On Feb 1 I followed a tip off from Strike Magazine (or one of their associates) and took advantage of the Daily Mail’s generous offer of a £1 ferry trip from Dover to Calais and back. No doubt the Mail wanted to push some business to Majestic or wherever their industrious readers buy their crateloads of France’s cheapest plonk, but Strike and their associates planned to use the Mail’s largesse to haul some bags of supplies over to the refugee camps famously located in the port. Anyway I hate the Mail, liked the idea of pissing their money away and thought it’d be a good thing to get involved in so I went along.
I’d heard of the camps before. There are a few thousand people (estimates range from two to three thousand) who’ve made the trip from places like Eritrea – across the Sahara, then the Mediterranean, and finally overland to the port of Calais. They set up camp there to wait for a chance to get across the Channel to England or for the French authorities to grant them asylum. During the interminable period the French government takes to process their applications, these people have to look after themselves, without any means of support whatsoever. They live in makeshift camps and squats around Calais, in abominable conditions which I haven’t seen the likes of since the Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. While they wait for the French or attempt to get across the Channel one way or another, they are subject to routine harassment by the police, including assaults from the riot police. The English press run continual scare stories and hit pieces vilifying the refugees as violent, criminal scroungers who are coming for the UK’s “soft touch” on immigrants and benefits.
I packed my hiking bag full of whatever I could find around the house that I thought the guys at Calais would want – mostly blankets, a warm coat, a couple of books, some board games, bike locks and a small pop-up tent. I thought it looked like a lot spread out on my living room floor and it definitely weighed enough. I met up with five others at Dover and we were on our way. The ferry took an hour and a half – it was a huge ship and it took some searching before I found my way on deck where I could smoke a pipe and indulge in some idle fantasy about a life at sea. We were docking at Calais before I knew it.
Calais itself reminded me a lot of some of the places around Adelaide, Australia where I grew up and spent my early 20s (Glenelg back in the mid-late 90s and Semaphore, for anyone who knows Adelaide). It’s a faded sea-side town and extremely quiet aside from the howling wind and the odd passing car. Instead of sight-seeing we set off on foot from the port and turned down a lonely road running behind an active factory. The Tioxide Factory is visible from the port – it produces fertiliser chemicals and expels a huge amount of white smoke from its low stack. With the wind blowing off the ocean the smoke is blown into the road and the immediate surrounds. Just beyond this plant we started seeing tents in the trees on the opposite side of the road, and shortly beyond this the camp proper, which we accessed through a hole in the factory fence.
Tixoide is the largest of the camps and is supposed to hold 2,000 people. It’s centred around a large structure which I thought resembled a massive shipping container because of the corrugated steel walls but was in reality an old basketball court. There are a huge number of tents in various states of disrepair surrounding the building, obviously rigged up for a long time and layered with extra tarps, cardboard and whatever else can help protect the occupants from the environment. There were a lot of makeshift shelters too – I recall in particular a tarp strung over a shipping palette. With no garbage collection and of course exposed to whatever blows in the wind the site was littered with rubbish, mostly plastic bags, food tins and lager cans, basically the sort of stuff you’d expect to see accumulating on an unending camping trip.
As we entered the camp a resident offered to show us around. Leading us through the narrow pathways between the tents he took us around the outside of the central building and led us inside through a doorway cut into the building. Inside – more tents, filling the entire floor of the building. Aside from some narrow gaps to allow movement around the entire building was full.
Someone had laid a blanket out on the ground near one of the tents near the entrance, and an Eritrean man invited me to take a seat. Taking off my shoes I sat down on the mat, unslung my load and got to distributing. The stuff I brought was gone within a minute at most, and the overwhelming impression I had was how pitifully inadequate the stuff six people could bring compared to the needs of the people at this site alone, not to mention the refugees at the other main site in Calais and among the squats.
I don’t want to give the impression that the people we met were helpless recipients of our virtuous aid. These are immensely resourceful people who have survived not only hardships in their home countries but the struggle of a horribly difficult and dangerous journey, only to survive being trapped indefinitely within forty miles of safety between two so-called “great powers”. That many of these people resist the police raids on their camps and squats, fight back and reach England through the most risky and dangerous means is testament to their strength and resilience. The people who I spoke to were joking with me and among themselves incessantly, one fellow cracked open a board game I brought over, skimmed over the rules and proceeded to beat me like a gong (these guys are absolute board game fiends I was told later). The camp has a restaurant and a barber, and as we arrived they were playing music on and off through a sound system they’d rigged up outside. Compared to this, in the UK the entire country grinds to a hold and the population degenerates into a sixty-million person symphony of pissing and moaning if a few flakes of snow fall anywhere in the British Isles (if you don’t believe me then just do a quick search for “travel misery”). I’d trade one of these guys for any number of entitled Daily Mail-subscribers and this country would be better for it.
