Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais

Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.

Beth in the back of the van Calais

Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.

“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”

You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.

On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”

But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.

In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.

Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.

But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”

I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.

“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”

We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.

Beth and Nahir Tioxide

What can we do now?

If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.

BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!

This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!

I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!

Happy New Year!

Calais Migrant Factgasm: Episode 1

Welcome to the first edition of Calais Migrant Factgasm, in which I quite metaphorically round up every piece of internet about the Calais migrants and incarcerate it in the detention centre of my blog.

Featuring news from the past week and analysis of Eritrean migration vs big business and the lorry driver protest organised for this coming Saturday. Enjoy.


News in Brief

Monday, 15th of September: Ashford motorhome owner Teresa Tyrer discovers Calais migrant underneath vehicle

“He’s now sitting on our lawn having a picnic. He’s not shown any need to get up and walk. You’ve got to feel sorry for him. He’s only young and it’s just a shame they are prepared to do things that are so dangerous.”

Someone gave the migrant a sandwich, before calling the police. This mild act of human compassion caused a certain amount of internet hatred, including this from Lrg8:

Should of had a knuckle sandwich for doing that. GO HOME!! instead of sponging off of us

Home got bombed, honey, and I’m not sure who’s sponging off who, to be honest. Have Britain been “sponging off” Iraqi oil for the past century? Are Britain “sponging off” Eritrean gold mines? Meanwhile, a person calling themselves change says:

“I don’t know if its true but was told that they have been discovered coming in on lorries pretending to be mud flaps.”

Sneaky illegal immigrants coming over here, taking our… Oh wait. It’s a mud flap. Sneaky mud flaps coming over here… (Credit: Trucking Accessories)
Sneaky illegal immigrants coming over here, taking our… Oh wait. It’s a mud flap. Sneaky mud flaps coming over here… (Credit: Trucking Accessories)
Friday night, 19th of September: Egyptian squat on Avenue Blériot attacked by four youths with Molotov cocktails

The Egyptian Squat on Avenue Blériot.
The Egyptian Squat on Avenue Blériot. (Credit:La Voix du Nord)

One of the squatters got a busted leg. The police tried to catch the youths, but they got away. I think it’s safe to say that these youths were fascists. Like parasites, wherever there are migrants, there are fascists who come to prey on them.

Why? Boredom combined with empathy-erosion, probably. Chucking a Molotov cocktail and then running a car chase with the cops must be pretty exciting. And these youths just can’t see that the problems faced by the migrants are exactly the same as the problems they face: no jobs, no money, boredom and a sense that their life is going nowhere.

Saturday morning, 20th of September: Ten migrants – including a little baby – discovered in the port of Calais, hiding in a lorry bound for the UK

A baby. The baby was taken to hospital, the other nine were taken for questioning, detention and perhaps deportation. A baby.

Who’s to blame? The migrant parents for being so irresponsible? The French authorities for not caring for the innocent? The British authorities for closing the border to the innocent? The world order that creates political situations and conflicts in which ordinary people with families feel they have to flee their homes in order to build a better life for their children? Hmm.

Saturday, 20th of September: Home secretary Theresa May and her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve agree a deal for Britain to give £12,000,000 to help tackle ‘illegal immigration’ from Calais

“This money will be used to construct robust fences and to bolster security at the parking area of the port, which migrants use as a staging post for efforts to cross the Channel.”

Because that will solve the problem of war, poverty and starvation in Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, won’t it?

Migrants in Calais banned from playing football

Every Sunday for the last two years, migrants and their friends have enjoyed a game of football in a park in Calais. Now, the mayor is going to court to stop them, sending in the police and bailiffs. If I was more of a conspiracy theorist, I’d think this was a Machiavellian move on the part of the mayor. If the migrants don’t take out their frustrations by kicking a ball around a park, then how will they? Riots?

Threat to public safety. No shin pads either.
Threat to public safety. No shin pads either. (Credit:La Voix du Nord)
Monday morning, 22nd of September: The Express rounds up more stories of migrants arriving in the UK

“Traffic on the M25 came to a standstill as the 20 people, who are believed to be Ethiopian, got out of a lorry as it was driving between Chertsey and the junction with the M3 in Surrey at about 8.50 this morning.” … “A 35-year-old Sudanese man was found hiding underneath a coach bringing children from Perry Beeches Academy, Birmingham, back from a trip to France.”

Tuesday, 23rd of September: La Voix du Nord reports a “special mission” to Calais

“Two senior officials will be on a special mission to Calais on Wednesday for three days. Appointed in late August by the Minister of the Interior, they have seven months to analyse the situation of migrants in the Calais and propose solutions.”

