Defying Borders at a De-Facto Refugee Camp in France

The abandoned railway line stretched into the distance, cutting through the scrub land of the French coastline. A group of men were knocking a ball around while three or four more were squatted on the tracks. I walked towards them with my companions, a German doctor and an Italian activist with No Borders – a loose network of political groups campaigning for freedom of movement. I had come to Calais to accompany the No Borders activists in their solidarity work with the hundreds of migrants trying to make it across the channel to the promised land of Britain.

As we approached, the men began to wave and shout out to Sabina*, the No Borders activist. She flicked her hand in greeting as she explained what we were seeing. “Over there, behind the bank, is the Pashtun jungle, where they sleep. If the police come they hide there, they are well hidden, they don’t find them,” she laughed. We walked over to the men sitting on the tracks. Sabina explained we were here with a doctor and asked if anyone had any problems. A large man in a baseball cap said: “Yes, I have problem – police problem. Everyday they arrest me then throw me out. Help me with police problem.”

As the doctor listened to the complaints of the migrants, I spoke with the man with the police problem. His name was Shabir and he had been in Calais for three months. He had tried six times to reach England by stowing away in a freight lorry. “I’m not lucky,” he said. He asked where I was from. When I told him England, he said: “You are lucky. In England it is ok. Here it is not. Here life is difficult. Here is no life.” I asked him why he left Afghanistan. “If I stay,” he said, “the Taliban say they kill me. I can’t stay.”

On the way back to the van, Sabina told me the migrants we had seen all either had documents giving them leave to stay or were minors. The others were too scared of the police to leave the safety of the hidden ‘jungle’ – a concealed camp of tents and tarpaulin shelters. I asked about Shabir and why he was arrested if he had papers. “The law doesn’t apply in Calais,” she told me.

In June 2009, activists from No Borders groups from across the UK and Europe held a week long ‘action camp’ to raise awareness of the plight of the thousand plus migrants living in Calais, people from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine who were desperately trying to reach the UK. The situation had slid from the public view since the closure of the Red Cross Sangatte shelter for migrants in 2002. When the shelter closed, nearly two thousand migrants were evicted and the immigration bottleneck of Calais became a de-facto refugee camp. They began sleeping in the makeshift jungles or in squats. They also faced relentless harassment from the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) – the notorious French public order police that made a name for itself with its violent suppression of the 1968 student/worker uprising.

After activists spent the week building relationships with the various migrant groups, many felt the situation demanded a permanent presence in Calais. Indigo, one of the activists present, told me: “After the camp many migrants asked us ‘Why are the borders still here? You came here to destroy the borders, why are they not gone?’ We couldn’t give them an answer…but we realized that this had to be an ongoing struggle.”

No Borders has now been in Calais for a year. Activists constantly come and go, some stay for days, some much longer. Some spend more time in Calais than in their own countries. Throughout the year they have mixed humanitarian and solidarity work with political work – protests, direct action and raising awareness locally through posters, leaflets and information stalls. They have also clashed frequently with the CRS as they try to monitor police actions, intervene to stop abuses or defend squats and jungles.

I spent much of the next day visiting the Arabic squat and the park with Katharina, a German student. No Borders’ humanitarian work involves distributing essential provisions, helping migrants get legal and medical aid and supporting those in detention centers. However, much of the activist’s time is taken up visiting the migrant camps and maintaining relationships.

The park was a beautifully maintained public space where migrants often gathered to pass the day. It could be peaceful and relaxed on the surface, but reality was always present. In one quiet moment an Eritrean called Henry turned to me and said: “I was a soldier when I was 15.” He told me he was a sniper in the war with Ethiopia in 2000. In a low monotone he described the authoritarian nightmare of life in Eritrea, the oppression and the fear. He told me his uncle had been in solitary confinement in complete darkness for seven years. In that time his only human contact was food shoved through the door and occasional beatings. When he was released into the light he went blind. “If you are going to leave,” he said, “you tell no one, not even your friends, you just go. Say ‘I’m going to the toilet’ and go.”

