The authorities in Calais have a long history of obstructing, intimidating and harassing aid workers who provide food, material aid, shelter, social services and legal support to refugees.
In June of this year, a team of three volunteers were detained by police in Dunkirk for providing aid to over four hundred refugees sleeping rough on a patch of waste ground by the A16 motorway. A team distributing food was turned away. Members of the Refugee Women and Children’s Centre were detained for working with vulnerable families. The reason? The volunteers possessed English passports. All non-French volunteers, regardless of the legal status of their organization in the country, had been banned from providing aid to or even interacting with the members of the community of refugees living there. When asked to explain the legal basis for the order, an officer told the volunteers to “go to Paris, and ask the President.”
Actions like this come as no surprise to those of us familiar with Calais and Dunkirk. Volunteers are subject to near-constant ID checks and roadside stops, and are often detained on the most trivial of grounds. They are shoved to the ground, insulted, and filmed on personal devices by police officers during the course of their work. Their phones are broken as they try to record police activity, something that is entirely within their rights. The water containers they deliver to refugees are quietly tear-gassed, so that they cause intense pain and discomfort to those who return to pick them up. All of this has been reported to authorities, and can be seen in the new report written by L’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees, Refugee Info Bus and Utopia 56. Yet, little-to-none of this behaviour is punished, or responded to in any way by senior officials. Macron, during his visit to Calais at the beginning of the year, flatly denied any abuses of power by police personnel.
Such behaviour must not be dismissed as the excesses of individual officers. The legality and acceptability of grassroots solidarity is being systematically eroded across Europe in response to what governments perceive to be a growing refugee crisis. In many places, aid organisations are the only gap in an otherwise lethally securitised place. Without them, the process of seeking refuge would be far more difficult, and far more lethal. As long as European governments are willing to tolerate the deaths of refugees in order to maintain the bureaucratic sanctity of the border, the service these volunteers provide is vital. A society hostile to migrants has real and tangible impacts: the recent spate of murders in Italy is a grim illustration of this.
Basic humanitarian advocacy has even landed one of my own colleagues in a courtroom, forcing him to play along with an entirely legal absurdity, all on public expense. Hungary is one step ahead on this grim campaign, having passed the ‘Stop Soros’ law that criminalizes anyone who assists asylum seekers in the country. In June the Italian government turned away the rescue ships Aquarius, Seefuchs, and Lifeline; in the first three days of July 200 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean.
This kind of treatment is not new. Not so long ago, what we recognize as modern activism would hardly have been permitted at all. But it is crucial to frame the suppression of activism in Europe within the global context. Brazil’s environmental activists experience violence and intimidation, something that Europe condemns. LGBT+ activists are under similar threat in Russia, and free-speech ‘barefoot lawyers’ of China. Conditions may not be ‘worse’ for non-state human rights actors in Europe, as opposed to other places, but they are still not in line with the stated ideals of that nation.
We look on in horror as U.S. Border Patrol officers destroy water left in the desert for people crossing the border on foot. But here it is no different. While temperatures rise over 30 celsius, our water barrels, the only source of safe drinking water for many people living here, continue to be confiscated during forced evictions of campsites, knifed into uselessness, or covered in CS gas as a trap for the next person who carries them. A recent investigation by Refugee Rights Europe stated 71% of refugees in Calais reported being tear gassed or pepper sprayed in the weeks prior to writing. Violent forced evictions are a weekly occurrence, and leave refugees without shelter or their belongings.
While nothing I have experienced while conducting human rights observation work in the field comes close to the abuse experienced on a regular basis by refugees, I have never felt so disrespected, dehumanized, and hated as during those shifts.
Why is this happening? It’s hard to tell. Deterrence doesn’t work. All it does is force people into the margins, where they are most vulnerable to trafficking, exposure, abuse, and death. Hannah Arendt warned us that the contradiction between universal human rights and enclosed national sovereignty would have a bloody and unjust conclusion, a premonition that rings terrifyingly true when we look at the figures. 40,000 refugees have died since the year 2000, including around 120 in Calais. Forty thousand. That’s the Blitz, or the first day of the Somme. The reasons given usually have something to do with security, order, economic security and the sanctity of national borders for their own sake, none of which ring true.
Volunteers for Help Refugees sort clothes in the Calais warehouse. Photo: Futuro Berg
A better question to ask is, why are volunteers here? For one, we’re here because we disagree with state efforts to make our communities hostile bydesign. If you’ve ended up in Calais without papers, history and politics have been cruel enough to you already. The deck has already been stacked against you. I don’t want to be a member of a society that sees such a person and decides they need to be beaten down again. None of us do. We’re not here to fix Calais or Dunkirk, we’re not here to make them good places. We’re here to make them bearable. Because they’ve become part of a broader strategy across Europe, the strategy that is never spoken of, that no one ever agreed to or voted for. This plan is Europe’s disgrace, it’s best guess as to how to ‘solve’ the refugee crisis, by making itself so unwelcoming as to convince newcomers to go back to the terrible situations that drove them away. Volunteers are here because they have seen that as a society we have become willing to deconstruct our own communities, to destroy what makes our places good places, just to make sure that they remain ‘ours’.
The volunteers that man Europe’s migratory routes do so because they see that strategy for what it is: Hostile. Paranoid. Destructive. Traumatising. Shameful.
Why doesn’t this campaign of harassment, obstruction, and deterrence of volunteers work? Because the acts of kindness they show to refugees in this terrible situation are not morally optional. They are obligatory. One cannot deny food to a hungry child, or a sleeping bag to a freezing man. One cannot fail to extend a hand to a drowning person in the Mediterranean. Our states demand that we do these things, but they cannot be done, or be allowed to occur, for the sake of rules common to humanity that go far, far deeper than states and borders.
This article was written by long-term volunteer for Help Refugees in Calais, Oscar Leonard. To support our work, and help us help people currently sleeping rough in Calais, please donate, sign up to volunteer, or organise a collection at home.