The mission will be based in Paris. They have seven months to work on this and they’re spending an entire three days in Calais, before squirrelling back to their ivory towers. Baffling.

And, finally…

From Stormfront.org (“Voice of the new embattled White minority!”) comes this comment by natsoci (harmless enough alias, don’t you think?) on an article about the migrants in Calais:

“Take them to the med, push them in, and tell them if they can make it here by swim-power alone then we’ll personally give them the passports.”

If only that were true, I bet thousands would try it. And succeed. Many of these people have already survived torture, bombings, slavery, crossing the Saharan desert, crossing the Mediterranean in sinking ships, four different kinds of Mafia and several Italian and French prison cells. They’re not going to be intimidated by a bit of swimming OR casual fascism on an internet message board.


Newsatrolysis Feature: Eritrean Migration vs Big Business

“We are human beings”: The treatment of immigrants in Calais, France by Petros Tesfagiorgis. Published on the 22nd of September, on Eritrean news network Asmarino.

The irony is while Europeans are complaining of the number of refugees entering Europe, they don’t hesitate to encourage their private companies to do business with the repressive regimes in Africa who are the underlining causes of flight of refugees. The West is gaining far more lucrative profits from the third worlds than they give back in terms of aid and giving sanctuary for refugees.

For example the British Government has encouraged a number of mining companies to invest in Eritrea and a visit was recently led by a British Government official to facilitate contracts. A mining company named London Africa Ltd has recently been granted a license covering over 1500 square kilometres of Eritrea. They have joined companies like Sunridge Gold Corporation and Bisha Mining Shared Co (BMSC). This is a real Gold rush like “El Dorado” in contrast to the asylum seekers desperately seeking safety in European countries.

What is sad is that many of these companies are using forced labour to extract the ore…

Just a brief insight into the nuances of a migration that is usually presented (by government and media) as lazy scroungers running away from their homes to sponge off the beneficent welfare state of Britain. This simplistic narrative conveniently hides our role and the roles of our governments and our government-supported businesses in the creation of these desperate migrations.


The BIG Report: The Lorry-drivers’ Perspective.

Tuesday, 23rd of September, Port of Dover blockade on Saturday to stop illegal migrants entering Kent could be illegal

“Lorry drivers, whose vehicles come under siege by foreign nationals desperate to reach Kent, are being slapped with fines of £2,000 per immigrant found in their vehicles – despite their efforts to stop them stowing away in their trucks.”

That is proper unfair, pushing the blame for the conflicts of the political classes onto a different set of the innocent working class. Divide and rule.

Wednesday, 24th of September, BBC: Lorry driver tells of risks of driving through Calais (Video).

Hmm. Interesting. I can empathise with these lorry drivers, who are just trying to do their jobs without killing anyone or getting fined.

Wednesday, 24th of September, Express and Star: Lorry drivers are being treated as “scapegoats” and penalised unfairly as the illegal migrant crisis worsens.

This features comments from Natalie Chapman, of the Freight Transport Association (FTA):

“It’s about managing EU borders better. A lot of migrants are coming through places like the Italian island of Lampedusa. We need to help those who are dealing with the initial influx of migrants who are coming through the Mediterranean. The Government needs to be protecting the drivers, not penalising them with fines.”

Is it about managing EU borders better? Or is it about addressing the causes of these migrations? But then we might not have such cheap oil, we might not have such cheap consumables and we might not have such pliable markets for our exports. Tricky one.

Protest organised in Dover for 1pm this Saturday (27th of September)

According to the “Support the Calais to Dover truckers” Facebook Group, the reasons to attend the demonstration are:

To stop a driver being injured or worse.
To stop Isis terrorists from re entering this country.
To stop Ebola being transported into this country.
To stop unchecked criminals from entering this country.
To stop rapists and child molester’s into this country.
To stop drivers being fined for clandestines being on their trucks.
To show the government your not happy about uncontrolled immigration.
To show the government your not happy being in the European union and it ruling our country with tin pot human rights laws.

NB: I’ve left the grammar exactly as the original writer intended. I think it’s funnier that way.
NBB: It’s not that funny.

Worth close inspection...
Worth closer inspection…

The Facebook group has been described as having links to far-right groups in the UK and are supported by Sauvons Calais (Save Calais), a French collective notorious for their “war against immigration and pro-migrant associations”. A counter-protest by leftie groups has also been organised… Can’t see this going badly at all, can you? Divide and rule.