“Why don’t they let us stay?” he asked me at one point. “The Geneva law says they must let us stay if we are in danger.” He told me he had spent six months in Birmingham in England, studying while his asylum claim was processed. After it was refused he was deported to Italy where he had been fingerprinted – migrants can only claim asylum in the first country they are registered. Henry described being savagely treated by the Italian police and excluded by discriminatory laws. He said the police had killed his friend with a syringe then dumped the body at the African squat. “If I go there,” he said, “They will kill me.”

Henry also described his journey across the Sahara. Like many of the African migrants I spoke to, he described a journey at the mercy of people smugglers who would routinely stop the car deep into the desert and demand more money not to leave them there. Even those that paid would often end up walking when the cars, packed with people piled on top of each other, broke down in the harsh conditions. One Eritrean showed me a video of corpses in the desert found by Libyan police. There was body after body collapsed in the sand, locked in various death poses. Two were still alive and were being hosed down by the police. “After the shower, they will beat him probably,” my companion, said. “Libya police – no good.”

Sometimes it was hard to see what was being accomplished by activists sitting in the park or hanging round the squats, but, Katharina argued: “For them [the migrants] it makes a difference that there are people who want to sit with them by the fire and listen to their stories – or don’t listen – just enjoy the night with them and make them feel like a human being.”

The Arabic squat was an abandoned factory. Most of the site was already rubble, but in the far corner there were three walls and most of a roof where the Palestinians, Iraqis, Kurds and Egyptians cooked, washed and slept. Three men who sat staring out over the rubble greeted us. ‘I love you England’ was scrawled in black paint on the fire stained wall. I asked one of the three migrants, a young, quiet Palestinian with a wispy moustache, why he wanted to go to England. He smiled shyly and said: “I have business there.”

It is Calais’ proximity to England that brings both the migrants and No Borders activists, the majority of whom are British, to Calais. It is just 34 miles from England and the white cliffs of Dover can be seen on a clear day. For many of the migrants I spoke to, Britain was idealized – a haven where their troubles would end. Others had already lived in the UK and had been deported. Some had applied for asylum and chanced the system; others had worked illegally and avoided the authorities. Almost universally, they talked about what a good place Britain was. It was a sharp contrast to their accounts of the racism, exclusion and brutality they faced in other European countries, especially Italy and Greece where most migrants first enter Europe. Listening to their stories it was easy to forget the scapegoating that so often characterizes debate of immigration policy in Britain. Aftab, a Pashtun who had lived in the UK for four years after fleeing the violence of the Nato war in Afghanistan, voiced a sentiment that I heard reflected over and over: “In England people let you live your life.”

After the evening charity-run food distribution, Katharina and I went to the new African squat. The previous squat had been home to over 100 African migrants. After it was evicted a couple of weeks before, some of those migrants set up a jungle at the back of the old site, while around 40 Sudanese moved to another abandoned factory. All the buildings were still standing and were in a reasonable condition, but CRS raids were common.

We had been relaxing in a circle of salvaged office furniture in the yard for about an hour when the cry of “police” went up. All but two of the migrants scattered, quickly disappearing through a gap in the back wall. Katharina and I walked towards the gate, which two dark blue figures were opening for a white van. The two burly figures walked past us without a glance. As we turned to follow, Katharina fiddled with the video camera she had to film any police abuses. One of the officers swiveled round and shouted “Pas de photos! Be careful, eh? Be careful.” We followed them as they ignored the two Sudanese who had documents and so were sitting nervously, eyes on the floor. I went to take a photo and the officer, hearing the click, swung round and cracked Katharina’s camera with his radio, screaming about “photos”. A little later, he tried to block my view as he checked the documents of the two migrants. When I moved round to see properly, he lunged for me, stopping centimeters from my face. He fixed me with a maniacal stare that he held for over a minute before breaking away suddenly and shouting “Chien Anglais! Je deteste les Anglais” (English dog! I hate the English).

