Life in the Calais Migrant Camp at France/UK border

Posted by admin on Sep 5th, 2009

by Amanda Wilson, The Dominion, September 5, 2009

CALAIS, FRANCE—A tranquil scene greets visitors as they approach Calais, France, on the ferry from Dover, England: people play on the beach and lounge on the balconies of their waterfront condos; children fly kites by the shore. It has all the appearances of a charming place to spend a few days soaking up the sun and practicing your French. But this peaceful façade obscures the harsh reality for thousands of migrants, predominantly from the Middle East and Northern Africa, attempting to complete the final leg of their journey to what they hope will be a better life in the UK.

As the ferry docks, it is immediately clear that Calais’ port is surrounded by a maze of fences covering all access points. These fences are a physical representation of Europe’s increasingly obsessive efforts to close the doors to so-called illegal migrants. As the EU institutes increasingly severe and unforgiving immigration policies, Calais has become a bottleneck for migrants attempting to cross the English Channel, and a site of resistance for those wishing to challenge the repressive and racist actions of governments.

Tensions began to rise in Calais following the 2002 closure of the Red Cross Reception Centre in nearby Sangette. French and UK authorities had pushed hard for the closure, hoping that removing the centre would decrease the number of migrants seeking to cross the border. It appears the move has simply made the journey more difficult for those desperate enough to try. In the past five years the UK has stopped nearly 90,000 individuals from entering Britain, two-thirds of whom came via the Calais crossing. Current estimates are that anywhere from 700 to 2,000 people are camped in Calais at any given time, hoping to cross the border. They live in an area known as ‘the Jungle’ on the outskirts of the city: a collection of makeshift tents and cardboard homes where migrants live a cramped and precarious existence.
Photo: Shira Ronn

Police repression against migrants and political and legal pressure against any organizations assisting migrants has increased in recent years, in an attempt to starve the migrants out of France and Europe as a whole. In France it is illegal to assist undocumented migrants, which makes it very difficult for organizations to provide support or to build solidarity networks.

In response to the emergency situation in Calais, a week-long camp was organized from June 23 to 29, to demonstrate solidarity with migrants and protest their treatment by European governments. The camp was a mix of activists from across Europe, predominantly from the UK and France, who came together under the broad banner of ‘No Borders.’ The movement is a network of autonomous groups calling for freedom of movement for all, and which sees borders as maintaining a structure of inequality and repression, based on categories of legal/illegal and citizen/non-citizen.

The level of organization was impressive: beyond a physical presence, they planned a series of workshops, concerts, radio broadcasts and even a camp newspaper. When a plumber arrived on the Sunday morning to set up showers, it was clear these were not just a bunch of crazy radicals set on crashing the border, as some mainstream media reports had suggested. The camp was created by a group of intelligent and dedicated individuals who were seeking to create a meaningful space for dialogue, and to question the notion of borders, citizenship, and state repression.

While the camp was purposely built away from the Jungle to prevent police retaliation against migrants, a group of approximately 20 Iranians had taken up residence right behind the camp. This group of men varied in age, including a redheaded boy of 16. Using the camp generator to charge his cell phone he looked like he should be playing soccer with his friends, not risking his life to elude detection crossing the border in order to evade capture and detention. Sleeping most of the day, these men spent their nights trying to sneak aboard trucks that would take them across the Channel.

A sign made by several of the Iranians depicted their journey across the channel and expresses their desire to be treated with dignity and respect. It highlighted the three checkpoints they must pass through undetected before they even reach the Channel. In 2004, France and England signed an agreement on “juxtaposed controls,” which allows UK immigration authorities to establish their own checkpoints in certain French locations, including Calais. Those who are caught are given a warning, held in detention centres for a short period time, and then released to try their luck another day. Those caught on the UK side of the border face harsher detention facilities and deportation. According to the UK Border Agency, they deported a total of 63,140 migrants last year.

Organizers of the camp seemed to have negotiated a compromise between addressing security concerns to protect the camp and creating a welcoming and open environment. Decisions were made by consensus over meals, with translators relaying information back and forth between Anglophones and Francophones. This was done against the background of constant surveillance, as a van-load of police circled the camp every five to ten minutes. During the week-long camp, there were numerous reports of clashes between police and protesters, and camp participants posted stories online of being held and searched at the border. The camp created an alternative space in defiance to the hostility and repression created by the constant police presence. There were moments of solidarity, where people from opposite backgrounds sat side-by-side, sharing food and song, giving a glimpse of what a world of “no borders” might be.

The fact that Western, white citizens were able to travel to Calais to participate in the No Borders camp for such a short time illustrates the privileges many hold. Protesters travelling to and from the camp faced police harassment and detainment, but it is the thousands of migrants who remain who bear the brunt of the state’s increasingly violent and extreme attempts to build walls between people and exploit their labour and lives.

The UK and French governments continue to build their fortress. An agreement reached between the two countries on July 7, 2009, will invest an additional £15 million in increased security controls and technology to, according to the UK Minister of Border and Immigration, “further strengthen the ring of steel that protects Britain.” The questions is, who will protect migrants—those seeking asylum, reunification with their families, freedom from violence, repression and economic disaster—from being squeezed and suffocated by this ring of steel?

For more information on the No Borders Movement or situation in Calais please visit:

Amanda Wilson spent two days at the No Borders Camp in Calais, France, in advance of the weeklong mobilization to protest the treatment of migrants by the French and UK governments.

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