Why Mahmoud wears cologne

The incidental benefits of cycle touring are well known: fitness, tan-lines, an insatiable appetite. But I think I can say without fear of contradiction that cycle touring isn’t particularly famous for its promotion of good personal hygiene.

This year, I am proud to be a part of the Thighs of Steel core team for the glory run to Athens. During those last three weeks of riding, I’ll probably have only 8 showers and wash my clothes twice. Most days, I’ll wake up in the sweat I accumulated the day before, and step into the clothes still encrusted with grime from yesterday’s riding.

Most days, our only chance to scrub will be in rivers, lakes and perhaps under a bucket. Shampoo, perfume and pomade are, for most of us, redundant.

But not for all of us.

~

Mahmoud couldn’t actually cycle, but joined the van team for two weeks from Paris to the Pyrenees. He couldn’t ride because of a long-term knee injury sustained during the Syrian war. He now lives in Germany.

One thing you should know about Mahmoud is that he is very particular about his personal hygiene. Every morning, he combs wax through his styled hair. He applies perfume to neck and wrists, and coats himself in a layer of antiperspirant.

Where most of us have perhaps one change, Mahmoud seems to have a bottomless wardrobe of crisp, clean clothes. He refuses to swim in our wonderfully wild rivers and lakes because the water is dirty. It’s a fair point, and one that he emphasises with good old soap and tap water.

He does everything he can to hold back the inevitable tides of sweat and grime that two weeks’ camping set down. His careful preening is a good-humoured joke. Good-humoured because he wears his fashion lightly; a joke because, standing next to us cyclists, he looks superb.

~

‘I had days where I slept with the blood of other people on my body,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Because you sleep when you are tired, you don’t care about yourself. You can’t imagine the dirt – sometimes I slept in some shit.’

We’re sitting on an artful block of concrete on the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux and Mahmoud is explaining why he is such a stickler for cleanliness.

‘Because of this trauma – why do I have to be dirty? Why do I have to smell?’ His voice rises in incredulity that anyone would choose dirt.

‘Everything is in my hands now. I don’t want to go back to those days. I have a developed nose and any smell could bring me flashback – I don’t want any flashback.’

~

‘I feel like cleanliness makes me trust myself more,’ Mahmoud explains. ‘If somebody smells in front of me, I take a step back.’

As a refugee, Mahmoud feels like ‘the whole society has taken a step back from me already.’ He doesn’t need to add bad hygiene to the repulsion.

Mahmoud met Harri and Annie, two of the brains behind Thighs of Steel, at a grassroots community centre in Athens. ‘At Khora, everyone was lovely,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Fucking amazing lovely people. But Khora was a small world, really.’

The small world of fucking amazing lovely people doesn’t care whether you’re a refugee, whether you’re dirty or smell bad, or are dressed in cheap clothes. But the big world does.

~

‘The big world really doesn’t like you, really doesn’t want you, and doesn’t accept you,’ Mahmoud says. ‘So I have to do what other Syrians do. They spend money to wear Adidas, to wear Gucci – why? To fit into the society, so people know they have money, so people stop judging them. You cannot afford Gucci if you are not working.’

‘I could lie to myself and say everyone is nice – no. People smile in front of your face, but they don’t like you. They smile in front of your face for the society. Do you think that everyone talks to me nicely?’

‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’

~

Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

Over the past four years, Thighs of Steel supporters have raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for grassroots refugee organisations like Khora. Already this year we’ve raised more than £50,000.

If you want to help…

If you have any trouble donating, let me know – the website isn’t always the friendliest. Thanks!

Talk Migration: Help Refugees

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


We started the day with a talk by Philly, one of the founders of refugee support charity Help Refugees.

Help Refugees started as nothing more than a heartfelt response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Calais in the summer of 2015. A few friends and a crowdfunder aiming to raise £1000.

A week later, they’d raised over £50,000, and were receiving 7,000 donations a day – tents, sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries. They rented a warehouse in London, another in Calais, and Help Refugees was born.

Almost 4 years later, Help Refugees are now supporting more than 80 grassroots projects in 12 countries.

This year, 120 Thighs of Steel cyclists are aiming to raise £100,000 for Help Refugees. The funds will be split between grassroots organisations along the Thighs of Steel London to Athens cycle route.

Campaigns Help Refugees support in the UK


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

If you want to support Help Refugees, then you could do a lot worse than donate to my Thighs of Steel fundraising page 😀

Talk Migration: The 21st Century Slaves of Indefinite Detention

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


Our second speaker was Michael Darko, part of Detention Action’s out-reach programme Freed Voices.

Freed Voices are a group of ‘experts-by-experience’ whose mission is to increase awareness of the grim day-to-day reality of life in detention.

Michael’s story

Michael Darko was born ‘on his grandmother’s lap’ in Ghana. He spent just 4 years in Ghana, before travelling with his family to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, finally settling in London when Michael was 12.

At no stage in the journey did Michael have any identity papers – no birth certificate, no passport, no visas, nothing.

When Michael was 15 his father abandoned the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. As the oldest, Michael dropped out of school to look for a job. Because he had no papers, Michael could only pick up casual work in Hackney Market, but at least it was enough to support him and his 4 siblings.

A year later, however, social services found out about the unusual family structure. Michael was still just a kid and, with bills piling up, the family lost their home.

Forced into a corner, and still head of the household, Michael fell in with a gang on the streets of Hackney. Unable to stomach the violence, he ran away and ended up in Northampton. There, he got a legitimate job at a logistics company – but only by using another man’s identity.

Being a smart guy, Michael rose through the ranks until he was earning £40,000 a year as a team manager. Then his luck ran out.

The man whose identity Michael had stolen made a claim for benefits – the computer threw up an error, and Michael was tracked down, prosecuted for fraud, and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment.

Michael accepts the punishment for his crime: he stole another man’s identity and deserved his sentence.

But what happened next was out of order.

Into detention

The day before he was due to be released from prison, Michael’s immigration status was investigated. Having no papers, he was told that he wasn’t going to be released after all.

Not only that, but because he was uncooperative with the investigation, Michael was transferred immediately to a high security prison. He languished there for another 12 months until his sentence was completed.

At this point, Michael had paid his debt to society and, if he’d been a British citizen, he would have been justly released. Instead, the Home Office transferred him to a detention centre – for an indefinite length of time.

Michael ended up staying there for another two and a half years.

Inside detention

During those years, Michael had plenty of time to study and he became an expert on immigration law. He helped 48 fellow detainees avoid deportation by writing their judicial review applications. In response, he was threatened with prosecution.

The irony is that Michael only ever wanted to work to earn a living. This right was denied to him in free society, but inside detention, compliant asylum seekers are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour.

Almost all detention centres in the UK are now run by private companies, who run their business for a profit.

Over the past few years, the Home Office has reduced the amount they pay these businesses to £86 per detainee – and now these private companies need to find alternative streams of income to keep up their 20-30% profit margin.

One way they can do this, of course, is by exploiting these 21st century slaves.

Released

Michael appealed for bail 15 times and was finally released in December 2014 after taking charge of his own legal defence and making a request for his Home Office file.

In those papers, Michael found out that the Home Office knew that the Ghanaian authorities had no record of his existence and would not accept his return.

Rather than dropping the deportation, the Home Office was keeping Michael in detention, waiting for… What?

The day before his arrest for fraud, Michael was a high-earning, tax-paying member of British society. By the time he became a free man once again, his detention had cost the tax-payer around £100,000.

And for what?

‘My story is not an isolated case,’ Michael says, ‘and it shouldn’t shock you. It is a fraction, a fraction.’

The system

Michael doesn’t disagree that immigrants who have committed a crime should be deported. It’s the interminable wait that he feels is unjust.

Why does the deportation process only begin at the end of a custodial sentence? ‘The wait is mental torture,’ Michael says.

In fact, the whole asylum system is designed to work against the people it is supposed to protect. During Talk Migration, we discussed two such ways: the denial of the right to work and the denial of the right to healthcare.

Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2013, access to legal aid has been made increasingly difficult. This means asylum seekers are often faced with expensive legal fees that they can’t pay without looking for paid work – in contravention of the limited rights granted to them.

If they are caught, their asylum application can be rejected out-of-hand and they can be sent into detention. A vicious cycle.

That’s not the only way that the deck is stacked against asylum seekers.

Until they are granted indefinite leave to remain, asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds. This means that they can’t use the NHS for anything other than emergency care – and even then they will be expected to foot the bill.

One very common reason why an asylum seeker might need to use the NHS is during childbirth. On their journey, it’s not uncommon for female asylum seekers to be the victims of rape. The pregnancy comes to term in the UK – so what can they do?

Childbirth is primary care, but any pre-natal check-ups are not. This means that female asylum seekers come to hospital (if at all) at the last minute. This, of course, leads to poorer health outcomes for mother and baby.

But there is worse to come. A routine birth costs the NHS around £6,000, and asylum seekers are expected to pay 150% of the costs, so are hit with a bill for about £9,000.

Of course, there is no way that most asylum seekers can afford to pay these bills. You might be wondering why the NHS bothers to chase them at all. Well, it’s got nothing to do with covering their costs.

If a person makes a claim for asylum and they owe more than £500 to the NHS, then their claim can be thrown out without further consideration. These bills are an easy way for the Home Office to strip people of their refugee convention rights and deport them back to the country they fled from.

Our health service is being used for political ends to punish vulnerable refugees. Hats off to the healthcare professionals who do what they can to push back against the system and end the sharing of patient data between hospitals and the Home Office. You know who you are!

What happens after detention?

The strange thing is that most detainees are never deported: more than half are eventually released back into the community. Back to where they started, but with one crucial difference – they are traumatised through their detention ordeal.

Up until the moment of their incarceration, most detainees are simply trying to make a new life under extremely difficult circumstances. But if anything is going to traumatise, criminalise and radicalise, it’s the dehumanising conditions of detention.

This psychological trauma is not treated by the Home Office, of course. It falls on the community to absorb the damage. So if you think that you aren’t doing enough, take heart from Michael’s assertion that, ‘any little thing you do makes a big difference’.

How can that possibly be true?

The perception of detainees from the inside of a detention centre is that the whole country hates you. This is desperate.

Remember when you felt like everyone in your class hated you for letting in a goal on sports day? Now imagine that, but it’s not just 30 classmates, but 66 million.

This makes even the smallest gesture of support incredibly powerful to a detainee because it shows them at a single stroke that not everyone hates them. And if one person doesn’t hate them, then perhaps there are dozens, hundreds, millions of people out there who, in fact, support them.

Detention Action are currently recruiting for volunteers, particularly listeners with language skills. They are also fighting for a 28-day time limit on detention.

This limit would end the uncertainty, and reduce the trauma caused by detention. So far the campaign has the support of around 70 MPs.

Find out more

Watch and read Michael’s story on Detention Action, on The Guardian.

On life in detention: Working Illegally (28 minutes, 2015)

On life in Brooks House detention centre: BBC Panorama Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets (60 minutes, 2017) on BBC iPlayer [Not currently available], or HDDocumentary.com


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

oh merde it’s a FUNDRAISING LAUNCH!!

Click here to cut the crap and go straight to my Help Refugees donation page…

This summer I’ll be cycling ~1,800km from Rome to Athens because I vehemently believe that borders are really dumb.

Everyone should be able to roam the earth freely and that’s why I support the work that Help Refugees are doing to help stateless human beings get a foothold in life.

As one of the lucky, lucky people on earth who haven’t had their home village bombed to pieces, I like to do what I can to support those who aren’t so fortunate. If that involves cycling an awfully long way in 35 degree heat, then so be it.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then I’d be super grateful if you could donate whatever you can afford.

Click this link to make that happen.

Having visited projects supported by Help Refugees all over Europe, I can reassure you that the work they do is of immense practical support to actual human beings every day. (I’ve published a lot of these stories on my blog – drop me a line if you want a direct link.)

Thank you in advance for being so generous! And stay tuned because your donation will get you free entry to a very exciting thingy that we’re planning for the start of July….

