John Walker reports on the Convoy to Calais on Saturday, which say French and British police block activists from travelling to France to deliver aid
On Saturday, several hundred of us confronted the police at the Dover ferry terminal then went to picket the French embassy in London, because the British and French authorities, acting in concert, were preventing us from taking aid to the refugee camp in Calais.
We chanted “We’ve got aid, let us through! Refugees are human too!” and “David Cameron, hear us say, refugees are here to stay”, as we demanded to be let onto the ferry, which we had paid for. We occupied the entrance to the ferry terminal and blocked anybody else from getting on.
Then, when it became clear that the police were not going to give way, we turned around and went back to London to demonstrate outside the French embassy.
The occasion for this was the latest, and largest so far, of a series of initiatives to take aid across the Channel to the refugees. Most of the previous trips for this purpose have been organised by local organisations. The Convoy to Calais, who organised this trip, was the first one organised on a broad national scale, backed by organisations such as Stand Up to Racism, the Stop the War Coalition the People’s Assembly and the Muslim Association of Britain, as well as trade unions such as Unite, Unison and PCS.
The response to all these initiatives has been enormous. No sooner has the request for donations gone out than organisers have been overwhelmed. The response has shown that there is a vast pool of feelings within Britain of solidarity with the refugees.
Driving down to Dover
The organisation of the Convoy to Calais began some weeks ago. The call went out for donations, and there was the usual enthusiastic response. Practical organisational measures were taken, such as making arrangements for people to book their vehicles on the ferry and negotiating with the Metropolitan Police that vehicles could assemble in Whitehall. Everything seemed to be going smoothly.
Then, on Thursday, the French government announced that the Convoy would be banned from entering France. No reason was given for this other than unspecified “security concerns”, but it is in line with the hostile attitude taken towards aid for the camp taken by both the British and French authorities. Numbers of those taking aid on previous trips have been harassed in various ways. At least one British citizen bearing a Muslim name, for example, has been banned from entering France as a “security risk”, despite those with European names travelling with him being allowed through. Cars have been stripped of their contents and thoroughly searched. And British police have visited the organisers of one of the organisations involved at home, accusing them of being a people-trafficking operation.
The Convoy went ahead anyway. Some two hundred or so vehicles came together in Whitehall first thing on Saturday morning. Some of them, particularly those from outside London and the South-East, were carrying donations, but the bulk of the donations had already been delivered to the organisers and had been loaded into a lorry.
There was a buzz in the air. People were excited. I saw a number of familiar faces, but there were a lot of new ones, including young people. The organisers had definitely caught a mood. People put the “Convoy to Calais” posters on their windows and fixed “Refugees welcome” flags to their vehicles.
After a brief rally we set off for Dover, all together in a line, like a proper convoy. But pretty soon we got separated by traffic lights, other vehicles and, for many of us, taking wrong turnings. But we all managed to get, flags flying, to the rendezvous point at a services outside Dover.
It was here that we faced our first opposition from the police. As we parked, members of the Metropolitan police went around taking the number plates of all vehicles flying our flags, and phoning them through to their control centre. They are not actually allowed to do this without a lawful reason, as member of the Kent police force admitted, once they had been called. The Metropolitan police claimed they had been asked to take vehicle numbers by the French police, so that these cars could be stopped from entering France. However, once they had been stopped from doing this by the Kent police, the Metropolitan police officers went home.
It was not the case, however, that the Kent police were concerned about our civil rights. Chris Nineham, one of the organisers of the Convoy, directly asked a Kent police officer wearing a “Police Liaison” jacket if we would be obstructed from entering Dover and whether the Kent police would facilitate our boarding the ferry. The officer replied that we would not be obstructed from entering Dover but that they would not facilitate our boarding the ferry. We were soon to find out what that meant. As far as the Metropolitan police were concerned, however, it seems that the Kent police were just annoyed at them digging in Kent’s turf.
At the Dover ferry terminal
When we arrived at the roundabout at the entrance to the ferry terminal we were greeted by around a dozen members of the Kent Anti-Racism Network, with their banner, who waved enthusiastically at any vehicle flying a “Refugees welcome” flag. And then we drove towards the ferry terminal entrance. Part-way down to this the police funnelled all vehicles to a checkpoint, where they separated those who were part of the Convoy from those who weren’t.