The other thing that really gripped me was the hunger the guys I spoke to had for books. I packed a couple of relatively light books I had about the UK – one about the countryside and the other about London. These were taken instantly and the people who took them sat down to read them on the spot. I kept getting asked for more books so I also gave away my copy of Strike magazine. I had heard they wanted literature but I wasn’t prepared for this – it reminded me of the passage from Ten Days That Shook the World, just after the February Revolution:
“Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts–but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky….”
Of course, some of the guys there wanted sports magazines too. But a large chunk of the people gathered at Calais are, aside from highly educated, also politically switched on in a way you don’t usually see. I suppose when you decide to take such a huge risk to get away from the situation at home you’d know all about governments and how they relate to their people. An Eritrean man I spoke to (the guy in the picture below, whose face is covered because the Eritrean government is the kind that likes to imprison and torture people who try to escape) explained to me the system of conscription which was that every man has to serve for a long time – often an “open ended” term. And of course the constant menace of the police and the callous treatment by England and France would leave the resident of Tioxide in no doubt as to their relation to the state here in Europe.
The conditions of the Tioxide camp are well enough documented, the countries that the refugees have fled from are either war-zones or repressive, vile dictatorships, and these people have every right to settle in a place which will give them asylum. I mentioned before the UK’s “soft touch” and this was cited in those words as a motivation for heading to the UK by an Eritrean refugee. The soft touch of the UK involves evading razor-wire fences, police with attack dogs on a dangerous trip hidden inside (or in some cases under) a lorry, only to arrive in a country which will spend years processing your asylum case and in the meantime you will be expected to live in one of the most expensive countries on Earth with £35 a week and no right to legally seek work, and should your case fail you will be detained for a lengthy period while you wait to be flown out of the country and back to the hellhole you escaped, possibly to be subject to reprisals from that government. Once your claim is processed, you will be a new migrant in a hostile country, where your qualifications aren’t recognised and you have little or nothing in the way of a support network. You will then be eligible for the high life that UK benefits recipients are able to live. It’s (partially) this “soft touch” that draws people to the UK, and it’s this which drives the right wing in this country into a frothing rage, demanding to race to the bottom, to treat people worse and worse to save pennies on the yearly tax bill.
I’m not going to defend asylum on functional grounds – the net gain to a country’s economy from skilled or motivated workers blah blah blah. That’s irrelevant. People should be able to live where they like without fear of oppression, or abuse. And they certainly shouldn’t be left to rot forty miles off the UK coast. If they want to seek asylum in the UK, the UK should process their claims. If the UK won’t do it in a fit of little-Englander appeasement, then France should do it and then they can come over if they want. If profiteering landlords and employers are using immigration as an excuse to jack up rents and lower wages and your corrupt government won’t build schools, powerplants or social housing for three decades then it’s a fight to take up with the capitalists and their cronies, not the segment of humanity in the most need of assistance.
Tioxide is a stain on Europe. To all those red-faced, ranting little bell-ends who go on about these camps being full of gangs or alternatively Michelin-star chefs and taxpayer-funded luxury, why don’t you get on the ferry over and take a look for yourself? It costs next to nothing and takes a few hours at most. You care enough to wring yourselves into knots day after day about immigration (does “overpopulation” keep you up at night?). You certainly spend some time haunting Facebook and the comments section of various UK news sites. The only thing any reasonable person asks of anyone in an argument is that the person they’re talking to has some knowledge of what’s being discussed. Since you can educate yourself on this issue without much hassle at least make a quantum of effort or keep your opinions to yourselves.
To end this unreasonably long and still fairly empty summary, although what we offered was pitifully small compared to the requirements of the camp it was very much worthwhile to see the way us supposedly civilised Europeans treat people who come to ask us for assistance. I was not sure what to expect – my experience of refugees was the Australian one, where asylum seekers were rounded up into concentration camps in the desert – horrible but official. I was not prepared for what amounted to an Aboriginal community writ large, subject to the same horrible neglect interspersed with racist violence and at times full-on repression. For all their strength our comrades in Calais have material needs that must be met. I am hoping to be able to go back again and regularly, bringing a van of supplies that might more closely meet their needs. I don’t have the resources to do this myself although I will try and will join to assist any organisation that has the same aims.
The things I was mostly asked for in Tioxide:
• Board games
• Popular magazines
• Preserved meats (like jerky)
Aside from the tents,tobacco and possibly the blankets most of these things are not expensive. Industrial uniform suppliers sell gloves, hats, shoes and clothing in general in bulk at very low prices.
My goal here is to transmit some small snippet of what I saw and heard in Calais and to let you know of an injustice happening in the richest parts of Europe. For Australians this is nothing new but at least the Australian government goes to the effort of banning reporting on asylum seekers, towing them all the way out of the country. The official and obvious secrecy indicates that a crime is taking place, something that cannot be ignored and which must gnaw at even the most racist Australian on some level. This is in a way worse because it is simply ignored. Anyone who wanted to know about it could, there are a plethora of UN, EU and NGO reports on the situation, the police raids are reported in the free press when they occur, you can literally wander into the camp after an hour and a half on a ferry. We simply choose not to give a shit. These are human beings and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.