Oh now you’re interested! (Donate by card or Paypal…)


+++ There’s still time to join this year’s ride. Maybe London to Paris, or Milan to Venice? If you want to ride with yours truly, then sign up for Rome-Bari or Corfu-Athens!

Subvertisers for London

This short film from Dog Section Films tells the behind-the-scenes story of subvertising, past and present.

Subvertising is the subversion of advertising, in which artists and activists take over public advertising spaces, usually to make political counter-arguments to the consumerist message.

Needless to say, it’s required viewing.

If you’re into the ideas behind the film, check out the companion book Advertising Shits In Your Head. (Which, incidentally, I helped proof.)

Subvertisers for London (21 mins)

Featuring: Jonathan Barnbrook, Darren Cullen, Dr. D, Hogre, Double Why, Lydia Dagostino, Protest Stencil, Sila Yucel and Special Patrol Group.

Music: Algiers, Biege Thickness, Jonny Drop.

Additional photography: Nekane Requejo De Ozamiz.

Dog Section Press is a not-for-profit publisher and distributor of seditious literature.

Crossing the Border

If the wind changes direction, this man is in deep trouble. His mouth is so firmly down-turned that I wonder how he feeds himself.

He shoves out his hands, and I take two steps back. He stares at me, my little wine-red book on his counter.

The muscles in his face are drawn taught, toughness without any sign of strain. Only his eyes move: up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. Matching photo to face, face to photo.

He flicks through the document, then slides it into a machine and stares expressionless at his monitor.

He returns to my face and my photograph. Except for his eyeballs, his face is completely frozen – do they teach that in border control school? Continue reading Crossing the Border

Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

Before driving to Diavata camp, we had to pick up our interpreter. Being all-smiles Syrian, he was first compelled to cook up huge plates of falafel, mutabbel and hummus, and feed us until we could take no more.

Then we drove out to the camp.

Diavata is hidden away in the warehouse suburbs of industrial Thessaloniki. No one could come across these people if they didn’t know they were here – it’s a long way from the polished waterfront and expensive international chain coffee. Weatherbeaten old gypsies are on their haunches outside, selling vegetables and huge watermelons laid out on tarpaulins. Continue reading Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki

From Chios to Crisis

I’m writing this from Chios, hoping that my phone reception doesn’t flip into Turkish and I get charged £12.50 per megabyte. First world problems, I suppose.

Where I am now is less than 5 miles from Turkey: the mountains of Anatolia rise easily over the horizon. It’s the tantalising gap between Asia and Europe, between fear and safety for refugees from the wars in Syria and beyond. Continue reading From Chios to Crisis

Things I Have Learnt About Khora

The generously observant among you will have realised by now that I’m raising money for a community centre for refugees in Athens called Khora.

I promised you all that I’d do my best to find out where our money is going, and that I have done. Thanks to sunset on Strefi. Continue reading Things I Have Learnt About Khora

Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play

My radio play, Options for Dealing with Squatting, is now out! The Narrativist is a unique podcast that splices a conventional interview with an original radio play on the same theme. My episode is about squatting. No: not weightlifting, but the nefarious art of appropriating unused buildings for shelter. Continue reading Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play

After the Christmas, the Crisis

After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.

Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond. Continue reading After the Christmas, the Crisis

Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

I just spent an invigorating hour with M., a refugee language teacher from Syria. I found him through Chatterbox, a social enterprise that matches refugees with a talent for teaching with language students like me. Fantastic idea.

I haven’t spoken Arabic properly since the last time I was in Egypt in January 2010. That’s a heck of a long time for a language to lie dormant, but I was surprised by how easily some of came back to me, and M. was amazed – ‘You’re half Egyptian,’ he very much joked. Continue reading Learning Arabic from a Syrian wanted by ISIS

From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

In October 2015, I met a Syrian family near Spielfeld on the border of Slovenia and Austria. They were huddled together in the cold, waiting to cross into the first country in the EU that was even slightly capable of receiving them.

At that time, nearly 7,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq and beyond were landing in Greece every day. Making a notable exception for Angela Merkel’s conscience, most European governments were doing nothing more than passing the problem as quickly as possible to their neighbours.

Continue reading From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town. Continue reading Conversations in Calais

Cycling to(wards) Syria

This May, I shall set off on a 3,000 mile bicycle tour, following the routes of migration from the safe refuge of London to the bombed-out streets of Syria. Don’t worry: safety is my first priority. I am fully expecting never to reach Syria, but that is my destination of the mind.

Along the way, I shall be collecting stories direct from the mouths of migrants, aid workers, government officials and local residents, using each interview to inform the course of the journey, and sharing these stories with as wide an audience as I can, in written word, photography, audio, and video.

Continue reading Cycling to(wards) Syria

“We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

This is the story of Nabeel Taha, an Iraqi radio presenter and cartoonist (that’s his artwork pictured), who fled his home after an exhibition got him into deadly trouble with Daesh. Continue reading “We would like to breathe the air that you breathe” – Nabeel Taha, Iraq

Calais: From Crisis to Community

Back in March 2015, the French authorities in Calais made a tactical blunder. They evicted the dozen or so migrant squats and camps dotted around the town, which had been home to 1-2,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Instead, they created a “tolerated zone” a few kilometers away, where the migrants could sleep and suffer until they decided that surrendering was better than staying.

The tactical blunder was to underestimate the response of civil society to this new tolerated camp. Then again, in fairness to the French, there was nothing in the air back then to suggest that civil society at large would give anything other than a flying fuck about the couple of thousand migrants squatting on their doorstep. Continue reading Calais: From Crisis to Community

“It’s time to do something” Austrian Migrant Supporter

Back in October I was in Austria, the only open gateway to the EU for migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. I took the opportunity to speak to migrants and activists about the current situation.

These are the impressions of a young woman, who describes herself as “just a supporter”. For nearly four weeks, she had been supporting a refugee protest camp outside the police station in Graz. You can hear the story of one of the refugees, Mazin, recorded here.

This Austrian woman spoke passionately about her motivation to action. “This situation is writing history,” she explained. “When in 30 years my children ask me what happened, I don’t want to explain to them why did I just watch, why didn’t I do anything.” She sees action as a moral imperative: “I don’t see it as help,” she says. “I just see it as something you basically have to do now.”

This solidarity imperative means that, rather than becoming an aid worker, she finds herself surrounded by friends. “Everybody I met, they become friends,” she says. “It’s not like they are refugees and I am Austrian and I help them, but we’re doing something together and we become friends. That’s what it should be like.”

Unsurprisingly, she’s not terribly impressed by the governments of the EU. “They could do so much more,” she says. “If it would be about some economical crisis, they would have a solution in days.” Her laugh has real bite. “But now it’s about human beings standing around outside in the cold for hours and hours. They’re not treating people with enough humanity.”

“I always believe in humanity” Mazin Abu Khaled, Migrant from Syria

I’m very pleased to finally be publishing this, the first in a series of audio stories called Voices for Migration. The series will feature the voices of many different people, all talking about their experiences of migration – whether migrants themselves or people who have been touched by the effects of migration.

This first story is from a Syrian man called Mazin Abu Khaled, who I met while in Graz at the Elevate Festival. He is lucky to have made it to Austria, but his journey is far from over. His family are still back in Syria, but he can’t afford to pay the human traffickers who could help them escape, and is scared that they wouldn’t survive the journey in any case. “It is a death journey,” he says.

Even in Austria, Mazin is struggling. He has been waiting for his papers for months. Until his asylum claim is processed, he is not allowed to work or contribute to Austrian society, even as a volunteer. “We want to help,” he says. “We can do many things with them.” That is why he and other migrants set up a protest camp outside the police building in Graz.

Mazin’s sympathy, however, lies with less fortunate migrants, who are leaving Syria in their thousands, to be met in the EU with near indifference. The governments of the EU are not taking the problem seriously. “There is no food, no blankets, nothing,” he says. “I can’t understand it.”

So I hope you enjoy listening, and please share Mazin’s powerful story with your friends.

 

I’m a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac!

“You’re a voyeur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac.”

I’ve been called many things since I first started “getting involved” with Calais back in the summer of 2014. Rather than dismissing these accusations hurled as insults, I would rather examine them to discover from where they derive their power. Because power they have: I do feel, at times, a voyeur, a do-gooder and a megalomaniac.

I don’t think many people enjoy acknowleging these aspects of themselves, but I think it’s important to do so. Hopefully I’ll show you how listening to your feelings of voyeurism, do-gooding and megalomania can make you, not just a better activist, but a better person altogether.

“You’re a voyeur.”

This accusation is founded on the idea that the migrant camp in Calais represents a vision of the world so radically different to mine that I must be taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the encounter. My favourite term for this kind of activist tourism is, rather than solidarity, holidarity.

It’s true: my warm home in London couldn’t be more different to the waterlogged shanty tents of Calais. It’s also true that my life as a middle class white Englishman couldn’t be more different to the experience of a six year-old Syrian boy, alone in an unwelcoming foreign land with not much more than the shirt on his back.

The accusation of voyeurism hits the mark. The misery and squalor of Calais is horrifying. It does, sometimes, make me stare uncomprehendingly, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to live through this reality indefinitely.

But this is my reality. Calais is as much a part of my life as the streets of New Cross, and we are all part of a world crowded with camps as horrifying as Calais (and many much more so). Should we airbrush places like Calais from our pretty picture? I don’t think so. The only question that remains, then, is how we should act in such a world.

Here is where we get our first insight: the feeling of being a voyeur only hits me when I restrict myself to being an outside observer. This actually happens very rarely. When I’m in Calais, I usually spend most of my time talking to people, trying to teach English, sharing food, or playing cricket. The moment I take action, the feeling of voyeurism dissolves in a shared connection with real people who react and respond themselves.

It’s simple. We can’t deny that voyeurism is part of the spectrum of human feeling, but I see voyeurism as a timely reminder that we are not here on Earth merely to observe; we are here to connect.

“You’re a do-gooder.”

The sense of “do-gooding” is undoubtedy pejorative. Do-gooders are earnest, naive, impractical, patronising, relentlessly foisting their well-intentioned, but ill-conceived ideas of betterment on people who have asked for nothing.

I won’t repeat the unfavourable comparison I’ve made before between charity and solidarity, but I do feel that the difference is hierarchy and intention. (Please note that I’m not talking about all insitutional charities necessarily, but the fundamental concept.)

Charities are classically and intentionally hierarchical: a material need is identified and filled by an outside group. The power resides in the charity. Clothes, food, or bikes are handed out from those who have to those who have not. At its best, this is nothing more than resource re-distribution; at its worst, however, the recipient is turned into a beggar for aid.

The concept of solidarity is very different in structure and intention. Solidarity recognises the natural and fundamental equality of humanity. The intention is simply to stand side by side with your brothers and sisters, in the good times, as well as the bad. What is yours is theirs, and vice-versa. It is similar to a friendship bond, rather than an institutional or paterfamilias bond.

I have always left Calais feeling like I was an equal beneficiary from whatever exchange of humanity took place between me and the people I met there.

So when you are accused of being a do-gooder, it’s a signal that perhaps you have assumed more power than you should in an equal relationship. The solution is simple: check your privilege, and surrender any top-down control you have.

“You’re a megalomaniac!”

A megalomaniac is a pathological egotist, conceited, self-obsessed, with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What has this to do with activism and Calais, you might wonder. Well, there are a couple of ways a megalomaniac might become involved.

A pre-existing megalomaniac might see in Calais and the migration crisis an opportunity for his own self-aggrandisement and fame. I’m not going to talk about those kinds of people; they have a lot more work to do than I can help with here.

What I will talk about, however, are the heady megalomaniacal feelings that an activist might get when they get media or popular attention, when they are part of something awesome, or when they start to feel possession over “their” action.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a lot of attention on Calais, not just in the media, but on the street too. Back in 2014, no one was particularly interested in what I did in Calais. One mention of “migrants” and all I’d get was a dirty look. This autumn, however, those same dirty lookers were clamouring for tips on how to “get involved”.

My small part in the success of the Calais Critical Mass over the August Bank Holiday also meant that I ended up speaking to all sorts of national and international media, in print and on TV. A couple of things I’ve written about Calais on this site have gone viral, sending thousands of people to a blog that usually gets about 50 visits a day.

