DAY 164: Back

March 10th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink


I had to return to Calais, once again,. Although I wasn’t there on the dreadful first day, (February 29th, an easy date to remember), a massive police incursion into the jungle with tear gas assaults and a callous disregard of the people whose houses were being demolished, I, and many others, had already foreseen it. After the court in Lille on the 25th gave permission for the destruction, I wrote (under the pen name of ‘London2Calais’):

‘It would be hard to equal the naked brutality and inhumanity of the Lille court’s decision, which will lay the way open for expelling an estimated 4500 refugees from their homes, effectively destroying the social spaces – schools, churches, mosques, cafes, libraries  which refugees and volunteers have painstakingly built up since the Calais municipality dumped them on the patch of hazardous waste ground which we call the ‘Jungle’, last April 1st. This act of state violence and barbarism is the latest in a long history of brutal repression against refugees over the last twenty years. It is distinguished both by its scale (the number of refugees has increased, and is continuing to increase) and by its barefaced audacity. All charitable organizations were united in attacking the phoney figures on which the prefect based her case; and in calling attention to the urgent need to protect the 1000 minors under threat of eviction. The court completely disregarded the convincing case which they put up; and is insisting that demolition must go ahead as the Préfet demanded.

From its beginnings, London2Calais has been rooted in the Calais ‘jungle’, its people and their struggles – to escape their situation, to escape the state’s unceasing repression, and to assert their own identity and culture against the ‘refugee/migrant’ stereotypes. We have, to the best of our ability, brought support and solidarity while recognizing their need to determine their own future, wherever it may be. We are therefore proud to stand with them as they face the violence of the state, opposing it by whatever means they think best. It may be that the blatant disregard of human rights law implicit in the Lille court’s decision can be overturned by appeal to a higher court; it may be that direct action on the ground is called for. We shall not desert the refugees of the jungle, and the hundreds who have chosen to identify with their cause – because we knoe they are in the right.

In a telling contrast, children in Gaza – the most hard pressed and overcrowded region in the world – were asked whether they would accept Syrian refugees as guests. Unanimously they said that they would welcome them. Their selfless and generous response shames us, the people of Europe and of France in particular. We call on the people of Britain and France to break with the repressive policies of their governments, to overturn the rulings of the Calais authorities, and to open a new age of openness.’

The events of the 29th were described in particular, by ‘Help Refugees’:

‘Today in the Calais camp hundreds of riot police were present, carrying guns and detonating tear gas canisters which affected men, women, children (and BBC journalists), some which caused fires to start all across camp. Many refugees who had come to France to escape genuine war zones lost their belongings and homes again today.

The morning began with 55 CRS vans pulling up and unloading hundreds of riotCRS police. Bulldozers and water cannons were lined up outside camp and teams from the Prefecture began to systematically destroy shelters using mallets and chainsaws. The police formed a human shield preventing refugees from collecting their valuables and used tear gas to repeatedly drive back residents as they dismantled occupied and unoccupied homes. More tear gas was used to force additional residents to evacuate their homes and the structures were then torn down preventing them from being able to gather their personal affairs.

Our teams on the ground spent their time grabbing fire extinguishers to contain the burning shelters and washing the eyes of children caught in the tear gas, as well as trying to hand emergency supplies to refugees leaving the camp, many confused as to where to go.teargas

It was confirmed in French court last week that – despite Help Refugees census finding 3,455 people in the Southern area of the camp marked for eviction – there are only 1156 alternative accommodation places currently available in Calais and throughout France, leaving a deficit of 2,299  The French government have not since informed us that they have found more spaces to accommodate the total number of people they are evicting from the Southern part of the camp.

In a press conference last week the Prefect assured journalists that the dismantling of the Southern section of the ‘jungle’ would be gradual, humane and respectful of the dignity of the people living in the camp. The Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazenove reiterated this insisting the approach would be humanitarian. The lawyer from the Prefecture at the hearing last Tuesday said that the two key reasons for evacuating the Jungle were for 1) the dignity of refugees and 2) their security. The scenes of panic we witnessed today were a far cry from these principles.The wellbeing of each and every one of the residents of the camp continues to be our main priority but of course, at this distressing time and as night falls we are especially concerned for the 423 unaccompanied children living in the Jungle.’

As I say, although I missed the opening events, I wanted to return, partly as a witness, partly in solidarity – that rather questionable concept which implies a way in which you can identify with the victims of an injustice which you have not suffered yourself. I know no man is an island, but the sense in which one can feel another’s pain is indirect. The sight of the destruction all around -a sea of mud populated only by policemen,IMG_0379 with bulldozers constantly at work – is sickening, particularly as viewed from the school which , as what’s ironically called a ‘lieu de vie’ is allowed to stay standing with no children. (Their mothers are understandably reluctant to let them cross the newly-created desert which lies between the school and the new homes in which they have taken refuge.) Tacitus 1900 years ago gave a Scottish general the words (describing the Romans): Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – ‘They make a wilderness and call it peace’. In the same spirit the French state has described its operations in the jungle as ‘humanitarian’.

Is there hope? Of course, but for what? From ‘Passeurs d’hospitalités’, I take this report (my translation):

‘Yesterday the flight from the south zone, which was being destroyed, to the reprieved north seemed a defeat; today you can see a dynamic reconstruction taking place. The north zone is more populated, empty spaces are filled in, new spaces are cleared and flattened. The sheds which people have managed to move, they rebuild, they consolidate. People recreate their shelter, their space And this in spite of the awareness that the days of the north zone where tis rebuiling is going on anre themselves numbered. Here’s an ability to start again, even if you’ll have to start yet again, which is striking. These people who have such an ability to rebuild – and to rebuild their lives – we should fight to hang on to them, and England should fight to welcome them; but we, idiots that we are, think only of pushing them out.

I’ve more to say, but I’d better leave this for now; I’ll leave you with Couperin’s beautiful version of Jeremiah’s lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem: ‘How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!’