden plank going up to a wall and a rickety wooden ladder on the other side. This means the wounded people and pregnant woman must remain inside the whole time as the route in and out is too dangerous. The only bonus of this is that the police have effectively blockaded themselves out. They tried to get in but the first was too fat and they gave up. People have been taking food and vitamins to the pregnant woman.

I have an instinctive urge to find this woman and see if I can help her situation in any way. It occurs to me that any of us could spend our time helping any one person and of course it would be worthwhile, but there are up to 2,000 migrants in Calais living like this. Everything we do seems so ineffectual, like a sticking-plaster on a gunshot.

We cycled past the Eritrean squat and the Palestinian Jungle, which had been trashed by the police a day earlier. A few tiny pallet structures covered in blankets remained or had since been rebuilt.

We made our way back to camp where we drank more coffee and I passed out for a couple of hours before the sun got too hot on the tent. D was cooking something hot and spicy for breakfast, but alas the emergency phone rang and it was abandoned as we all sped off to the Pashtun Jungle to check a report that 20-30 CRS vans were headed there. False alarm. The only action was a few Afghan men gathering water in containers from the pump out front and slooshing it over their heads. Back to camp and breakfast – finally!

www.calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

Sans Papiers in Calais

I am about to post some of the stuff I have written about my recent visit to Calais. I am back in the UK now. It might be helpful to first read the account from when I was last in Calais as part of the No Borders Camp. There is now also a blog about what we have been doing over there and some of the things we have witnessed at www.calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

I took my bike this time, which meant cycling 12 miles over Dover Hill (basically a mountain!) from Folkestone to Dover after a three hour train journey. I eventually made it to the ticket office after cycling for over two hours (including a few stops for blackberry munching) and asked for a ticket. The woman booked me a space and asked for my passport. This was the point at which I realised I had not given a single thought to my passport until now – it was safely put away in my drawer at home. Shit! I explained my situation to the woman at the desk and she said she would sell me a ticket, but I might get stopped at passport control. I decided to go for it…and somehow made it to France without getting checked.

All well and good, but in France it is law that you have to carry ID with you at all times. A bit of a problem if you are expecting harassment from French police on a daily basis!

Calais

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