At times, it’s been hard to come down from the megalomaniacal high.

When I get this kind of attention and appreciation, my heart rate rises, I feel light-headed, and my voice goes all squeaky. It’s a pretty great feeling and it would be tempting, indeed understandable, to chase that megalomaniacal high. But I know that it is not a productive emotion to indulge.

I call these feelings “megalomania”, and not something more positive like “enthusiasm” or “ecstasy”, because they always result in me turning inwards, chasing the feeling, not the results that I would like to see in the world. The antidote to megalomania is modesty.

As we rode down to Calais in an eighty-strong mass last August, I kept telling myself (and anyone who’d listen) of the modesty of what we were trying to achieve. This was not a grandiose expedition, I kept telling myself. It would be a success if just one person made just one other person smile across the battlelines of our border.

Whenever I felt myself being carried along by incipient feelings of megalomania – “This is the beginning of the borderless revolution, and I made it happen!” – I would refocus on that one little smile, and give thanks that I was able to be a tiny part of a much greater positive force.

Megalomania is another useful signal, telling me that success is making me turn inwards. The solution is to appreciate our smallest imaginable achievement, and give thanks to all the others who make this possible. Megalomania is a call to acknowledge the higher purpose we share with the rest of the planet.

Yes, I am a voyeaur, a do-gooder, a megalomaniac (sometimes)

Occasionally feeling like a voyeur, a do-gooder, or a megalomaniac is an inescapable part of being an activist (by which I mean “human”). I’m only human; I’m bound to get swept away sometimes by feelings of horror and power, fame and pride.

I see these feelings, not as enemies or insults, but as signals, important reminders to reconnect with the real reasons for why I’m doing what I do.

  • When I feel like a voyeur, I must remember to stop being an outside observer, and to connect.
  • When I feel like a do-gooder, I must remember to check my privilege, and surrender my top-down control.
  • When I feel like a megalomaniac, I must give thanks to others, and acknowledge my small role in our shared higher purpose.

As activists, we must learn to take our own temperatures (or rely on a trusted friend). When you feel yourself getting too hot, dial the temperature down by refocussing on what exactly makes you feel good about what you do. What makes me feel good is the community, being able to make a personal connection with people from Sudan, Eritrea or Syria. That’s what’s important to me.

If you can’t find any good in that moment, then it’s time to take a step back altogether. Relax, go home, clear yourself out.

Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

Thoughts on Saving the World

The other day, someone accused me of “trying to save the world” through my activities in Calais, the English teaching, the UKHIP cricket match, the bike ride.

I’m not, I can’t and I don’t want to try to “save the world”. I don’t even want to try to change the world. Changing the world is not something that you can approach directly. Like happiness, any direct approach only ends in disappointment.

So my only aim, both in words and in actions, is to help people think about the world. That’s it.

I can’t change what people think, I can only invite them to think about the world.

Sneaking up on change

The best form of thought is experience. Words (like these) are good, but never enough. To think about the world deeply, you have to seep yourself in the reality, the physical reality. One experience of Calais, one connection, will always be much stronger than any news story or blog post. Words can be a catalyst, but that’s it.

So I invite people to join a cricket match or a bike ride. My sole aim is to lower the barriers to action and try to make the experience rewarding.

If that invitation is accepted, then I’m happy, because as soon as someone does something, their reality changes and that change inspires change in their ideas, thoughts and future actions.

In turn, that change in the individual will create ripples throughout their social groups, as they talk to their friends and share their ideas and actions. Eventually, in enough numbers, those ripples might influence change in our wider society. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s when the world changes.

It’s a long road, but it’s approachable, one invitation at a time. My method is certainly not saving the world, and neither is it changing the world directly. At best, I’m sneaking up on change, hoping to take it by surprise.

Process, not results

For me, none of my trips to Calais have been about what the migrants “need”. The trips haven’t been humanitarian missions or any form of charity. They have always been about forming solidarity and connections between different people, between people in this country as well as with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea – wherever.

The Critical Mass bike trip was the grandest expedition that I’ve ever had the pleasure of participating in. Dozens of strangers came together and formed strong bonds of solidarity, helping each other, sharing their knowledge, skills and optimism. Even close friends discovered new sides to each other during the journey. Before we’d even left the country, the “bike ride” was already a success: it had already galvanised people to exchange and connect.

Before we’d gone one mile, I was already delighted. A healthy and happy process is always much more important than achieving what we’re tempted to think of as “results” – how many bikes distributed or how much aid delivered. My favourite results are almost immeasurable and I have to take them largely on faith: sharing, smiles, stories. These three Ss are what cause ripples in society.

Be there

The primary importance of process stems from the idea that, in my opinion, no one can say what any other human being “needs”. What do I need? I’m not even sure I know myself.

The people who live in Calais are hugely resourceful; one more tent here or there is far, far less important than the smiles and stories that one more human connection can provide – on both sides of the interaction.

Whenever I have gone to Calais, I have always learnt and discovered far more about the world and myself than I feel I have contributed – yes, even when we brought over a huge van full of tents and sleeping bags.

Everyone who I have seen go to Calais has come back inspired, their lives altered, sometimes dramatically. Many have gone on to encourage their friends to go over and bear witness for themselves. At the very least, everyone has returned with a more nuanced impression of Calais, of migration in general and with deep memories of the people they met in particular.

Those impressions and memories will hold far stronger than a whole barrage of bigoted media coverage. Nothing beats being there, planting yourself in the kinaesthetics of the reality that, to some, is just another news story.

Whatever you do, be there.

The message

So my message is very simple: go over and see for yourself. That’s all.

Go and see for yourself, try to understand, exchange stories, find out why these people are coming here and what they want. I don’t mind if you go there and decide for yourself that you still want borders and immigration controls – as long as you hold that view from a position of knowledge.

In my experience, however, people tend to return from Calais inspired to tear down these fictional boundaries between mankind. It is usually obvious, once you’ve experienced the reality, that to militarise and strengthen the border is to put yourself in the same position as the builders of Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall. Not only will it create more problems than it solves in the short term, but in the long term, sooner or later, the people will be free.

So I urge you to go to Calais and see for yourself. Obviously, don’t go as a tourist, camera clicking – it’s not a zoo. But don’t go as a charity worker or a humanitarian crisis worker either. Go as yourself, be yourself, be curious. Share your stories and your experience and be open to hear the stories and experience of others.

Understanding the Calais Critical Mass

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, eighty cyclists rode seventy miles through Greater London and the Kent Downs to Calais. We cycled in a mass to the desolate camp ground and left our bicycles and tents for the migrants who live there.

It sounds simple when you write it down like that, but the trip had multiple and sometimes competing dimensions. My hope here is to explore these dimensions, from the superficial visceral to the more philosophical conceptual. I hope that this will help people, myself included, understand what the hell just happened.

The Ride

The first dimension was the logistics of the ride itself. Many people were not experienced long distance cyclists and none of us were riding flash new touring bikes. The road was punctuated with punctures, scattered with rain showers and undulating with hill climb, some unnecessarily arduous at the end of long lost detours (sorry about that).

But everyone who took part in the ride was gorgeous and courageous and threw themselves into the trip with optimism, laughter and steadfast determination that was quite hair-tingling to witness. All weekend, I didn’t hear a single moan, groan, quibble, niggle, whinge, whine, peeve or complaint that wasn’t soon laughed over as half a dozen other riders descended on the aggrieved to comfort or make right. Everybody made themselves indispensable.

That optimism, that coruscating energy that all eighty exhaled, pulled down all obstacles in our path and puzzle pieces fell into place precisely when they were called upon. The appearance of an eighty-seater roadside Chinese restaurant, kitchen ready to serve until midnight. The kindness of the proprietor who let us use his yard as an overnight bike storage unit. The large paddock opposite, with open gate and tree cover, for that blustery night’s camp site.

When you move in such numbers, with such force, not only does anything feel possible, but your very conception of the possible expands to encompass everything. Can we fix a double puncture in the dark? Yes. Can we climb another 17% hill on a single speed bike? Yes. Can we navigate through cat black woods in mud and hail? Yes. Can we find a restaurant, cycle parking and camping for eighty people? Of course.

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The Camp

After the group bonding transformation of the ride down to Dover, there was the raw experience of the migrant camp in Calais, overwhelming at the best of times, but this was, meteorologically-speaking, the worst of times.

That night suffered the worst of mauvais Calais: a ferocious thunderstorm. It lasted from dusk until the witching of dawn: cyclonic gales, hailstones, ripping thunder and flash dance lightning directly overhead. Many of our tents were ripped apart, sleeping bags soaked, turned to mops.

Far from drowning in disaster, we witnessed true solidarity, true friendship, true hospitality. The morning, dripping up from the night before, was filled with stories of how this and that party of Syrians or Afghans, those Kuwaitis or Sudanese, had invited tentless, sleepless cyclists into their shelters with companion offers of tea, supper and pyjamas.

There’s a fancy word that I’ve stolen from various theories of agricultural development and romantic attachment called “propinquity”. It basically means closeness, in both time and space. I’ve appropriated this term to capture the idea that the physical environment in which you find yourself at any particular time is the most important factor dictating the course of your life in that moment. Propinquity is hereness, nowness.

The most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment. The physical conditions and environment that we find ourselves in are always the most relevant to our lives at that moment. It’s no good having a nice warm house back in London if you’re stranded in a tempest in Calais. It’s no comfort having a hilarious friend who’d make you laugh about how wet you all are, if she’s not with you at that precise moment of drenchery.

No: you are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom you share this physical space.

Some people came with vague high-minded ideas that they would “help” the migrants. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but its misapprehensions were blown away by that gale. We were their guests; despite all the donations in the world, all we can ever truly bring each other is friendship.

Of course, in among all the handshakes, hugs, nuts, sweets, oranges and smiles, there was profound misery. Tents were washed away in mud slides, even vast UN-style refugee shelters stood in inches of water, only pallets on the ground raised the lucky ones from sleeping in streams.

A young man from Kuwait, a new arrival at the camp, came to me at four in the morning, trying to find a tent to sleep and shelter in. We walked around our clutch of canvas and found him one that was empty. But the door had been left unzipped and the tempest had made home there. He crouched down, dipped his hands into the swampish floor, stood up, covered his face with his palm and wept. I put a hand on his shoulder, another around his nape, and did all I could. He walked away over the dunes, backlit by lightning.

Calais June 2015 2015-06-21 063

There is a form of experience and learning called kinaesthesia. It happens when you actually do something, rather than read about it in a book or watch a programme about it on television. I believe that the only way you can truly begin to understand Calais is by taking part in such a kinaesthetic experience: by being there.

In many ways, the cycle ride was a ruse. The most efficient way to transport bicycles from London to Calais is to hire a van, pack it with fifty bikes and get someone to drive down. But then only the driver would have that understanding, that kinaesthetic experience of Calais. He could only attempt to spread his experience further through stories and maybe a blog post or a video. That’s not enough. I want everybody in Britain to travel to Calais and have a kinaesthetic experience; I want everybody to make friends and shake hands.

I always say that one trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies. I think of Calais as an inoculation against the propaganda, a cool draught of reality against the slurping sugar and sour of the media and news machines. Some are hostile to migration, some are more sympathetic, but why filter through the eyes and words of others when you can immerse yourself in understanding by being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. I have become a writer by writing every day. You might have become a good husband by being kind to your wife every day. We weren’t born this way; we acted this way and became this way.

By cycling to Calais and staying in the camp with a family from Afghanistan, we become the person who cycled to Calais and stayed in the camp with a family from Afghanistan. That simple, but remarkable, act of solidarity becomes a part of us and makes us more empathic human beings in our future.

In some tiny way, the struggles of our own short two-day journey over land to Calais represented a scintilla of the struggles that migrants face, journeying not sixty miles, but thousands of unsettled, dangerous miles. We can never fully embody another person’s struggle, but we can stand closer with them through doing and becoming.

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The Bicycle Donation

Far and away the most minor dimension of the expedition was the handover of bikes to the people in the camp. We’d cycled them to Calais and we would be walking home.

