Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Migrant Solidarity in Calais

Having heard about the stepping up of police harassment and attacks on migrants in Calais over the summer I thought I'd hop across the channel myself to show solidarity. In the wake of the French authorities' vow to clear Calais of migrants by the end of the year the CRS (the French riot police) had been given the green light to pressure migrants into leaving by beating them, throwing tear gas in tents, destroying their tents and belongings, even resorting to gas the one water tap for 500 people. Those showing solidarity with the migrants experienced a piece of this aggression, being pushed around, insulted, detained temporarily and prevented from documenting the CRS abuses - you make our jobs (migrant-bashing) harder and we'll make your lives tough was the message.

On my first visit, around a month ago, it was clear that our presence, whilst not stopping the raids and detentions, at least mitigated the violence of the bully boys, who in typical cowardly fashion, didn't hesitate to throw their weight around when just one or two volunteers were present, but were a lot shyer with greater numbers and cameras present. The frequent raids on some of the squats at night or in the early hours, with migrants being released soon after, were blatantly designed just to intimidate them into leaving Calais.

The announcement, a few weeks later, that Calais was to be 'cleared' of migrants within a week had more of an effect with most leaving the largest Pashtun jungle, although others sleeping rough or in squats generally stayed. Despite the destruction of the Pashtun jungle to much media fanfare, by the end of the week the squats and those sleeping rough were still there with the police preferring to concentrate resources on preventing migrants returning to the jungle and continuing with the intimidation, warning migrants that their tents or squats would be destroyed the next day. Cops in plain clothes even visited one squat, shouting insults and threatening to beat up the migrants.

Although there was no full-on immediate 'clearance' that first week, the police weren't tolerating any public show of resistance, clamping down heavily on the small-scale demos on the Friday and Sunday, using the handy French law banning any demo that the authorities haven't been notified of in advance. Volunteers were even summoned for questioning and held for four hours regarding one of these demos, which saw farcical tug-of-war with a banner scenes. Even those who weren't at the demo were held for questioning. In the second week some of the smaller jungles were cleared and those sleeping rough in the centre under bridges were targetted with police forcing them to take all their belongings, bedding and shelters with them at short notice, without any indication as to where they should go. Again farcical scenes ensued with their property going round in circles. One of the squats was demolished restricting even further the migrants' options. The final stages of the 'cleansing' of Calais are in progress now with these migrants being increasingly targetted and talk has moved on now to charter flights to Afghanistan, which immigration minister Besson promises are imminent. This is probably what Afghanis fear most as for many it will mean being caught up in the nightmare of the never-ending 'war on terror' and having to pay back the debts incurred to get to Europe with no means to do so.

At times Calais felt like a town under occupation with hardly a few minutes going by without seeing a national police car or CRS van full of riot police. Calais was swamped with cops. Calais may be cleared of migrants for a while to suit the immediate needs of domestic British/French relations, but, short of a costly permanent police presence in Calais and other ports, migrants will begin drifting back fleeing wars and abject poverty in their homelands searching for something a little more secure in the UK, which most choose as they already have contacts there or at least know English.

Instead of seeking real global solutions to these causes of migration, massive sums are being spent for short-term political gain. As is often the case with mobilisations, most will blame activists and volunteers for the exorbitant expense of the police operations, secure that they will never need to undertake hazardous journeys across borders in search of shelter and security.

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