In the first of a two-part series, written before the tragic death of four refugees who drown crossing the English Channel in October, a Calais-based refugee activist writes about the conditions in the camps in northern France, and the plight of those attempting to come to Britain.
For months, refugees in Calais and Dunkirk have been a community under siege. Their existence has always been precarious, with appalling living conditions, constant harassment from the police and unrelenting hostility from the French authorities. Recently these attacks have been stepped up to levels not seen since the destruction of the original Calais jungle in 2016. There has been a long series of assaults on the squalid settlements where the refugees live. The area available to them on waste ground and in industrial estates on the edge of Calais has been systematically reduced. Eviction orders have been made and brutal clearances carried out with tents and possessions destroyed or confiscated, arrests made and refugees forcibly removed.
Gradually the refugees have been squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces, with shelters and tents in lay-bys, on verges and every available tiny corner. Earlier this year, the majority of the main Calais camp was completely cleared to coincide with a visit from Priti Patel and the French interior minister to Calais. Steel fences were constructed to keep refugees out.
A further series of attacks left the refugees scattered all over town in car parks and on waste ground. Many sleep in the open with tarpaulins and blankets only. Possession of a tent makes a refugee an instant target for the CRS riot police eviction squads. One Sudanese refugee, sitting on open waste ground sandwiched between two main roads near the mouth of the Eurotunnel next to a drain culvert told us, “This is my home now”, pointing to a plastic sheet and a rolled blanket. As storms hit Calais, refugees huddle under the overhanging roof of a sports centre, in doorways of disused shops and under the bridges of the canals which criss-cross the centre of Calais.
A site on the edge of town between the main hospital and the ring road has grown from seventy people to maybe 700. “It’s the last piece of land left to us in Calais”, explained a refugee from North East Africa. Tarpaulins are thrown over tree branches and strung from bushes. One group was evicted from the main Calais site to a patch of scrubland on the road from the port to the motorway. Evicted again, they slept in a row along a wire fence at a sports ground. Another eviction left them on the edge of a field, protected only by a thin hedge. Nearby, another group is alongside a ditch beside a motorway slip road. Every two days, the CRS move in to the largest remaining camp.
They grab tents, make the refugees move and steal bags and belongings. “It’s psychological torture”, a refugee explained to a British journalist. “Every other day, 8.30 until 10.30, they come to attack us.” Refugees filmed one such incursion. A young refugee is clubbed across the head with a CRS baton and lies screaming at the feet of the cops. A woman has her bag taken and is pinned to the ground as she desperately tries to recover all the possessions she has in the world. The film can’t be used. Any distinctive bit of clothing — a bright hoodie, an unusual rucksack, a headscarf — can be used to identify a refugee and they can be targeted.
The footage is shocking, but it doesn’t shock the refugees. If they resist, they will come in for even worse treatment. This is their life. In Dunkirk, the situation is similar. Hundreds of refugees are in scattered camps in the woods on the west edge of town. Some are in derelict buildings. These include families with young children. One child, playing with a volunteer, decided the volunteer had been naughty and needed to be arrested. She knew exactly how this was done, pinning their arms behind them and marching them off towards a van. She has seen this too many times before. As in Calais, there has been a series of evictions here.
When a camp is cleared, the police are followed by clearance trucks which take every item, then by chain saws and bulldozers which literally level the area. A wood which had a small camp in it the day before ends up looking like the surface of the moon. These are refugees from some of the most dangerous countries in the world. Some have come from countries ravaged by years of war and destruction. Others are from countries where brutality and political persecution are routine. Talking about his home, one refugee said, “if you’re lucky, the armed men come to the village and say you must leave because they will burn it tomorrow. If you’re unlucky, they burn it straight away, with the people in it”. It is not uncommon when standing with the volunteer first aiders in the camps to see wounds and scars which make you wince to imagine how they were sustained. The strategy of the state in Calais and Dunkirk — and in other refugee settlements in other towns — is simple.
They are trying to make it impossible to live there. This is what the hostile environment means. Yet there is no way these refugees can “go home” to the countries they have fled from. It would be a death sentence, even if there were a practical way of doing it. For a tiny minority, the place they want to go to is Britain. It is estimated only 3 percent of refugees coming to Europe want to go to Britain. Overwhelmingly these are the people who have family in Britain or who speak English and no other European language. They have strong grounds for making asylum claims, even under an immigration system designed to exclude rather than to meet the needs of refugees. Yet there is no way in which a claim can be made. Such a claim must be made in Britain, but there is no legal way to get to Britain to make it.
They are forced into taking the most terrifying risks to make the claims they are entitled to make under the UN Convention on Refugees, under European law and, in theory at least, under British law. Much attention has focussed on boats crossing the Channel. Numbers are small, though increasing as conditions in France get worse and worse. Many of the boats are not seaworthy. All are overcrowded potential death traps. Some are not even boats. Occasionally an attempt is made to cross the busiest shipping lane in the world on an inflatable kayak or windsurfing board. The desperation that would provoke such an attempt is unimaginable. Inevitably, there have been deaths. In fact, it is little short of a miracle that there have not yet been more. It is inconceivable that there will not come a day when there is a mass drowning in the Channel. In August, a young refugee drowned trying to cross. The tiny boat which he and his friend were using capsized.
One of them could swim and made it back to the coast. The other didn’t. There was great sadness and anger in the camps. Yet there was no surprise and no shock. The refugees know that to make the attempt is to face death. They know it, but they will tell you that they feel they have no choice. About 200 people gathered at a vigil in the centre of Calais to commemorate the death, including some of the refugees. It takes great courage as a refugee to attend a public demonstration in Calais. No pictures or video clips were taken and he was not identified by name, as his friends hadn’t yet been able to complete the heart-breaking task of contacting his family back home to tell them what had happened.
There was just one placard in the centre of the circle, where his friends paid tribute. It read, “Cette Frontiere Tue” (This border kills). Way back in the 19th century, Engels wrote about how the poor die. Appalling working and living conditions, hunger, abuse, exploitation and oppression leave them condemned sometimes to an early and brutal death. He called this “social murder”. After 200 years of capitalism, social murder is as rampant as it ever was. Labour’s former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, used the phrase to describe the deaths of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Social murder is what happens when a refugee dies in the Channel trying to find a safe place to live.
In part two we look at the hostile environment awaiting refugees who make it to Britain, and at the support they receive from anti-racist activist groups there.