For many in the media and for some on the ride, I’m afraid that this “charitable” aspect of the ride drew focus away from the more important dimensions outlined above: making the journey and simply being there at the camp, meeting and making friends, with people from very different backgrounds. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share the bicycle’s gift of freedom with someone who has none, but that gift can never outweigh our exchange of friendship.

Charity, as I have said before, can quickly become a hierarchical transaction between the supposed “haves” and the supposed “have nots”. I’m not saying that recipients of charity are not living without waterproof shoes or enough warm blankets, food or sanitation; they are. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume that, because these people “have not” something, they are somehow below us who “have”.

Ultimately, we are all human and we all live within the same range of emotions and experience, equally. We all love and laugh, we all get frustrated and angry. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We are all surviving together.

Going to Calais, therefore, should not be an act of charity. It should always be a shared act of solidarity between you and the people you meet there, moving equally in both directions. You are not giving anything away, no hand-outs, no donations, no charity: you are sharing yourself and putting yourself into a situation where you can invite other people to share alike. In this way, there is no distinction, no hierarchy, between “giver” and “recipient”: we will both have good days.

At times I have been angry, sad or vengeful over the injustices I’ve witnessed. Of course. But I have always come away from Calais immensely grateful to the people I met, for teaching me more about myself and the world we share.

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The Future

There is a fourth dimension to this trip: the future. What will I, what will you, what will we do with this experience?

First of all, we will share our stories with our friends, with our families. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation, of sharing your experiences and enthusiasm. That’s how ideas spread and ideas are far more durable than money, tents or warm socks.

Little by little, more people will hear of Calais and the conditions under which our government makes some people live. Little by little, more people will go to Calais and understand for themselves. Little by little, attitudes to migration across the country will evolve. Little by little, more and more people will understand that to support impermeable militarised borders is to stand on the wrong side of history. People will be free.

When you combine the kinaesthetic experience and the propinquity conditions of both cycling seventy miles and meeting migrants in Calais, you live powerful, even overwhelming experiences. I have looked to the skies and felt tears and a beating heart. We have all made unforgettable memories and precious friends. Keep them and use them to inspire yourselves and each other.

And let’s do it again sometime.

“LOVE. Always. It’s the most important thing in life. Everything else is just a story for your grandkids.”

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Critical Mass to Calais: Bikes Beyond Borders

As you may have heard, we’re launching a critical mass-style ride to Calais in solidarity with the migrants who are living there, persecuted by the French and British authorities and ignored by the rest of the EU. Here’s a bunch of answers to frequently asked questions, which should be useful to anyone tempted to come along.

What’s the big idea?

We’re riding bikes to Calais, to give to the migrants who are living there. The best ideas are always the simplest.

Why?

The vast majority of people living in the camp have left their home countries for reasons of war and persecution in search of safety and security. Now, having been forcibly evicted from autonomous camps in Calais to a new tolerated zone, 7km from the town centre, there are in the region of 4000 people, including women and unaccompanied minors, living in conditions of poor sanitation with minimal access to support and services.

See my very short film and a couple of stories on conditions in Calais.

Most cyclists can relate to the sense of freedom, mobility and self sustainability afforded by the bicycle. For people living in the camps, bicycles are an invaluable asset, improving quality of life by increasing access to basic essentials like the local shop and support and advice services, currently an hour’s walk away. Some organisations have already began taking bikes to the camps, but many more are needed.

Where can I find out more about the ride?

This is the event page on Facebook (you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to view). You can also contact us through Facebook or by email on [email protected]

We will also be holding a little meet and greet picnic on Saturday 15th of August, on The Rye in Peckham Rye (it’s a park) from 1pm. Bring something to share and any bike donations you have!

What is the ride route and schedule?

The ride will end in Calais over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 29-31 August. Those are the only parameters. Everything else is up to the individual riders.

More specifically, we (the original group of friends who came up with the idea) are going to set off from London (or Barnehurst, the last station in the Oystercard zone) at about 10am on Saturday the 29th and cycle along National Cycle Network routes 1 and 177 to Rochester.

Then we’ll head south, through the Kent Downs. We’ll sleep there, approximately 25 miles from Dover. On the Sunday morning, we’ll cycle the last miles and catch an afternoon ferry to Calais.

That’s us, but different riders will do things at different speeds. In any case, ferries will only take a maximum of 20 bikes, so arrival in Calais will be staggered over the Sunday.

Nothing about the ride is obligatory: some riders will only be coming as far as Dover, some will take a train down, some will part train, part ride.

A group of activists are planning a punk gig and pay what you can dinner in Calais on Sunday evening.

Can I come on the ride?

Please do! The more the merrier. All you need to do is:

  • Source your own bike to give away.
  • Pack up your panniers with food and a tent (if you’re staying overnight).
  • Book a ferry to Calais for the Sunday afternoon.
  • Meet us on Saturday the 29th.
  • Get cycling!

Let us know you’re coming through the Facebook event or by email on [email protected]

What will happen when we get there?

We’ll cycle the bikes and hand them over! In the evening, some people are trying to organise a pay what you can dinner and a punk gig, if that’s your sort of thing.

Some people will be staying over on Sunday night as well. You’re welcome to stay or take a ferry back that evening.

How will we get home without our bikes?

You can walk (~2km) from the camp to the port or take a taxi, a bus or hitch a lift. The ferry will take you to Dover and there are regular trains from Dover Priory (30 minute walk from the port) to London. You can also catch a coach from Dover to London, cheap if you book in advance.

What if I’m media and want to film / write about / photograph the ride?

Yes, you’re welcome to come on the ride as well! In fact, that’ll be the best way to share the story. On past excursions to Calais, we’ve had great experiences with sensitive media people coming along with us.

VICE: Playing Cricket in Calais with Screwed Migrants and UKIP-Trolling Activists by Charlotte England.

Sunday Mirror: Children of the Calais camps: Terrified refugee orphans have even lost wasteland they called home  by Gemma Aldridge

How many people are coming on the ride?

This ride is open to everyone and there is no formal sign up procedure – much like Critical Mass or the Dunwich Dynamo, if you are familiar with those rides – so we’re unable to say how many people will be coming.

While we really hope hundreds of people will turn up and “swarm” down to Calais on their freedom machines, Facebook RSVPs are highly unreliable so we can’t really know whether it will be 7, 70, or 700. Hopefully more!

Who is donating the bikes?

You are! The idea is that people coming on the ride will source their own bikes to give away. There are 7 times more unused bikes in garages and gardens in London than out on the roads!

The Bike Project will be donating as many bikes as they can for people to ride down. We’ve also had offers of bikes from as far afield as Wales, Bristol, Oxford and Norwich.

How else can I support the ride?

We’re raising money to cover expenses, like support van fuel and ferry, plus any other bike supplies the migrants might need – bike pumps and helmets, for example. Please donate and share!

Can I interview the ride organisers?

There are no organisers of this event as such. It was the idea of a bunch of friends and it’s really snowballed since then.

Perhaps the easiest thing to do if you’d like to interview the friends who have brain-childed this event is to come along to the social on the 15th of August. We’re hosting a bring-your-own-and-share picnic meetup on Peckham Rye from 1pm. See the Facebook event for a map and more details.

Contact us through Facebook or [email protected] for more information.

Can I interview other ride participants?

We can’t speak for anyone else, but we expect some people will be up for it so long as they are sure you are not going to Daily Mail it up!

Can I interview migrants in Calais?

See my advice to media, journalists and film makers in Calais.

SEE YOU ON THE RIDE, YOU CRAZY BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!

Advice for Media, Journalists & Film-makers in Calais

Firstly, I don’t consider myself part of the media, a journalist or a film-maker. However, I have published many writings about my experiences in Calais and have produced a short film showing conditions in the camp. I have also spoken to many journalists and film-makers who have gone on to produce content that is very much within the mainstream media, including The Independent, The Sunday Mirror, BBC radio and VICE magazine, as well as independent film-makers, bloggers and magazines.

So, although I don’t consider my primary concern in Calais to be the media – I mostly teach English and make friends – I do think it’s very important to share the stories of the people who live there and to be a part of a information movement that promotes the humanity we share with migrants and refugees, rather than one which protects the material inequality that divides us.

All that is preamble to some basic notes and advice for media producers of all shapes and sizes who want to work in Calais. Please note: this is to be read in addition to my general advice for people visiting Calais.

Before arriving in Calais

Do your research. I don’t mean reading the Daily Mail or even the Guardian. Read the Calais Migrant Solidarity and Passeurs d’Hopitalités (in French) blogs. These are both run by long term activists in Calais and are full of the important day-to-day news that media outlets skip over.

Feel free to contact Calais Migrant Solidarity (check their website for their email address and, more reliably, their phone number) – but do not expect them to do your job for you. They will not set up interviews with migrants and they will not show you around the camp. Most likely, they will guide you to their website.

Working in Calais – short term

If your trip is short – just for the day or perhaps two days – my advice would be to follow simple ethical guidelines. I’m sure you’ve thought of these points already, but I think it’s worth repeating and reiterating.

Don’t film anyone without asking their permission – even from a distance. Many of these people are “illegal” (whatever that means!) and are justifiably suspicious of people wielding video cameras because it might (unlikely, but it might) get them killed or deported. Many don’t appreciate the attention, so don’t assume anything and always ask permission. It was for this reason that I decided not to shoot any people at all for my short film, which made the results suitably bleak!

Be careful not to treat your work, and the migrants themselves, as a means to an end. Frankly speaking, many, many film makers and journalists come to the camp in Calais and I feel that some of them go looking for a big news story or to profit through their line of business from the misfortune of others.

Having said that, many migrants are very eager for media coverage in the hope that it will ameliorate their living conditions or help pave the way to a fair resettlement programme. Your work really could become a small but important contribution to justice for the migrants, but, equally, don’t abuse their hope or make promises that you can’t keep.

If you get too close to the police, they may demand your camera and confiscate your memory cards. Big media companies are usually okay, but smaller indies or activists are at risk. Stay alert.

Working in Calais – long term

If you’re lucky enough to be able to commit a week or two, a month or several trips over the course of a year or years, then congratulations! You will be able to really get under the skin of migration, deep into the stories of migrants and witness the frontline battle that rages. Courage! And remember: the best stories don’t come out of nowhere or overnight.

I first went to Calais in the summer of 2014 and I have been back there many times since. I have seen tear-gassings, evictions, pitched battles with steel bars, cricket matches, film showings and a New Year squat party – but I still consider myself an innocent novice and learn a thousand things every time I visit.

I have made a few friends, who are still unfortunately living in the camp and I feel more and more welcome each time I go back. The last time I was there, teaching English for a week, I slept in the camp and I would suggest this as the best way to get to know people and understand camp life.

However, if you want to stay in the camp, you must:
a) be brave.
b) make friends.

Luckily, most people living in the camp are absurdly friendly, but ultimately it comes down to how personable you are. It’s obvious, but be nice!

On a more practical note, unless you speak good Arabic or Tigrinya, I’d recommend finding someone who speaks English, explaining what you’re doing and, above all, making friends. If you’re one of the good guys, they might invite you to camp with them.

The camp is roughly divided into mini-encampments of 5-20 dwellings, usually split along ethnic lines. There are plenty of Sudanese and Pakistanis who speak decent English – some fluently, no thanks to me! That should get you started.

During your stay at the camp, try to contribute something beyond your project: teach English or how to shoot films, fix bikes or shelters, keep the fire going.

Finally: Remember that this is their home and respect their customs and rules.


If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.

NOTE: Conditions in Calais change on an almost daily basis. This advice is based on information from late June 2015.

Bicycles, Freedom and Migration

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

So said Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century American suffragette and social reformer. No wonder that the newly invented bicycle soon became known as the “freedom machine”.

Bicycles give you the freedom and independence to travel long distances without having to rely on stage coaches, horse-drawn carriages or (ugh!) men.

But today’s petrol-fuelled transportation means we’ve forgotten how hard a five mile walk to the local shops can feel. An hour and a half foot-slog is covered in just twenty minutes by bike. That’s the difference between going out and staying in.