For all the French and international charities and institutions that offer food, clothes, medical care and legal advice, it is only No Borders that addresses the issue of police abuse. And in my conversations with the migrants, it was the police they complained of most. The CRS have waged a sustained campaign of often violent and cruel harassment of the migrants. Migrants and activists report that the CRS regularly spray pepper spray and CS gas on bedding, food and cooking utensils, pour chemicals into water supplies and urinate on people’s bedding. According to witnesses they slash tents and shelters and steal possessions during raids. There have also been reports of CRS seizing people while they are praying and hurling Korans on the floor. No Borders activists spend much of their time monitoring the CRS actions and trying to record the abuses. According to Indigo, the abuse and violence decreases when activists are present and since No Borders established a permanent presence the CRS have all but stopped attacking camps using tear gas and rubber bullets – attacks that had been common. Despite this, the CRS have not been afraid to use force against No Borders supporters and clashes are frequent. Tensions peaked in December when No Borders and the French charity Soutien aux Sans-papiers rented a warehouse to provide a safe space for migrants. The day after the centre opened, police surrounded the building before forcing their way in with a battering ram. Twelve activists were arrested in the eviction.

After the CRS left we discussed the police movements with the Sudanese. It seemed they were most vulnerable in the early morning raids so we suggested setting up a dawn police watch for them. They agreed and so Katharina and I spent the next three mornings sitting on old office chairs outside the gates of an abandoned factory with an air horn and whistles. For the first two days we sounded the alarm twice as police vans pulled up. After taking our details they quickly moved off. By the third day they had even stopped their previously regular drive-bys. However, at breakfast on the second day we discovered the Palestinian squat was raided a few minutes after they had passed us. There also seemed to be a marked increase in migrants being arrested on their way to and from food distribution – something the CRS have agreed not to do. The day I left, we cycled the routes migrants walked to breakfast and followed CRS vans, hoping to deter any seizures or at least to warn the migrants.

The willingness to take on the police is one thing that sets No Borders apart from the NGOs and charities operating in Calais. Another is its unabashedly political nature. As Indigo explained: “No Borders espouses the view that borders are part of the philosophy of the state, that they separate people from each other, that they cause suffering… [We] fight to have the abolition of border controls and borders altogether.”

The radical nature of No Borders has often caused unease amongst the more mainstream migrant rights organizations – groups No Borders activists refer to as “reformist”. However, Indigo argued, their commitment on the ground has built up a level of trust and respect for No Borders from many of the people in these groups. He claimed: “We have managed to show people in Calais and show the other NGOs that confrontation and a political agenda isn’t something to shy away from, it is something that all groups should be aiming towards.”

In both France and the UK, where anti-immigrant sentiment is rife and a hard-line approach to immigration is one of the most popular agendas a politician can pursue, there is little sign that the abolition of borders is an idea that will gain purchase in public discourse. According to Katharina, most of the locals in Calais barely respond to the plight of the migrants. “They’ve seen so much of it that they just don’t look at it anymore,” she said. Yet many of the those involved in Calais migrant solidarity still rank the political side of the work as even more important than the humanitarian work and refuse to be disheartened by the gap between their ideals and mainstream views. Katharina told me: “Maybe we don’t change the situation here but we bring our point of view into public opinion.” She added: “Just by being here, it is a message to the people.”

The political beliefs fuelling No Borders’ work in Calais is also something widely understood by many of the migrants themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, this often goes beyond beliefs about border controls and incorporates the wider philosophies informing them. A number of times I heard the term ‘No Borders’ being used as shorthand for a belief in personal freedom and respect for others. One time, a Pashtun called Hamid said to me: “I am No Borders. If you want to go to the Mosque and pray, go to the mosque and pray. If you want to go to the disco and drink, go to the disco and drink.”

Even with a permanent presence, No Borders does not have the numbers or the resources to feed and house all the migrants in Calais, or to protect them from the police. With their radical ideals, they also seem to be fighting a losing battle in changing the anti-immigrant sentiments that dominate public debate. However, listening to the migrants themselves, the value of their solidarity work was clear. The migrants are constantly dehumanized; treated as vermin by the authorities, cattle by the people smugglers and victims by the charities. No Borders activists not only offer help to people suffering in a near hopeless situation, they also offer respect and friendship to equals and, above all, they treat them like people.

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

*Names of those included in the article have been changed to protect their identities.

Photo from Indybay