Calais and the refugee crisis: building solidarity and thinking through the politics

Mitch Mitchell from London2Calais looks back at six months of activism to deliver aid to refugees trapped in northern France.

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Activists delivering aid in the Jungle earlier this year (pic: London2Calais)

The refugee crisis in Europe has rarely been out of the headlines this year. Our group, London2Calais, was formed in mid-August to take food, clothes and solidarity to refugees stranded in a makeshift camp in Calais which they had dubbed the Jungle.

A couple of weeks after we set up there was a surge in public support for refugee solidarity. People were horrified by photographs of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian child found drowned on a Turkish beach. A march held in London on 12 September attracted 90,000 people.

However, this also led to a stepping up of the pressure applied to us by various authorities. Members of London2Calais received home visits from officers attached to the UK Border Agency. People had their passports interfered with and electronically tagged.

It quickly became apparent to us that the authorities did not want us to deliver aid to refugees in Calais. People in the group fielded phone calls and messages from Kent Police who seemed very concerned about who was involved and why.

Some of our members were even held and questioned, purportedly using powers from the Terrorism Act. And since last month’s atrocities in Paris, one of our members, a Muslim, has been denied entry into France.

Public pressure

Despite this harassment our work goes on. And David Cameron has been shamed by public pressure into accepting a paltry 20,000 Syrian refugees into Britain over the next five years. These people will come from camps on the Syrian border. Over a million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, a country with a population of 4.5 million.

But there is no mention in Cameron’s plans of what will happen to people from various nationalities presently in camps around northern France and other parts of Europe. They are survivors – many of their fellow refugees died on the hazardous journey here.

The situation has been made worse lately by the British government’s decision to join with Russia, the US and France in bombing Syria. Airstrikes are by their nature indiscriminate and will lead to more people forced to flee the destruction of their homes and cities.

A question of politics

All of this has raised questions over the direction of our response to the refugee crisis. Many of those involved in delivering aid to Calais see their function as a humanitarian and are reluctant to get drawn into the politics of the situation. Others recognised that by merely travelling to Calais against the government’s wishes, we were committing a political act.

Of course, all of us – political and “non-political” – share the goal of helping refugees. But we at London2Calais think we have to ask why there are refugees trapped in Calais in the first place. We have to ask why European governments have done so little to help. And not just governments: why were the usual NGOs notable by their absence?

This is why we took the view that the issue is not just one of humanitarianism, but also one of political campaigning. We have to campaign – not just to resettle folk currently living in the camp, but also to open borders and allow free movement of people.

So much of this has been caused by Western governments slavishly adhering to neoliberalism, austerity and imperialism. Our convoy work will continue for as long as it is necessary. But we will also be unapologetic in our politics, and campaign – hard!

There are 2 comments

  1. Brian Parkin

    Heart-breaking report Mitch and a clear and unforced argument of the intersectional relationship between neoliberalism, austerity and imperialism. Well done!

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