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 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 phone boxes, 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 mementos – 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.
Go, move, quit!
The morning CRS wake-up call: “Allez! Allez! Degache! Degache!” (“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.”
A new world
It’s true, where there is power there is resistance. Power in Calais is biopolitical, a 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 medicine.
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.” 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 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 Durruti, Spanish anarchist)