Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Border stories

Frances Webber investigates the tabloid fantasies and desperate realities surrounding migrants in Calais

October 1, 2009
4 min read

In the June/July issue of Red Pepper, Alex Clarke from Bristol No Borders reported on the plight of the migrants living in makeshift settlements around Calais. Since then the threats facing these migrants have escalated, from scabies and malnutrition to the imminent destruction of camps by the French police and an increased risk of arrest and forced deportation to war zones.

By the time you read this, the area of wooded dunes near Calais may have been cleared of the shanties that are home to over a thousand migrants and would-be asylum seekers. They come from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, all seeking security in the UK.

In July, French immigration minister Eric Besson denied that the bulldozing of the camps was imminent and pledged that humanitarian organisations would be fully involved in any clearance plan. Calais deputy prefect Gerard Gavory immediately contradicted him, emphasising that the operation was to take place soon, that no notice would be given to the organisations providing humanitarian assistance, and that those in the camps would be forcibly deported if necessary.

Both the French and the British authorities want to get rid of the camps, considering them an embarrassing eyesore for tourists, and an emblem of the ‘disorderly’ movement of non-Europeans who insist on ignoring national borders in search of safety. Proposals include setting up a new detention centre for migrants in the British-controlled part of Calais docks to make control and removal easier.

In July, Gordon Brown announced that £15 million would be spent on more detection devices to search lorries leaving French ports for the UK, and in return French premier Nicolas Sarkozy promised to speed up the removal of undocumented migrants. Efforts have also been made to persuade those seeking asylum to claim in France rather than the UK.

The UN High Commission for Refugees full-time representative in Calais, along with NGOs such as France Terre d’Asile, has tried to disabuse the migrants of their hopeful fantasies about life in Britain; and in May the French authorities made it possible to claim asylum in Calais, instead of in Arras, 100 kilometres away. But the presence of relatives and friends, the enduring belief in British fairness and the Dublin Regulation laying down EU member-states’ responsibility for asylum claims all deter claims in France. The last allows removal to the migrants’ point of entry into Europe – generally Greece. Here await inhuman conditions, a refusal rate of 99.9 per cent and deportations to torturing states.

Whether or not the expected bulldozing happens, the migrants have more immediate problems. Apart from the ever-present threat of arrest and deportation, and the reality of frequent police round-ups and attacks with tear gas, they have to contend with living in utter destitution (since if they don’t claim asylum they are ineligible for any welfare benefits). For shelter, most have dwellings of plastic sheeting, cardboard and ply. There is no running water and no sanitation. In June a 32-year-old Eritrean drowned while trying to wash himself in the canal, and recently the insanitary conditions have led to an outbreak of scabies.

Salam, the main voluntary group working with the migrants, distributes food daily at seven coastal sites as well as providing legal advice and help. It has negotiated with the local authority to allow the provision of showers by a Catholic aid organisation, but no one knows when they will start or what conditions will be attached.

Most of the hostility to the encamped migrants comes from this side of the Channel. The Daily Mail, for example, has run scare stories about human chains of asylum seekers across Calais motorways carrying out knifepoint robberies of British tourists. But these stories have no basis in fact. The border police at Coquelles have had no such reports, and the Calais police denied the Mail’s story that they advised holidaymakers to keep car windows and doors closed.

The No Borders camp at Calais in June brought over several hundred protesters. But solidarity with the migrants attracts police harassment. The camp was blockaded and demonstrations in the town were attacked by police, who made more than 20 arrests. Meanwhile, harassment of volunteers distributing humanitarian aid continues, under French laws that criminalise assistance to undocumented migrants.

The immigration minister denies that this law, designed to target traffickers and profiteers, penalises solidarity. He has promised to meet solidarity groups and to extend exemptions for social and medical workers. But Salam notes that the proposed exemptions don’t cover volunteers, and point to the recent prosecution of its vice-president, Jean-Claude Lenoir. Although he was acquitted in July of insulting a police officer, the prosecution has appealed.

No Borders Brighton’s ‘Mailwatch’ is at

http://nobordersbrighton.blogspot.com

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power