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In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?

Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

May 3, 2017
7 min read


Amy CorcoranAmy Corcoran is an artist and organiser for Art the Arms Fair, and a PhD student at ISCI, Queen Mary University of London.


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The fire in Dunkirk’s makeshift refugee camp has reignited awareness that the ‘refugee crisis’ is far from over. After Calais was bulldozed in a vain and cynical attempt at denial of responsibilities, events in Dunkirk require that we reflect on what went wrong in Calais.

Calais no longer needs any introduction. We are all aware of the humanitarian crisis that unfolded on our nearest shores. Regardless of our personal political viewpoints, Calais seeped into our collective consciousness through the stream of images and headlines that crossed the borders onto our front pages, in a way that those whose faces were depicted could not.

‘This is the worst camp for war refugees in Europe, if not in the world,’ said Christian Salomé, the director of voluntary migrant help group L’Auberge des Migrants.

And if had you gone there you would believe him. Not enough toilets, not enough running water, insufficient rubbish disposal, minimal healthcare, no street lighting in the long winter nights. The land the migrants were forced to build this iteration of the Jungle on was a sand dune by the sea, freezing and muddy in winter. What little infrastructure that had been put in place was done so by local support groups, and by the migrants themselves.

Those who went

As the crisis worsened a myriad of small groups sprung up to provide whatever support they could – from local ones in Calais to all across the UK and Europe. The grassroots response to the situation was overwhelming, and some of the organisations became pretty sizeable operations in their own right (Refugee Community Kitchen and Help Refugees being two examples).

On a smaller scale, individuals clubbed together with friends to work in one of the Jungle’s community kitchens, schools or distribution points, people held art auctions and fundraiser events, signed petitions, protested political inaction and more. Facebook groups appeared all over the place disseminating information, organising car shares, communicating what’s needed in the camps and giving updates. The warehouse where volunteers sorted tonnes of donations every day so that clothing points would have relevant gear for the season, and the kitchens could come in and work out what they could cook from the ingredients available, was a small wonder of organisation and effectiveness.

One of the groups in Calais the longest was No Borders. They seem to have gathered in some circles a negative reputation as an anarchist group, and that they may be, but while some might not agree with their overarching aims it is undeniable that they provided, for an extended period, day-to-day means for destitute migrants to survive when no one else paid the crisis any attention.

Government inaction

It would be unfair to say that nothing was provided by the French government. After a damning criticism from a Human Rights Watch report, they made sure they provided the absolute minimum of useless tokenistic gestures in the face of needs they could easily meet, but did not want to – unlike their extravagant spending on ruthless riot police who collaborated with fascists attacking migrants and repeatedly beat migrants and tear gassed the Jungle. They even stopped aid reaching the camp.

Camps of migrants around channel ports are deeply politically inconvenient for the UK, French and EU governments. They highlight problems with their idea of EU borders, their unwillingness to support refugees and their willingness to cast aside their legal commitments and throw innocent people to the wolves of starvation, lack of shelter and sanitation, and human traffickers, for the sake of winning votes at home.

An absence of aid agencies

In the face of a crisis, with no action being taken at state level, surely major aid agencies would step in. Is it not at the very core of every major aid agencies mission to intervene when people are living in such conditions? Yet, large-scale NGOs were almost entirely absent in Calais ever since the Red Cross left.

Why? It is a problem that Calais is pretty much as close to the British Isles as you can get. Aid organisations are notorious for their use of images of starving black children. The message is: those poor Africans are just in trouble over there, it’s nothing to do with you but you can be a lovely person and help them for less than the price of a pint a month. Within this focus, the systematic problems with our society are bypassed, ignored or normalised.

Calais was too threatening and controversial to be commercially viable for big aid agencies controlled by funding departments to go near. Getting involved in a situation that is relevant to your supporters’ lives is very different to jetting across the world and trying to fix other problems that are distant, both geographically and emotionally.

The aid sector is funded by public donations, but also by states. In the UK the Department for International Development gives out billions of pounds a year in aid – and that appears to be more than enough to co-opt almost every aid organisation out there. This is made more obvious when we see that Médecins Sans Frontières, who stayed, rejected EU money in protest against how the EU planned to deal with refugees.

Of course, any serious look at the crises in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iraq – where these refugees are fleeing from – starts to show causes that Britain and its allies are very much the root of: climate change, wars to grab resources, colonialism, the arms trade, trade regulations, and third world debt. Whilst talking about these issues may begin to address their causes, funding departments at big aid agencies hate it, so it must be avoided at all costs. Setting up a branded mission in Calais would acknowledge the problem, and therefore must not be done.

All of that said, huge credit should be paid to Doctors of the World and Médecins Sans Frontières, the only two major relief agencies working in Calais by the end. They show a genuine commitment to principles that other institutions merely profess. They act out of genuine concern, without allowing politics to interfere with their mission – something that sadly seems to be rare.

History repeating

So, what went wrong in Calais? Ultimately, borders, politics and a lack of concern for human life and dignity by those entrusted to protect it. Calais serves as a grim reminder of how little promises and lives mean when economic and political motivations come into play. It shows us the true inhuman and cruel nature of states, willing to ignore and even worsen the situation of humans in crisis within their realms.

Calais showed us how ineffective and co-opted the aid sector is – fundamentally unable to stand against government policy or to acknowledge that roots of problems in the world lie with us. And it demonstrated that only a couple of agencies were able to stay true to their mission and their humanity – they deserve plaudits for their integrity as well as their work.

However, it was also a triumph of anarchy. The response shows us how in the face of humanitarian crisis, much-maligned anarchists and anarchist methods have delivered solidarity and aid. In contrast, the intuitions often lauded as the best in our society, failed so comprehensively.

And it seems that history is repeating. As Dunkirk burns, we might ask: who will hear their call, and who will choose not to?

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Amy CorcoranAmy Corcoran is an artist and organiser for Art the Arms Fair, and a PhD student at ISCI, Queen Mary University of London.


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