For women of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition of a bicycle meant they could travel further to visit friends, go shopping alone or take a job for the first time. The impact of this emancipatory invention cannot be overstated.

(Okay, so maybe the impact of the bicycle can be overstated a little bit: biologist Steve Jones credits the bicycle for the remarkable explosion in diversity of the human gene pool over the last hundred and fifty years. A boast too far?)

Bikes mean freedom for Calais migrants

For the migrants stuck in Calais, the bicycle can have a similar liberating impact. The wasteground where the migrants are ghettoed is more than two miles from the town centre. That means hours of sore-slogging walks every day.

The migrants are not given more than one meal a day at the Jules Ferry Centre. Where can they get the rest of their food? From the town, a five mile round trip.

The camp nurse is only available during restricted hours and not at all on weekends. Where can migrants seek medical help? From the town, a five mile round trip.

Clothes, the library, internet access – all are a five mile round trip away, or more. The most prized possession of many migrants is a decent pair of shoes: they are worn down in a matter of weeks. Many migrants are stuck in Calais for months.

Bicycles are a gift of freedom

But there is more to the liberating powers of the bicycle than the mere practicalities of transportation. As women found in the nineteenth century, bicycles are a gift of freedom.

Migrants in Calais have spent weeks, months and years, slowly making their way north from whatever war-torn country they are fleeing. They have trusted in mafia agents and abandoned themselves to deadly rust-bucket boats in the Mediterranean; they have spent days playing hide and seek with gun-toting border guards and dodging ticket inspectors in train toilets.

Nobody makes such a journey out of choice. Nobody wants to beg and borrow for their lives. A bicycle can give migrants the freedom to go where they want, under their own power – at last! A bicycle gives the gift of self-reliance, independence, autonomy and pride.

(Not to mention that bikes are damn good fun! I watched a group of lads taking it in turns to cycle at giddying speeds round the pretty flower beds of Richelieu Park. The simple pleasures.)

Words are not enough – what can I do about it?

Glad you asked! At the end of August, we’re launching a biketilla (a bike flotilla?) to Calais. On the 29th of August, hundreds of people will be cycling second hand bikes from London to France, leaving the “freedom machines” with migrants in the camp there.

You can join us by attending the Facebook event or by sending a message to humans [at] ukhip.eu. Then just put a call out to your friends for a spare bike and get pedalling!

If you can’t make it on the 29th, then please do consider getting involved in some other way, by sharing the event or by baking us a cake to keep us fuelled! THANKS!

Me and vegan cake

Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, "Who pays your wages?" I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. "Why are you here, then?"

A tall, thin man spots us and veers towards my companion, his fingers pressed together in supplication. “Madame – ticket, ticket, ticket!”

“I don’t have any tickets with me today. No tickets, no tickets!”

The man turns away, not so much disappointed as empty. Continue reading Charity or Solidarity? On my first day here, an Afghan bluntly asked, “Who pays your wages?” I replied that I was not being paid at all. He stared at me in disbelief. “Why are you here, then?”

The History of John and Henry and of Frederick

Late one night, after the longest English lesson in history, as we settled on blankets in the darkness of the Calais jungle, hot sweet tea in our hands, one of the Sudanese, an intense man with eyes like light bulbs, caught my attention.

“Mr Teacher,” he says, light bulbs flickering, “I want to tell you the history of John and Henry and of Frederick.”

“Okay,” I reply, thinking these sounded like odd names for Sudanese history.

So the man fixed his bulbs on mine and this is, word for word, what he told me:

John said, “My father is taking me to Paris.” And Henry said, “Oh, you are so lucky! I would love to go to Paris.” Then Frederick asks John, “When are you going?” And John replies, “This time next Friday, we will be in the car that is taking us to Paris.”

I waited for more. There was no more. I looked at the others who shared the blanket; they avoided my eye or smirked into their tea.

I looked back at the story-teller, feeling a little embarrassed. Had I missed something about this short tale, told in oddly precise English for a man who just hours before hadn’t been able to conjugate the verb “to be”?

The man clearly felt a little put out that his story had not had the earth-shattering impact that he felt it deserved and so moved swiftly on, to a story about Ellen and Helen and Margaret and Lauren.

The gist of the narrative was that, while Ellen was busy looking after her mother and Helen had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, the indolent Margeret was sitting in her bedroom listening to the radio. Lauren, our story-teller added, was at work.

Again expecting some sort of moral or narrative turning point, I waited for more. Again, there was no more.

I couldn’t bear the tension that was building around my incomprehension of this man’s clearly significant stories. “I don’t understand,” I said.

“You don’t understand me?” he cried, light bulbs flashing in exasperation. “Then why are you still here?”

I hurriedly corrected him. “No, no – I do understand you, but I don’t understand the purpose of your stories.”

“Ah,” he replied. “They are two histories that I lose in the boat.”

Slowly it dawns on me. “They were stories in a book?”

“Yes, English book. Somebody throws them into the sea.”

Now I understand. This man, one of the keenest of my students, used to have an English textbook. The “story” of John and Henry and of Frederick was clearly a model dialogue used to teach the future tenses.

I imagined my student, on the deadly Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy, reading and re-reading his beloved English textbook, until he had memorised its teachings perfectly.

The irony was sharp. The future tense is our way of envisaging and describing our hopes and dreams. My story-teller’s long journey from Darfur to Calais was fuelled by hope and dreams alone: the electricity that powers those light bulb eyes.

A story of hope and a future of dreams. Until both are tossed overboard.

Very Short Film: “The Wind is Free” – Calais June 2015

This very short film shows the basic living conditions of the migrants in the windswept “jungle” of Calais. Currently over 3000 migrants are surviving on one meal per day, in self-made shelters that vary from the miserably basic to the downright ingenious.

Filmed 21 June 2015.

The Open Air Prison of Calais

Riot police look down over the camp from the flyover. From below it looks less like a flyover than a prison wall. Five riot vans stand guard, half a dozen riot cops in each, just looking down on us. I take a piss into the bushes underneath their machine gun gaze. It makes me feel safer.

At the entrance to this open air prison, off rue Garennes, there’s a driveway of asphalt, where two games of football, a set of tennis and a cricket match are in progress, each game modified and adapted to the conditions. Spectators range the banks on either side, while the riot police keep score and umpire (maybe).

Saving four on the leg side are a range of new hire toilets, installed just a couple of days ago in response to a battery of complaints by migrants and by French charities on the migrants’ behalf. Before these new arrivals, toilet facilities were located in the bramble bushes, or a 15 minute walk over sand dunes in the Jules Ferry Centre.

Drinking water taps have also recently been plumbed into the arid ground. Three months of traipsing to and fro for basic facilities such as toilets and water are over. But to call the conditions satisfactory for human existence would be a grievous violation of the definition of the word “satisfactory”.

4,000 people live here, in a bewildering ingenuity of tents, wire fence cages and pallet wood houses. One man from Senegal has even managed to build a traditional house, complete with thatched roof. Another skilled carpenter has constructed a two-storey house of wood, with a twin room, kitchen and balcony that overlooks the road to the Jules Ferry Centre.

But most of the denizens of this sorry open air prison survive in throw-away festival tents, held together with gaffer tape and rope. The wind blows hard enough to rip open my shelter on the first night. The rain soaks heavy in Calais.

These people need proper shelter, they need many more water taps and many more toilets. Above all, they need proper nourishment.

The Jules Ferry Centre, the French government’s concession to humanity, provides one meal a day at 5pm. No breakfast, no lunch, just a kind of a supper, doled out at the end of a three hour queue. Many migrants rise above this desultory charity, preferring to fend for themselves, sharing large communal meals with their communities. Sacks of potatoes stand sprouting in the sun.

Many of the migrants here are Muslims, currently observing Ramadan, not breaking their fast until sundown, long past the 5pm cut-off time for Jules Ferry. From somewhere, the internal economy or networks of solidarity, my Sudanese friends summon up a traditional meal of stew, grilled chicken and hot harissa paste, with rice pudding for dessert, all laid out on a carpet covered with a bed sheet.

We sit and wait, clock watching. My neighbour offers me a date to break the fast. Then the call to prayer bursts out from somebody’s mobile phone. The sun finally dips below the motorway and the Calais sky blushes in embarrassment, silhouetting the riot police as they look on through binoculars.

We can eat.

The Ghetto of Calais

Almost the first sight I saw on my return to France was three Afghans making the walk of shame, back out past the barbed fences, trailed by a crawling Port of Calais car, window wound down.

Not a good sign, I thought.

But the sky was cerulean blue and the wind just freshening as the sun made out like it was going to be here until Christmas; the Afghans looked unbothered and the port authorities merely bored.

Cycling back into Calais town centre, though, I saw no more migrants. Compared to last summer, the streets were empty. Good sign or bad sign? The numbers of migrants here is already supposed to be higher than last year, four thousand by some estimates – so where are they all?

At the beginning of June, numerous camps and squats in the town centre were evicted and closed down. Gone are the Leader Price camp, the Galloo squat and the Egyptian house. These join the earlier evictions of Tioxide and the Afghan camp in the Zone Industrielle des Dunes. Chased from the town centre, their former inhabitants have no more cause to be in Calais. There is nothing for them here.

The mayor’s plan to cleanse the town seems to have worked.

I can’t help but feel a small corner of relief for the people and businesses of Calais who rely for their income on the clean tourist image that the mayor is so eager to portray.

Over the past few years, the people of Calais would struggle to feel pride for their town. Every street corner wore the badge of the failures of French welfare, UK immigration, EU foreign policy and the failures of humanity in general. Now, with the migrants largely corraled and confined away from the town centre, the effect is diluted and visitors can start to forget the “migrant problem”.

So I couldn’t help but feel a little glad that Calaisiens appear to have “their” town back.

But the greater part of me fears for what that absence means. It means up to 4,000 migrants are being forced to live in ever more restricted areas, more tightly controlled by the police and much, much more densely packed.

I fear because I know what happens when you squeeze more and more air into your bicycle tyres. Already this year, fights have broken out between groups of migrants, living in difficult conditions and in unnaturally close quarters in the Jules Ferry camp grounds.

(I won’t call these camps “jungles” because this light-hearted gallows humour name, given to the various wild camps of Calais, has been seized upon by the right wing press and used to promote their portrayal of the migrants as little more than animals, fit only for the jungle. The truth is the other way around: our governments are treating them as animals.)

Recently, tents were set on fire in the camp, in a dispute over control of the parking lot where many migrants try to cross into the UK. A wooden church was also burnt to the ground. The dispute, however, could have been over almost any real grievance or imagined slight – disrespect, drunkenness, a misplaced word – because increasing population density alone causes increasing incidence of violence.

Remember how fractious you get on long coach journeys, confined, packed close together with your fellow travellers who go from being charming strangers to stinking, inconsiderate, corpulent, greedy, selfish freeloaders in the space of just 9 hours.

Add to that the migrants’ growing frustration at a life interrupted by war and blocked by bureaucracy and you have too too much air squeezed into your bicycle tyres. It’s going to burst sooner or later.

I cycled, via the boulangerie, to Richelieu Park, in the centre of Calais. The sun grinds its heel into the yellowing grass. Two young boys share a bicycle, one pedalling, the other standing on the footholds on the back wheel, hands on the shoulders of his mate, looking for all the world like a Roman emperor. This is their empire again. Palm trees stand in rows, while the young take the sun, the elderly the shade.

A year ago, this park, and parks like it, would have been filled with lounging migrants, waiting for the evening and their chance to cross into England. Police, too, would have been strolling the grounds, moving people on in a haphazard, half-hearted manner. Today, both are gone. So too is the Salam food distribution that used to take place on a field behind the nearby town hall. Anything that might attract migrants has been excised from the town centre.

So I cycle for half an hour, out of town. The parks and polished streets of central Calais start potholing as the houses straighten up into apartment blocks and then abruptly flatten out into red-roofed bunglows. I overtake a boy carrying a fishing rod lance-like on his bike. Shopping centres skulk past, warehousing all kinds of cheap comestibles, from rack to ruin.

