By Rory Goldring, Calais Food Collective
When the police shut down our food distribution again, the people that were waiting for a meal were understandably frustrated.
Accessing food is not straightforward for displaced people in Calais right now. An arguably racist application of Covid-19 precautions has meant that people of colour are often being denied entry to Calais’ supermarkets. The state’s already minimal provision of hot meals has been reduced further during the pandemic. The organisation I belong to – Calais Food Collective – aims to distribute raw ingredients so that people can cook for themselves in a Covid-19 safe way. However, recently, police have been evicting camps so extensively that many people are sleeping rough on the streets. As a result, they can’t cook on a fire for fear of arrest and, for many, their pots and pans have been seized, not to mention the constant confiscation of tents and sleeping bags.
Our colleagues at Refugee Community Kitchen had prepared 300 hot meals for us to distribute that evening but the patrol of police officers – armed with guns, teargas and a barking German shepherd dog – prevented us doing so. They took down our ID details and threatened to make arrests if we didn’t all leave the site immediately.
This particular incident happened in mid-August, but is a matter of routine in Calais, where volunteers face police intimidation and harassment on a regular basis. Ultimately, however, this is nothing in comparison to the racism and violence faced by displaced people themselves.
Over the course of this year, police have been evicting more than three sites in Calais every morning. That means three groups of people (sometimes a few families in a disused industrial scrub land, sometimes 600 people in an out-of-town forest) being forced off the area of their make-shift home. Rarely are people given adequate time to gather all their belongings before the clearance vans move in, and the confiscations are endless: more than a thousand tents were seized by police in Calais last year. Resistance is met with tear-gas, beatings and arrests. A chilling testimony from the Eritrean community in the area highlighted how police would resort to ‘beating [them] every time they get a chance’.
Once a site has been evicted, people can sometimes discretely return to remake their camp a few hours later. On other occasions, the whole area is bulldozed and fenced off with barbed wire. Sometimes, people are loaded onto buses dropped off at random locations in France, only to make their own way back to Calais.
Senselessness and futile operations
The state seems intent to frustrate and immiserate, to create the ultimate hostile environment. To what end? Politicians may wish to appear ‘tough on immigration’, but the effectiveness of their actions seems entirely flawed and futile.
The UK and French authorities claim that that their interventions will disperse people away from the border to minimise the numbers of people trying to cross to the UK. To this effect, the British government spent almost €150 million on border security in northern France between 2014-2018 and agreed a further €50 million in January 2018. Let’s be clear, this is state-sanctioned violence on French soil, funded, in part, by UK taxpayers. The aligned beneficiaries are the range of private companies making millions from these security contracts. There’s no doubt these tactics make people desperate to leave Calais but, as one of the House of Commons’ own committees last year noted, it tends not to drive people away from the British border, but rather pushes people to take increasingly dangerous measures to cross to the UK. As was acutely felt in Calais in late August with the tragic death of a young Sudanese man, too many people have already lost their lives trying to cross this border.
Urgent need for change
Some of the potential solutions to this tragic situation are blatantly clear. Firstly, the UK must stop enabling and endorsing violent policing and evictions in northern France through its funding. Secondly, secure and sufficient accommodation must be provided to all displaced people. Thirdly, the UK must fulfil its human rights obligations and process asylum claims at its border. Since the UK’s border has, by law, been externalised to France (at the Channel Tunnel entry, the Eurostar station and the ferry ports), people should, by law, be able to claim asylum here too, rather than having to risk their lives crossing the Channel. Moreover, the UK must stop using the justification that France is a ‘safe country’ to automatically seek to return people who arrive in England by boat back to France without hearing their asylum claims. As legal campaigners have pointed out, this is an illegal misapplication of the Dublin Regulation. There’s also a painful irony that British funds contribute to the hostile environment in northern France which makes Calais an actively unsafe place for people to be returned to.
People are organising for justice on all these issues across France, the UK and beyond. That fight is being led by displaced people themselves. In Calais, the ‘Collectif Appel d’Air’ are calling out state racism and making demands for border justice. At Brook House Immigration Detention Centre in the UK, people have been protesting their planned deportations. A moving first-hand testimony of one man’s recent hunger strike is available online. Elsewhere, people are resisting immigration raids, rejecting hostile environment surveillance policies in their university, hospital and workplace. People are helping one another stay alive in these hostile conditions, joining together in solidarity to push for more just world.
Support the Calais Food Collective
Calais Food Collective is currently fundraising to be able to continue its service through the winter. We believe that racist borders are the main problem here but, in face of this, we will strive to make sure everyone has food enough to keep going in spite of the senseless violence. Please make a donation to support our work:
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.