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‘Killing us by heart’

A report from Calais Migrant Solidarity

In 1999, the French government opened Sangatte, a disused storage warehouse, as a response to the migrants sleeping on the streets of Calais. Until its closure in 2002, the centre was accused of attracting migrants heading for the UK. Sangatte was the scene of mass breakthroughs of Eurotunnel fencing, violence between police and migrants, and grim conditions. But its closure did nothing to reduce the numbers of migrants. They were simply pushed back into the streets, squats and ‘jungles’ of Calais. Then larger informal camps grew up.

No Borders activists in Cardiff became engaged in early 2009 when a ‘no border camp’ was being organised. Like groups in cities across Europe, we support migrants in our community: helping people access legal and health services, helping find accommodation, teaching English. Cardiff is a significant point on the UK government’s dispersal policy, which attempts to reduce the concentration of asylum seekers in London and the south-east of England.

In spring 2009, France agreed with the UK to work on eliminating ‘concentrations of foreigners illegally present at the border and its vicinity’. Later that summer, the Pashtu jungle, home to hundreds of mainly Afghan migrants, was destroyed by the authorities. In November, as winter kicked in however, there were still hundreds of young Pashtu in the town, sleeping under bridges, in rough shelters and tents. Unaccompanied children as young as eight years old were offered no protection from the weather or police. So activists took new forms of action, living with the migrants and acting in defence and solidarity.

In 2011, activists produced a dossier, ‘Calais: This border kills’. It details police violence and thousands of arrests (which led to fewer than 50 deportations). To an extent, activists staying with migrants and using recording equipment discouraged police violence, but the dossier makes it clear ‘that the violence at the Calais border is not the work of a few rogue police, a few bad apples.’ The repression is systematic: ‘brutality and harassment in Calais are deliberate weapons used in the service of French, British and European immigration policy’.

Forward to April 2015. On a desolate wasteland on the edge of Calais, the British media christen France’s first state-sanctioned migrant slum ‘Sangatte II’. But this is, unbelievably, far worse. A squalid, disorganised refugee camp, it has all the potential violence of Sangatte, plus scabies, limited medical treatment, no toilets, no water, and no shelter.

As I write, I read that a 17-year-old Afghan died in the Channel Tunnel last night, the 19th death this year that we know of. The circumstances and the conditions of the crisis in Calais don’t change. Coats and sleeping bags, tents and SIM cards are always welcome. But in the tsunami of donations, we’ve heard little of the real question: ‘Why does the Calais border even exist?’ Could it be a convenient ‘crisis point’ that licences the UK government’s anti-immigration laws?


The title of this piece, ‘Killing us by heart’, comes from Ahmad, 14, from Afghanistan, interviewed in Calais in 2009.

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Topics: Refugees