I cross the river and the wind hits me. Nothing but forty-foot lorries, factories and not much else. The rue Garennes is long and straight, built to service the industrial parks that line its verges. Some are still operational, choking fumes into the evening, others bear only the air of dilapidation and neglect.

This is where the migrants start to appear, on the side of the road, traipsing, schlepping, some carry boxes and bags, baguettes and energy drinks. Some coming towards me, heading into Calais, to try to cross at the Channel Tunnel. Others walk in my direction. I follow the trail underneath a motorway bridge and into the camp.

Here is where I shall sleep tonight. With those four thousand others, out of sight and out of mind.

Migrant Mythbusting!

There are probably as many myths floating around about migrants and migration as there are UKIP voters. (Fascinating fact: there are as many foreign born nationals living in the UK as there are UKIP voters.) In this post, I bust a good few of them:

They’re stealing our benefits!

Let’s make this absolutely clear with a quote from the House of Commons: “Asylum seekers are not eligible for mainstream welfare benefits whilst waiting for a decision on their asylum application.”

Asylum seekers can apply for financial support and accommodation. The accommodation is offered on a “no choice” basis and only outside London and the south-east. Financial support is £36.62 per week for a single adult. Asylum support rates have not increased since 2011, despite the rising cost of living.

In comparison, a destitute British person claiming financial support will receive £72.40 (Job Seekers Allowance) and will be eligible for Housng Benefit.

If migrants were after handouts, then they should stay in France: they have quicker access to housing and benefits there.

This is all despite the fact that, according to a University of London survey of 2001-2011, non-EU immigrants to the UK paid out 2% more in taxes than they received. EU immigrants paid out 34% more. Benefit tourism is a myth.

Well they’re stealing our jobs, then!

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK – unless they have been waiting for a decision on their case for more than a year.

Busted

They’re only coming because we’re a soft touch on immigration!

This could not be further from the truth. The UK’s asylum process is draconian: 65% of applications were rejected in 2013 and we accepted less than 5,000 asylum seekers.

The UK is not seen as a soft touch by migrants either. In 2013, the UK received far less applications for asylum than Germany, the USA, France, Sweden and Turkey. Most countries saw a significant increase in asylum applications between 2012 and 2013; in the same period, the UK’s share of total asylum applications dropped from 6% to 5%. For every 1000 inhabitants, the UK receives less asylum seekers than Belgium, Montenegro, Austria and Leichtenstein.

These are not the statistics of a country that is a soft touch or that is even seen as being a soft touch.

Busted

They should stay at home / in France / anywhere else!

There is a philosophical argument here as well as a practical one. As British passport holders, UK citizens are allowed to travel almost anywhere in the world; in many countries they are allowed also to set up businesses and seek employment. These benefits are no more deserved than a lottery winner “deserves” his winnings. It’s luck. Similarly, being born in Syria at a time when the country suffers terrible drought and civil war, is no more deserved.

Beside this philosophical argument, the truth is that most of these people do stay at home or in other countries. The UK take significantly less asylum seekers than the rest of the EU. Overwhelmingly, the burden of asylum seekers and refugees is absorbed by neighbouring countries. The Syrian civil war has created around 3.8m refugees. There are 1.3m refugees from Syria currently living in Turkey and 1.8m living in Lebanon. In the UK, we have accepted just 24. The ones that do attempt the dangerous journey from their places of birth to the UK face great difficulty claiming asylum.

Legally, the Dublin Regulation states that migrants fleeing to the EU should claim asylum in the first country they come to. Logically, therefore, the UK should never need deal with asylum seekers because they MUST travel through other EU countries in order to reach ours.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the Dublin Regulation was pursued by the rich northern European countries of the EU, particularly the UK and Germany, in order to keep the “asylum problem” as far away as possible.

So why don’t the Calais migrants stay in France?

When asked this question, the main reasons cited by migrants are:

  • They have family and friends in the UK.
  • They speak English.
  • They face racism in Italy and France.
  • There are more jobs in the UK.

This is backed up by the demographic distribution of migrants in Calais. There main groups of people there are from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. If these people speak a foreign language, it is English. Migrants from French-speaking countries such as Algeria do indeed stop in France.

Busted

They’re violent criminals!

Two facts:

  1. After 1996, immigration to the UK rose sharply, from around 300,000 people a year to as much as 600,000 people a year.
  2. After 1996, violent crime in the UK fell sharply, from 4.2 million violent crimes in 1995 to only 1.94 million in 2011/2012.

Independent studies by both Oxford University and the London School of Economics find that there is “virtually no evidence
in any country to suggest links between migration and violent crime”.

Violent crime statistics are matched by property crime statistics: rising immigration in the last ten years is paired with falling property crime rates. What you really want now is a pretty chart:

Falling crime chart

Busted

Britain is full up!

If that’s true, then why are there over 600,000 empty homes in the UK? Why have a third of those been empty for more than six months?

Immigrants make up around 13% of the UK population, a figure that is broadly similar to most other parts of the developed world – Germany, the Netherlands, France, Norway, Spain and the USA all have immgrant populations of around 12-14%.

There are around 7.8m immigrants living in the UK; according to a 2005 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report, there are 13.1m British nationals living abroad. I wonder if Australia, Spain and the USA moan about all those Brits clogging up their roads?

Busted

They’re illegal!

Some people may travel to the UK illegally because, unlike you, they are not allowed to travel legally. They might have had their passport confiscated by a military dictatorship; they might have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

As soon as they apply for asylum, however, they are legally permitted to remain in the UK until their claim has been assessed. This process, by the way, isn’t exactly a bed of roses. Asylum seekers are often treated as we might treat criminals: by putting them into detention centres or tying them down with electronic tags.

Some people may attempt to work in the UK illegally (because £36.62 a week isn’t an awful lot to live off), but it is highly unlikely that they will be taking jobs from British workers. These “jobs” are run by gangmasters paying as little as £3 per hour – now that’s illegal.

Busted

Advice for People Visiting Calais Migrants

By popular request, here’s a rag-bag of advice for people visiting Calais for the first time (Last updated on the 5th of July 2015):

Planning your visit:

  • How to get to Calais: From the UK, the 90 minute ferry crossing is the obvious option. If you’re a foot passenger or with a bicycle, you can usually just turn up and buy a ticket for the next departure for less than £20. Ferries are very regular – when the workers aren’t striking!
    If you have a vehicle, it’s better to book well in advance as ticket prices can rise sharply. A car can cost up to £100, but that covers as many passengers as you can cram in, so take your friends!
    You can also take the Eurostar to Calais Frethun, but be aware that this is a good 13km (over 2 hour) walk from the camp.
  • Take good walking boots, a car or a bicycle. The camp in Calais is a long (2 miles +) walk from the town centre and the nearest shops. A car or a van is particularly useful for transporting things / people to and fro. If you do take a vehicle, be prepared to help people! You will be in high demand.
  • How to find somewhere to sleep: Talk to local activists or the migrants themselves about your sleeping options. I usually take a tent and camp. You could also try couchsurfing, sleep in your van if you take one, or stay at one of several hotels in Calais and the local area.

When in Calais:

  • Be kind to each other. Be awesome and considerate to yourselves, your group, other activists, local Calaisians and the migrants. Everyone’s going through a lot.
  • Always carry food and water. You don’t know when you’ll be eating, so take snacks. Otherwise you’ll get hungry, your blood sugar will fall and you’ll start getting annoyed and make bad decisions.
  • Migrants don’t need charity. Support and solidarity, yes; charity, no. You’ll find that they are the hospitable ones. You are visiting their homes (however temporary and desolate), so respect their rules and their wishes.
  • Be aware that the situation in Calais changes rapidly, often from one day to the next. Be flexible and…
  • Follow the lead and advice of local activists. But don’t be afraid to speak up and use your initiative if you see something needs doing.
  • Long-term activists in Calais may well be very tired. Don’t be put off if some people are quiet or unenthusiastic about your plans. You’re vital to inject some fresh enthusiasm.
  • Don’t be ashamed or afraid to take an hour, an afternoon or a couple of days “off”. Be a tourist, have a coffee, have a nice meal, go for a swim in the sea. Look after yourself and each other.
  • Don’t get involved with the police. They have a habit of smashing activist cameras.
  • Be aware that the camps in Calais are heavily male-dominated. It can feel threatening; as usual, follow the lead of local activists if necessary.
  • Be aware that the experience in Calais can be intense. Don’t mistake that intensity of experience with lust or love. But do make friends 😀

When you get back home:

  • Be aware of your (and others) emotions. Some people can be profoundly affected by what they hear and see in Calais. When you get back, have a little meet up with the others, or stay in touch by email. And keep being nice to each other.
  • Spread the news. Write something down, tell your family and friends, think about what you’ve seen and what it means. This is how things will change, through a slow process of bottom-up experience and understanding.

Finally: Have fun! I’m a big believer in fun. If something is not fun, then you won’t do it again and you certainly won’t encourage any one else to get involved. Yes, the situation is miserable, but that doesn’t mean that we always have to be miserable about the situation.

(If you’ve got anything to add, please leave a comment. Photo taken by Dominique Lyons – thanks!)

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT >> FOLLOW BETH and DAVE ON TWITTER!

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.
Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

Leafy Calais
“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

Beth and Me trolley Calais
“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Garder coûte que coûte...
Home, sweet home…

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.

Them and Us: Evolutionary Politics and The Philosopher Kings (and Queens)

The People’s Parliament is defiantly held in the least democratic building in the United Kingdom: the Houses of Parliament. Every Gothic gargoyle, every vaulted ceiling and marbled floor, every gun-toting copper screams totalitarianism. My local Territorial Army base is more democratic than the Houses of Parliament. Never mind. Our parliamentary host, John McDonnell MP, flaps his hands in despair at the larger-than-life oil paintings of dead monarchs around him, glad that this feudal building is being used “for something worthwhile, for a change.”

Police with guns
Not authoritarian at all.

That is how I started a blog post on a session of the People’s Parliament for Strike! magazine. The proletariat parliament had gathered in Committee Room 8 of the House of Commons to debate two questions posed by Zer0 Books: How has capitalism got away with the financial crisis? And (as if that wasn’t enough): Why is politics scared of political ideas?

* * *

A SIGNPOST: If you’d like to read a summary of the actual debate, then I politely usher you away from this post and to the very excellent Strike! blog. This post, on the other hand, will be a meta discussion on the very concepts of the People and Parliament.

* * *

Two things immediately struck me about the proceedings of this People’s Parliament. Firstly, that second question – Why is politics scared of political ideas? – seems to be missing a pronoun. Politics isn’t scared of ideas, not at all – why, only today, chancellor George Osborne dropped the Bingo Tax! And, over the course of the current parliamentary term, we’ve also seen the biggest reforms of the National Health Service since it was founded, austerity packages that have contributed to the slashing of the deficit by around £60bn and an Act of Parliament ensuring the environmental protection of the Antarctic (celebrated, I kid you not, with a commemorative tea towel and tartan tie). What’s wrong with these political ideas? Well… they’re not ours, are they? The question should be revised: Why is politics scared of OUR political ideas?

Which leads me on to the second thing: for a self-styled People’s Parliament, there is a lot of talk of “them” and “us”. And, make no mistake, this imaginary parliament is composed entirely of us: the Left. Even the man sitting next to me, dressed in leather shoes, wearing a smart suit and waistcoat, carrying a handlebar moustache and a leather briefcase with shiny brass buttons – even he is one of us. Neither the organisers of the People’s Parliament, nor Zer0 Books are particularly to blame for this imbalance – there were no Marxist goons at the door to the committee room, checking Party subscriptions or testing for neo-liberal sympathies. Theoretically, anyone could have attended – but I’m not even remotely interested in why they didn’t. I’m interested in why there exists a “them” and “us” in the first place.

The Right are often spoken about by the Left as if they are a monstrous sub-species, blood-sucking vampires and one-eyed cyclopes (the Right, I’m sure, feel the same about us). Now, I have some bad news: despite appearances, the Right aren’t diabolical creations of Frankenstein (George Osborne might be), they are as much a part of the human race as we are. But if that is true, I hear you cry in horror and disbelief, then why don’t they all give up and become more like us? Can’t they see that they’re wrong?