Those of us who were part of the Convoy were directed to our own queue, four lanes with barriers at the terminal end, and divided from the other lanes by temporary barriers that clearly had been erected that morning. We stopped in line, and got out of our vehicles and walked around, stretching our legs and chatting with one another. The assumption of the organisers had been that we would be mixed in the general queue and that we would be dealt with one at a time. The plan, announced at the rendezvous point, had been that, once we were refused entry, we should drive around to rejoin the queue at the back. And repeat this until no more ferries were sailing. But this was not possible. The police had isolated us.
The official police line was that they had done this at t request of the French police, with their “security concerns”. The ordinary coppers on duty told us they suspected us of wanting to drive to Syria once we had crossed the Channel. None of them seemed to realise how ridiculous this sounded.
Time passed, as we wandered around, gathered in groups, and chatted some more. One driver played “Always look on the bright side of life” loudly on his CD player, while others danced to it. After about an hour and a half, or maybe even two hours, the left hand lane, the first that the police had filled, began to move. It only moved about a car-length or two, and then it stopped. After what seemed quite a while, the movement repeated itself. I decided to walk up to the front to see what was happening.
There are several entrances to the terminal, each with an office staffed by members of the Police aux frontières, the French immigration police. Our vehicles were being directed to the two leftmost ones, directly in front of where we had been forced to queue, where the police would run “security checks”. These “security checks”, it turned out, consisted of entering the personal details of each Convoy member on a computer then banning them from entering France. Every single Convoy member who had been through this process – perhaps four of five cars full – had been turned back.
Once it was realised what was going on the cars were stopped and everyone was called to the font of the queue. There we started to chant at the police, both French and British. “We’ve got aid, let us through! Refugees are humans too!” At a certain point we realised there was nothing holding us back so we ran forward to the actual entrances, where the French police offices were, and blocked them all. The Kent police merely formed lines preventing us going further. Meanwhile, Weyman Bennett, one of the Convoy to Calais organisers, tried to negotiate with the British police to get them to facilitate negotiations with the French police, while the Kent Anti-Racism Network crowd, hearing what was happening, came up to join us.
There must have been between eight hundred and a thousand of us in front of the terminal, chanting away for maybe an hour. However, we were then informed, by one of the Convoy organisers, that the lorry containing the bulk of the aid we were taking had got through. A loud cheer at this, then it was suggested, since the police were refusing to shift their position, that we go to the French embassy. Not all the aid was in the lorry. Some people were carrying their own in their own vehicles, so it was suggested that we leave this on the embassy steps with the demand that the French government take responsibility for delivering it. So after some more blockading and chanting (we weren’t eager to go) we set off back to London.
At the French embassy
By the time I got to the French embassy there were already a number of people there, though many more arrived after me. The police made us stand on the other side of the road, thus, incidentally, forcing us to blockade the Kuwaiti embassy (though I have no problem with that). They had put up barriers that we were supposed to stand behind, through eventually, through force of numbers, we spilt over onto the very small side road between the two embassies.
There we chanted angrily at the embassy for an hour or so, adding such other chants as “Refugees in! Tories out!” and “No borders! No nations! No deportations!” to those we had yelled at Dover. A number of items of aid that had not got across the Channel were deposited at the door of the French embassy and there was an impromptu rally. Despite the fact that we had not got to Calais we left exhilarated. A substantial part of our aid had got through and we had experienced a good collective feeling of striking a blow for the refugees.
The crowd was a united one, focussed, both at Dover and in London, on the single message of supporting the refugees. Yet I did see evidence – badges and the such – of supporters of both “Lexit” and “Left remain” positions in the EU referendum, all chanting together. Just as the “official” Brexit and Remain campaigns are united in saying migrants are a problem, so the supporters of “Lexit” and “Left remain” are united in saying they are not. Rather than migrants being the problem, both sides on the Left believe that borders are. The division between Right and Left goes deeper than the division between In and Out.
This convinces me that, with the possible exception of a few sad individuals, the Left is going to be able to pull itself together after Thursday’s referendum and fight together for the rights of migrants and refugees. Whichever side wins the referendum, this is something we are going to have to do. Those who supported the Convoy and similar initiatives are not going to give up now. There are probably many more who would get involved if they could. This is only the beginning. Let’s continue the struggle. And keep sending aid!