Calais –Nomination for European City of Shame, 2010
This is Dariush's article:
Calais -- nomination for European City of Shame 2010
Sometimes a place -- it could be a town, a camp, a crossing, or some
muddy field -- becomes a concentration point, a sink, a trap, for all
the latent evil of the system of power that surrounds it. Calais is
not just a symbol of the brutality of the European border regime, of
the violence of colonialism turned inwards and compressed by "Fortress
Europe". The repression and misery here is very real, every day.
Calais is the only town where the French police division called the
CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), dedicated riot police with
a vicious reputation, is on permanent duty. The policing strategy here
is simple: harass migrants, terrorise them away from Calais and the
France/UK border with the constant threat and reality of arrest,
beatings and detention. Like an occupying army, CRS companies are
based in barracks and rotated through Calais on three week tours.
There are somewhere around 300 destitute migrants living in Calais.
They come here in the hope of making it across the 26 miles of water
to the UK. There used to be several times that number, but the
clampdown has been at least partially successful. (Though the
political ambiguity here: does the repression shift the migrants away
from the border; or only make them try harder to get across?) Since
the closure in 2002 of the Red Cross run Sangatte refugee camp,
migrants have lived in whatever squats, shacks, tents, ruins "slums
and holes in the wall" they can find. Last September the Pashtun
migrants' "Jungle" was evicted in another show of state force. The
remaining Pashtuns currently live in a camp of disused train stock not
far from the old site.
I spent most of my recent two week stint in Calais with the mainly
Sudanese, Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who live in the
squat called "Africa House". This deserted factory has been occupied
by different groups of African migrants for a number of years now.
When I arrived at the start of April, the CRS were raiding Africa
House early every morning. Every morning: beatings, and more
sans-papiers arrested, "controlled" and fingerprinted, and either just
held for a few hours or overnight, or the unlucky ones taken to the
detention centre at Coquelles. In the daytime, they patrol the streets
in their white vans, picking up migrants on the way to the charity
food distribution point, or by the water pumps, or at the phoneboxes,
or in the park catching a moment of sunshine. Calais without papers --
no safety nowhere.
Fear compounded with deprivation. In bigger raids the CRS are followed
by council workers who take away everything, blankets, tents, even
firewood. Drinking water poured into the sand. Sans-papiers have no
recourse when their personal belongings -- phones and money, or photos
and momentos -- are stolen by the men sent by the mayor who has
promised to "clean up the city".
"Calais, Calais, it's a horrible town." While I saw some solidarity
from locals who gave warning of police raids, I also saw how shops and
cafes in Calais are routinely "closed for a private event" whenever a
black face appears at the door. On goes everyday life, above and
below. Shopping malls, booze runs, Friday night on main street,
sunshine in the park ... beatings, detentions, humiliations,
fingerprintings, cataloguings, photographings, questionings, controls,
paper checks, "disinfectant" sprayings. Swastikas found scrawled on
the wall in soap after a police raid. The same shitty charity food
every day handed out in a blank open space surrounded by barbed wire.
The morning CRS wake-up call: allez allez - degage degage! (Go Go -
get out get out).
There are other nominees -- Brussels, Ceuta and Melilla, Lesbos ... --
but personally I'm backing Calais as clear frontrunner for European
City of Shame 2010. Some Darfuri refugees said -- "the police here are
worse than the Janjaweed. In Darfur you die in a moment and it's over.
Here they kill us slowly, day by day."
It's true, where there is power there is resistance. Power in Calais
is biopolitical, remorseless drip of control and deprivation.
Resistance, too, is small scale, everyday. Our morning patrols,
roadblocks or just trying to give a bit of early warning, are
sustained by cups of sugary tea brewed over pallet wood fires.
Smashing wood, carrying water, cleaning a wound, gifts of friendship,
gifts of words, Arabic words Amharic words English words, smiles and
gestures of welcome, phone numbers, morsels of information, music as
I did morning watch in Africa House every morning, in the afternoon I
taught English classes, in the evening I walked with my friends to get
food and water. Teachers and students will come and go, this is a
transient place, but we can share some useful information that should
help those who make it across. The lesson I'll always remember was on
the future tense, we each wrote on the board one sentence about a
world we would like to live in. "One day we will live in a world with
no borders and no governments." "There will be no wars." "There will
be no police." And one friend wrote: "we will all live together like
we do here in Africa House." Sharing firewood and sugar, welcoming
newcomers, keeping watch together, learning each others' languages. My
friend, one day soon I'll see you here in England, inshallah, and make
you welcome, as you made me welcome in Africa House.
Calais is a shameful place. But in the holes, in the cracks, adversity
creates courage, warmth, sparks of resistance, seeds of the future.
Against the searchlights of the CRS -- the firelights of travellers.
Calais gave me a new meaning for old words: "We have always lived in
slums and holes in the wall ... We are not in the least afraid of
ruins ... We carry a new world here, in our hearts." (Buenaventura
Activists are always needed to work with Calais No Borders: both on
the ground, and back in the UK. We have had a constant presence in
Calais since the No Borders camp last June. Apart from police patrols
the work can include first aid, opening squats and social centres,
film-making, assistance for the many unaccompanied minors in Calais,
supporting migrants arriving in the UK, solidarity demos, exhibitions
and infonights ... and much more.
For more information see our blog: http://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/
UK phone: 07534 008380.