But, dear reader, we could ask the same of us. What are the Left? Why do we exist? Please tell me there’s more to us than good haircuts and indie bands. Well, let us find out…

Typical Lefty.
Typical Lefty.

* * *

Chimpanzees would vote Conservative. After spending ten minutes watching them picking nits at London Zoo, I’m almost certain that they’re Conservatives. In all my hours at the monkey house, I’m yet to witness any primate light up a spliff, read The Guardian or argue for a womanzee’s right to choose. And that’s why it’s the chimpanzees in the cages and us humans handing out the bananas. Chimpanzees don’t have evolved politics.

Cavemen were a fairly conservative bunch too, preferring grunts and wooden clubs to Marxist dialectics and nationalised healthcare. But, as well as the cave-conservatives, nascent human society had something else: mutant socialists. In order for evolution to proceed, there must be mutation. In political terms, this means we need people who blow away the status quo and do something Fucked Up and Wrong. And, politically speaking, that’s us, that’s the Left.

Sometimes, of course, those mutated ideas are genuinely Fucked Up and Wrong and result in a sicker society, one that ultimately destroys itself. Just as 99.9% of all species that ever existed are extinct, so too 99.9% of all societies that ever existed are now extinct. And that doesn’t mean that we have the best possible society now either – not at all. Just as some superb genes have been lost to the gene pool (I always thought that a pair of sabre teeth would have been useful for opening tins), so too have we in the West lost some superb social arrangements (anyone for matriarchy?). But without this constant Leftist innovation and mutation of politics and society, humans would still be stuck in caves, flinging shit at the walls, making friends by divesting their hair of head-lice and indulging in infanticide to preserve the purity of our bloodline.

You may wonder, then, why we’re not all brilliant socialist geniuses. The answer is that, sadly, for every one Lefty caveman who proposes the first primate parliament, there are a thousand who propose cooperation with sabre-toothed tigers, equal rights for head-lice or the League of Nations. Most ideas we have are Fucked Up and Wrong: the Right, then, exist to stand back and judge. If, by some miracle and contrary to all sensible advice, some loony Leftie has a break-through, the Right will immediately start copying us (and pretend that it was their idea all along). The Left and the Right are fundamentally different, but society is not them and us: human society is Left and Right together.

St Paul's Protest
Left and Right together at Occupy?

* * *

None of this is to say that the Right don’t innovate: Hitler was nothing if not, ahem, an innovator. But the Right don’t innovate the future; they innovate the past. Hitler innovated for the past of the Aryan race; Mussolini for the Romans; the BNP for a time before immigration. And, of course, most humans are neither far Right nor far Left: most people are somewhere in between – but it’s the extremes that define the debate, as we are finding out with David Cameron trying to out-UKIP UKIP and Nick Clegg trying to engage Nigel Farage in a debate on the EU.

* * *

Ancient Roman society innovated like mad in the industries of straight roads, the military and the imaginative torture of Christians – but why did they never invent the steam engine? Answer: because they had slaves. Their authoritarian Right would not allow the widespread manumission of slavery: free slaves are dangerous subjects and they must be kept occupied, doing the things that a steam engine could otherwise do. In the West, we had to wait for the radical Left to abolish slavery before a gap opened up in our technology for the steam engine – which kicked off the entire industrial revolution (for better or worse). The Left believed that the industrial revolution would result in a Utopic civilisation where days could be spent in the idle worship of beauty and smog. But, of course, our authoritarian Right wouldn’t allow that: free wage slaves are just as dangerous subjects.

The history of human society is a history of this constant pushing back and forth between Right and Left. An optimist would argue that the general trend of evolutionary politics is to drift left (because we’re awesome). An optimist would argue that the current lurch (lurch is a technical term from political science) to the Right is a mere blip in the millennial trend that has seen the end of feudalism and the start of a comprehensive welfare state. It is my belief that the Left should take great pride in this, our DNA-given role in political evolution – to fuck up society with a scatter-gun of new ideas and direct action. But we, the Left, must not also be complacent. If we are not vigilant, then the Right will nick all our best ideas and use them to justify their own ends (see “parliamentary democracy”). Dare they? Do they? Yes. Because they vastly outnumber us. It’s a hazy estimation, but one regular US poll judges conservatives to outnumber liberals by about four to one.

From an evolutionary point of view, I’m reluctant to admit that this balance makes total sense. In the battle for survival from one generation to the next, a genome wouldn’t want the entire population to be loony Lefties, inviting tigers home for tea. A genome wouldn’t even want half the population to be loony Lefties. A genome would want most people to be boring, a genome would want most people to keep doing what their great-grandparents did to survive – but with just enough loonies to keep things fresh. Evolution is a cosmically slow process, which can be frustrating to us revolutionaries, but you can see evolution’s point: If the status quo has worked for a billion years, then why change overnight, in a year, or even in a generation?

Typical scene after failed revolution.
Typical scene after another failed revolution.

* * *

Apologies for going on so – that’s the nature of impotent Lefty theorising. I assure you that the end approacheth, together with a (gasp!) practical proposal, as reward for your patience.

* * *

So the Left will always be outnumbered by the Right: that’s pre-determined in human DNA, I’m afraid. But we can load the game in our favour by exploiting maths (heinously flawed maths, but stick with me, if you will). Supposing that the above-cited US poll is approximately correct: that only twenty percent of humans are Leftists. Then, given that there are 650 seats in the House of Commons, we should find about 130 are on the Left. Now, assuming that MPs of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Alliance, SDLP, Plaid Cymru, Respect, Sinn Féin and Green parties are at least Left-leaning (massive assumption given the last Labour government), then what we actually find are 333 Leftist MPs. That’s over fifty percent: a clear majority, even in this Tory-dominated government. The conclusion we draw from this anomaly is that Left-leaning humans are vastly more politically active than their Right-leaning counterparts. We are DNA’s anointed Philosopher Kings and Queens.

Why, then, do we find ourselves suffering such Right-wing authoritarian abuses as austerity, even under a coalition government including the Liberal Democrats? Why did those same Liberal Democrats drop their promise to abolish university tuition fees? Why did the Blair-Brown Labour governments embrace financial neo-liberalism? The answer, I fear, is terrifyingly simple: logistics. Societies with a large population, like the UK, are almost impossible to manage fairly. It’s hard to be democratic when 63 million people are represented by only 650 politicians. The very idea makes authoritarianism seem appealing, even to supposedly Left-leaning governments. By the way, it won’t surprise you to learn that David Cameron supports the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, making the country even more authoritarian (or “less bureaucratic”, depending on your viewpoint).

The Left has a difficult time wielding power in large societies. The poster-girls of Leftist European government are Sweden (population 9.5 million, 349 MPs), Iceland (population 320,000, 63 MPs) and Denmark (population 5.5 million, 179 MPs). I conclude that it is in the Left’s favour to build and work in smaller societies. In these smaller societies, Philosopher Kings and Queens aren’t so easily drowned out by the clamour of X-Factor.

Therefore, I would politely suggest that the Left should throw their entire weight behind the YES campaign for Scottish independence. This will make whatever remains of the UK slightly smaller and the Westminster parliament marginally more democratic, marginally more of an actual people’s parliament. But, far more significantly, a YES vote will also give us a glimpse of what a smaller, more democratic and more Leftist population can achieve on their own. Scotland will become a precedent for total regional autonomy: If they can go it alone, then why not Wales? Why not Cornwall? Why not Humberside? The referendum on Scottish independence takes place on the 18th of September 2014. The rules say that anyone whose permanent address is in Scotland, ahead of the deadline for registration on the 2nd of September 2014, can vote.

Bonnie Scotland
Bonnie Scotland.

Finally, here follows my practical proposal:

This summer, gather your friends and allies, pack up your megaphones and polish your anarchist pin-badges and let’s move to Scotland en masse. Let’s create an independent Leftist state together, severing all ties with this most undemocratic of buildings forever.

Mel Gibson would be proud.

Straw Bale Building at Braziers Park

Last weekend, I went to Braziers Park to have a go at building a straw bale house. Here’s a little film I made about the project, run by Hugh Makins.

Straw Bale Building: Braziers Park from David Charles on Vimeo.

An introduction to straw bale building by Hugh Makins. Hugh is driven by his passion to find innovative solutions to the economic, environmental and social crises faced by humankind today. Affordable and sustainable straw bale building is just one aspect of his vision for a better world.

Hugh is a resident of Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. You can learn more about straw bale building by joining one of his experimental weekend building courses.

Filmed on location by David Charles in July 2012.

Tunis Martyrs’ Day Violence: Why and What Next?

Last Monday, I followed a protest in Tunis that was violently dispersed by police, using tear-gas and baton-beatings.

It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. My previous post demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here.

Since Monday, I have spoken to actual Tunisians, both in person and online, to find out more about the background to the protests and to ascertain how much support there is “on the street” for the protesters.

First, though, the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis’ main transport arteries.

It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) – and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration was permitted is certainly a step up from the days of Ben Ali.

So far, so reasonable.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba: nice, wide, pedestrian-protest-promenade…

(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march – were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles…)

…Plus soldiers, tanks and a statue of Ibn Khaldoun.

That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?

To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally).

One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me and reiterated: it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.

Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics – and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.

One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer, told me that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can’t disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they were friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police – so of course the police attacked back.

I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids – teenagers – certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.

Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say, it is followed by a counter-protest and then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.

Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses not to change anything, not to make things more liberal, not to give the people more democracy. In other words: their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba – “A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!”

This man’s frustration was palpable – and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society. Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign tourists are going elsewhere, draining away the 7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.

Man on street, day after. Banner (approximately) reads: “Tunisia martyrs, living with their Lord.” Excuse Arabic!

On reflection, it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. I have written before about Tunisia’s relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors: jobs, for example.

On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It’s natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it’s not unexpected that the average man on the street disapproves the protests.

Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of Tunisian society. Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration – particularly as protests in London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I have never been tear-gassed in London).

But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women, men and children. I was particularly taken by a group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.

I set against this conclusion also that I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood. Ennahda strenuously denies that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened. So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters should or shouldn’t be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba – so reminiscent of the actions of Ben Ali – prove to me that there is something in the protesters’ grievance.

A bad photo I took, forgive me. But those plainclothes men in that white A-Team van are about to produce white painted wooden cudgels, with which they are about beat any protester they catch. Note the police are blithely ignoring them, letting them get on with scaring the heck out of me.

Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday were ex-government (Ben Ali’s government, that is) and some were from the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was an explosion at the Hotel Africa on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.

What we do know is that, since the broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.

~

The above is all I learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now I shall give my impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means.

My impression was that the protesters went one step too far. They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive – the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so optimistic that it could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn’t used their weapons.

If the protest had been small – perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market – and if they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the police would have allowed us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy – but static and merely symbolic – protest.

This kind of protest is allowed. Outside the union, not on Habib Bourguiba.

But the protesters pushed too far. The police couldn’t keep rolling back and retreating – they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it. The tragic but inevitable outcome was running battles in the streets.

(A side note: I don’t think you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant. The police couldn’t accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn’t back down either.)

But supposing the police had let us march to the Ministry of Interior – what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered.

But the police couldn’t let that happen. They couldn’t allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians and widespread panic.

I am not naive, however. There is a strong chance that the protesters wouldn’t have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that the protest would have escalated and swelled beyond control.

But perhaps therein lies the real reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps the government and the police fear a second revolution to follow the first, as happened in Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.

I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of my business. But I believe one thing is certain: the actions of the police on Monday – and let’s not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal – have made a second uprising only more likely.

Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people – you would have thought 2011 had shown that eloquently enough.

Sidi Bouzid’s memorial to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Or the first Tunisian revolution?

Tunis: Police Attack Peaceful Martyrs March

I was walking around the central market in Tunis this morning, when I passed by a peaceful march. They carried banners proclaiming: “Never forget why they died – Freedom and Dignity”. The marchers were young and old, women, men and children, wearing smiles with their flags. So, being in full support of marches in general and this sort of march in particular, I joined them.

