Notes From the Margins…

Stateless in Calais

  • March 18, 2012
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I’m in Calais at the moment, doing some articles for IPS news about the current situation regarding migrants in the city in view of the upcoming French elections.  It’s my third visit to the city in just over two years, and I never cease to be amazed at the brutal inhumanity of the exclusionary policies that have been put into place here at the behest of the French and UK governments.

For more than a decade now, Calais has been a migrant bottleneck, where asylum seekers and economic migrants from across the world come to seek a way across the Channel to get to the UK.  And for the last two years the local police and the CRS have been waging what is effectively a war of attrition, whose ultimate purpose is to drive migrants out of the city and deter others from following their example.

This campaign is petty, vindictive and relentless.  Raids on migrant squats; confiscation and/or destruction of their few belongings; random arrests and beatings; all these methods have become routine practices in Calais.   Today there are about a hundred migrants in the city now, about the same number that I found last time I came here in January 2011.

The nationalities have changed somewhat; in addition to Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese and other African nationalities, the migrant population includes increasing numbers of  Albanians, most of whom have come from Greece, where the collapsed economy no longer provides work for them.   All of them find themselves exposed to the same precarious life in squats and gutted factories, surviving on free meals provided by local NGOs and subject to the constant repressive vigilance of the police, while they try and get onto a truck heading for the UK.

Two days before my arrival the police evicted thirty-five migrants from a squat known as Africa House and promptly demolished it.  The fact that they are now homeless is immaterial.  The sub-prefect of the Calais prefecture recently boasted of his intention to drive the city’s migrants into Belgium.  With Sarkozy desperately seeking to claw back votes from the Front Nationale and promising to cut both legal and illegal immigration, undocumented migrants can expect little sympathy from the French authorities.

The UK government is also complicit in this progress.   For years the UK has pressured France to become more proactive and aggressive in dispersing migrants away from the truck depots and ferry terminals through which they seek to cross the Channel.   This summer some of the athletes in the London Olympics will be staying in Calais, and the word is out amongst local NGOs that that the UK  and French governments are more determined than ever to make Calais ‘migrant-free.’.

All this has transformed Calais into a symptom of Europe’s dysfunctional immigration policies, and a mirror of the global injustice, indifference and callous inhumanity that drives such migration in the first place.   Within half an hour hanging out at the food distribution centre near the docks I met an Afghan who had been living in the UK for 12 years, who had been deported the previous year after serving a six year sentence for assault.

The UK authorities had done this even though he had two children in Bradford.   So he had had made his way back from Afghanistan in an attempt to get into the UK illegally.  Now after three months in Calais, he had given up, and was accepting a voluntary return package which meant that he would probably never see his kids again.

Another Afghan had come to Calais hoping to get to the UK with his teenage daughter, leaving his wife and three children in Greece.   Now he had given up trying to cross the Channel and was applying for asylum in France.  In the meantime he cannot leave France to see his wife and children and they cannot come to France to see him.

The world of migrant Calais is filled with stories like this.  But no government gives a damn.   In the early 21st century, stateless migrants remain, as they always have,  at the bottom of the ladder, and Calais is one of many similar places all over Europe where European civilisation, as Gandhi once observed, remains little more than a good idea.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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