* Please note: Although some of this blog post might smell funny, this is NOT a parody. This is happening, here, there and all over the world, right now, a witch’s brew of UK and EU border and foreign policies. It’s really easy to stand in solidarity with other humans, though. Pop over to Calais and see for yourself. They do really good and cheap cheese there too. Win-Win.

Do We Need Borders?

You might have seen some stories in the news recently about illegal immigrants trying to get into the UK. I recently spent some time in Calais, teaching English and generally hanging out with the wannabe immigrants there. I was staying with about sixty people in a squat originally set up by an activist group called No Borders, whose aim, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the dismantling of all national borders.

One migrant, who grew up in London, but is illegal there and had recently been deported, asked me: “What’s with all this No Borders stuff? Why do you bother? It’s obviously not working.”

It’s a good question, until you see that it’s loaded. You might as well ask why the government bothers with borders, because they’re obviously not working either.

Do we need borders? A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.
A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.

Borders aren’t working

Borders aren’t working for the hundreds of people killed every year trying to break into Fortress Europe, fleeing civil conflicts frequently armed by UK arms dealers. They’re not working either for the thousands of lives suspended in the limbo of Calais and places like Calais. These are human lives we have branded illegal and forbidden from working, forbidden from rebuilding their shattered dreams and contributing to their new society. Because, like it or not, these people aren’t going anywhere; they’ve got nowhere to go.

The borders are not working, you could also argue, for the people they are supposedly designed to protect. How are British jobs safeguarded by borders, when a transnational, borderless corporation like Amazon can suck our small businesses into the void, while contributing next to nothing to our society? How are British lives safeguarded by borders, when borderless ideologies – religion, politics – can twist minds and precipitate outrageous acts of violence from within?

In this article, I will ask: Do we even need borders?

Do we need borders? The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.
The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.

Why do we have national borders?

National borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars. They evolved to deal with a very specific problem: How can we divide nation states? You need borders.

Before the World Wars, there were only a scattering of recognised nation states – France, the United Kingdom, Germany and so forth – the rest of the world was divided among those nation states according to Empire. While the First World War was essentially the violent collapse of the imperial world order, the Second World War was the battle to decide what system would fill the void – nation states – and where the borders would be drawn.

From the end of the Second World War, for reasons of geopolitical organisation, every corner of the earth had to have a sovereign master, demarcated by borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn with indelible marker by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

My point: National borders were not and are not the “natural” way of breaking up territory. They were arbitrary servants to the invented political idea of the nation state. We only need borders because we have nation states.

Do we need borders? Map of border defences between Britain and France
The Channel: The final frontier of the Schengen Zone.

What is a nation state?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is:

An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

To give you a guide of how ludicrous the idea is that a state-sized territory would have this mythical common national identity: at the time of the French revolution only half the population of France spoke any French at all. Some national identity, eh! France has taken hundreds of years to evolve a national identity. It’s too much to go into detail here about whether it was worth it or not.

My point: Nation states are not the “natural” way of organising ourselves politically and the global creation of nation states after the Second World War has been nothing less than catastrophic. If we didn’t have nation states, we wouldn’t need borders.

Do we need borders? We want freedom
Activists raise a sign: “We Want Freedom”.

What’s the problem with nation states and their fixed borders?

Basically, if arbitrary borders don’t fit perfectly with mythical national groupings, then we’ve got trouble.

Entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq – scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged – in South Africa, in Brazil, in the United States – could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

Do we need borders? "Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible."
“Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible.”

But borders are a good thing!

Borders have been nothing more than an attempt at a solution to a problem of politics. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world – remember that, in a generation, wars went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in the scale of geopolitics and required a radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could argue that borders have been a decent solution to that problem. For many, particularly those in the west, the world has effectively been at peace since the Second World War. A strange thing to say, but I am not completely naïve. Considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: There is no natural law that commands we live with borders. For most of human history, we didn’t have or need borders.

Do we need borders? "No one is illegal. We are all equal."
“No one is illegal. We are all equal.”

So do we need borders?

In a world where corporations and ideologies are borderless, are national borders, where we can restrict only the movement of people and goods, still the best solution?

I’ll let you make your mind up. Ultimately, whatever your viewpoint, we’re on the same side. This is a race to find a solution to a problem of politics. Perhaps the governments of nation states will find a solution that works for everyone. Or perhaps the solution will come from elsewhere, from groups like No Borders.

But who cares where the solution comes from? The important thing is that we try to find one, because what we have now isn’t working.

Do we need borders? A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.
A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.