We marched on past the central market and across Habib Bourguiba – the main street in central Tunis. There, the police carefully chaperoned us across the road and to the headquarters of one of the unions, where we stopped.

A quiet gathering outside a union building in Tunis.

That, I thought, was that. The chanting stuttered and ceased. Some people left the crowd, which was only ever about 50-60 people, others stood around amiably, chatting and smoking, leaning on their signs, wrapped in their banners.

I asked one of the men what this was all about. He explained that today was Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia and that these people were unhappy with progress after the revolution. That seemed fair enough and I was about to leave when a journalist tapped me on the shoulder. He added that the group intended to march down Habib Bourguiba street, but that protests there had recently been banned. This sounded more interesting.

Still, though, the protest didn’t look like much. There were no angry young men – from their dress, I reckoned it was just a small group of liberal middle-class Tunisians. Then, without a signal, we started from the union building to Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of the police presence and the banning order.

But our fifteen minute pause at the union building seemed to be a tactic because, when we got back to Habib Bourguiba, the police didn’t seem to be expecting us. No one stopped us until we got to the cathedral, where a hasty line of police barred our way. Our small, timid group was kettled and, as always in Tunisia, a crowd gathered to watch the events. I slipped outside the kettle, to look on with them.

The kettled protesters. Outside the cathedral in central Tunis.

The crowd around me grew and grew, curious Tunisians come to watch the action. Or so I thought. Then, suddenly, as if a sprint-race starter’s pistol had sounded, a great chanting rose up from the crowd of bystanders. They turned as one and started to march towards the clock tower that marks the centre of Tunis. These were no bystanders – this was the march! I cackled with glee when I realised that our small, timid group of kettled friends were merely a decoy for the police.

Chanting, whistles, cheers. And police brutality. On Habib Bourguiba, Tunis.

And with whistles and chants and defiance, we marched on and on. The protesters broke through three lines of police, the first barred our way with linked arms, the second with riot shields and the third with batons and tear-gas canisters. Or at least, we broke through until the tear gas was fired and the batons were beaten. Then we ran.

Men, women and children burst out around me, staggering under the clouds of gas, stampeding at the cracking of the batons on helmets and the canisters’ explosions.

Down the street and around the corner, people hacked up poisoned phlegm into the gutters and damped their eyes with handkerchiefs. The shops and restaurants hurriedly pulled down their shutters, dragging customers and bystanders inside for shelter.

We could hear the shouts from the police, hear more gas canisters fired, hear more baton cracks. I saw a mini-van of plain-clothed thugs arrive with white cudgels to beat and maim, to disperse the crowds with fear. Police, all in black, wore balaclavas – to protect themselves from their own tear-gas, or to hide their identities?

Aftermath: Protesters, press, police.

Gradually, Habib Bourguiba cleared of protesters. All that was left were shopkeepers peering out behind shutters, dazed, angry civilians and bewildered tourists. The occasional running police, the occasional beating. But the real action had shifted to the side streets, where kids were throwing stones at police, getting tear-gas in return. The kids then flee, chased by the cops, hopelessly.

Kids throwing stones. Police throwing tear gas canisters. Place Barcelone, Tunis.

But what is the meaning of all this meaningless violence? What does this demonstration of freedom mean for the protesters? What does this demonstration of force mean for the police?

I spoke to one young Tunisian school-teacher who was frustrated with the protesters. He said that they had freedom now, but they didn’t know how to use it. He said that people were asking for rights that were not important – like people with jobs asking for better jobs, or people with salaries asking for bigger salaries – when there are people without jobs, without money, without homes or food.

This young man said that Tunisia needed security and that the current government couldn’t provide it. He stopped short of saying that Ben Ali could, but it was implied. He looked forward to going to London, to get a job there.

But the marchers are not merely gluttons for freedom. That much was demonstrated by the very nature of the government’s response to them. Some of these people had walked for six days from the town of Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the dead of the 2011 revolution.

Today was Martyrs’ Day and any free country would accept and commemorate with the marchers the tragic loss of life under the old, despotic regime.

But instead they were met by a banning order that made their march illegal, then found their way blocked by lines of police and finally were brutally attacked with tear-gas and batons.

So much has changed in Tunisia? The next day, I tried to find out why this violence happened and what’s next for Tunisia.

A massacre you haven’t heard of yet: Camp Ashraf, Iraq

What is Camp Ashraf?

Camp Ashraf is a community of 3,400 Iranian exiles and refugees who fled their country in the years following Iran’s Islamic revolution. It is located 60km north of Baghdad, in Iraq.

Who lives there?

The camp is famous (or infamous) as a centre for the banned Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK). It has been described as the Iranian opposition’s “headquarters”. The PMOI supports free elections, gender equality and equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. The PMOI also advocates a free-market economy and peace in the Middle East.

In 1979, the PMOI were targeted in Iran by the new theocratic government of Ayatollah Khomeini. The PMOI fought back with their own terrorist attacks on the Iranian Islamic government. In the face of continued repression, the PMOI leadership eventually fled, first to France and then to Iraq where they established Camp Ashraf.

The PMOI were welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. Iraq, with Western backing, was at that time engaged in war with Iran. Saddam funded and armed the PMOI at Camp Ashraf: they had a common enemy in Iran.

Following the overthrow of Saddam, the US forces took responsibility for the security of Camp Ashraf. They granted the inhabitants “Protected Person” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Since the end of the US occupation, however, the Iraqi government has moved closer to Iran, putting the future of Camp Ashraf in doubt. The UK government takes the view that the Camp Ashraf “Protected Person” status no longer applies because the country is no longer in a state of war.

The PMOI were designated a terrorist organisation by the US in 1997, as a show of support for a (comparatively) moderate Iranian government at the time. The PMOI were also listed as terrorists by the EU in 2002, but this ruling was overturned in 2009. The PMOI are no longer considered a terrorist organisation by the EU or by the UK.

In May 2005, a Human Rights Watch report claimed that the PMOI were committing severe human rights violations against former PMOI members. This claim has been repudiated by the PMOI and a number of independent authorities, but the charge still stands.

There is no question that – as with all political groups across the world – there is much fault to be found within the PMOI. However, it would be a grievous mistake to confuse the protection of Camp Ashraf with politics. This is a mistake that could cost many lives.

The massacre of 2011

In April 2011, following a similar attack in 2009, Camp Ashraf was attacked by Iraqi forces. At least 47 residents were killed in these attacks and hundreds wounded. To compound these atrocities, the camp is currently under an Iraqi blockade, which prevents medical supplies from reaching the wounded. As a result of this blockade, at least 12 injured residents have died from treatable wounds in the past year. As recently as the 11th of January 2012, Iraqi forces prevented the entry of five special beds for paralysed patients.

The commander responsible for the 2011 massacre is being investigated by a Spanish court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against international community.

The attack was documented in gruesome detail by the residents, sometimes recording at the cost of their own lives.

 

The massacre of 2012?

The Iranian government has been pressing Iraq to close Camp Ashraf, as its residents and the PMOI pose a direct ideological threat to the current theocratic regime in Iran. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded favourably to this pressure and vowed to close the camp by April 2012.

“Iraqis consider the [PMOI] as terrorists and criminals and don’t want this criminal group to remain on their soil… In April there will no longer be a Camp Ashraf.”

– Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Maliki had previously promised that he would close the camp by the end of 2011. This threat has been postponed thanks to a last-minute arrangement with the UN. The UN was granted a six-month extension by Maliki, during which time the residents of Camp Ashraf will be transferred to a former US military base (ironically named “Camp Liberty”) and have their refugee status assessed by the UN.

On the 29th of December 2011, the first residents started to move to the new camp, as a “gesture of goodwill” according to PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi. However, these people have been prevented from transferring their assets and vehicles to their new homes. Furthermore, only a small area of the camp has been allocated to the refugees and cooking and water facilities are far worse than at Camp Ashraf. Camp Liberty is at risk of becoming a prison, surrounded by Iraqi police and armed forces.

Given the Iraqi government’s record of massacre at Camp Ashraf, it is hard to imagine that the closure of the camp will pass off without bloodshed.

What can be done?

To prevent a massacre, there must be independent monitoring of the camp. Until 2009, this was the responsibility of the US forces based in Iraq. With the end of the US occupation, that protection is no longer there and Camp Ashraf is at the mercy of the Iraqi military. The people of Camp Ashraf have no means of physical protection.

The people of Camp Ashraf do not have UN refugee status. They do hold protected persons status, conferred under the Fourth Geneva Convention by the occupying US army. However, this status only applies under conditions of war. Therefore the people of Camp Ashraf have no protection under international law.

The removal of these two protections, physical and legal, means that the people of Camp Ashraf are  increasingly vulnerable.

The solution is clear: for the UN to confer refugee status on camp as a whole and, in the meantime, to station a monitoring team on the ground to prevent a massacre. Then every member of the camp could be granted asylum in a democratic country – and not sent back to Iran to face punishment from the regime there. However, this simple solution is complicated by the status of PMOI as a terrorist organisation in the US.

Furthermore, the UN process of according refugee status will take a long time. The people of Camp Ashraf don’t have a long time – they have only weeks, until April. In April, remember, Prime Minister Maliki has promised the end of Camp Ashraf, one way or another.

The Iran Liberty Association, the writing of this article and a metaphor

The Iran Liberty Association is a group that aims to promote human rights in Iran and to support Iranian refugees. They are very active on the streets of London. Five years ago, I was approached by a man from Iran Liberty on Tottenham Court Road, asking for my help. I must have given this man my contact details because, earlier this week, he phoned me back to see if we could meet up.

So I went to see him and, as we sat in the sunshine of Camden Lock, he told his story of Camp Ashraf. He showed me a video of the 2011 Iraqi attack on Camp Ashraf and he explained how the residents of the camp needed help raising funds to expedite their case at the UN, to bring their story to the world’s media and to help prevent another massacre. He emphasised the importance of the people at the camp, describing them as intellectuals and defenders of freedom who formed the backbone of Iranian opposition to the oppressive regime in Tehran under President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs.

There has been some suggestion on Internet message boards that Iran Liberty and Camp Ashraf are somehow fabrications, that they are a way of extracting money from unsuspecting wooly-headed liberals. A cursory investigation will convince even the most cynical that Camp Ashraf does indeed exist, is home to Iranian dissidents and is being targeted by Iraqi forces at the behest of the current government in Iran. Sources as diverse as The Daily Mail, the BBC and Amnesty International attest to this.

I am unable and (at least partially) unwilling to become too deeply embroiled in the political battles of a country so far from my own, that I understand so little, but I did promise that I would tell people about Camp Ashraf on my blog. This is where this article has grown from.

Also at our meeting was a gentleman who’d flown from Paris to contribute to the urgent Camp Ashraf campaign. He was a writer and poet, far more experienced than me, and he gave me as a parting gift a short story of his. I hope he won’t mind if I share a quote with you.

The story is about a man who is staring into a goldfish bowl at a tiny little fish. The man watches as the fish explores his bowl, with its seaweed, pebbles and shells. But the little fish seems agitated, not quite content with his home. Day by day, hour by hour, the fish grows bigger and bigger and he starts to see the bowl as more like a cage than a home. Eventually, the fish grows so large that the bowl can’t contain him any more. The man watches on as, with an almighty push of his fully-grown fins, the fish breaks clear of the water and out of his cage-bowl:

“The cage turns upside down. Its water pours into the room. You’re busy flapping your wings. The water completely covers the room. It rises. It reaches the ceiling. When you’ve leapt through the windowpane, the sky is blue. You are lost among the clouds. And now I’m swimming in the waters of the room. I rise up. I move down. I near the walls of a glass and stare at someone who is staring at me from the other side. My fins are growing larger.”

The metaphor is strong, I think. For me, it shows how, when one group gains power and freedom, they may well drown their neighbours, but they also show the way.

Why I am an anarchist (and why you are too)

I am an anarchist. Now I’m not that interested in whether you know what anarchists do or what anarchism is – you can look that up (Clue: It is nothing to do with petrol bombs and masked violence), but here I’ll address a much more interesting question: Why am I an anarchist? Or, more precisely, why was it inevitable that I and thousands of others like me should become anarchists AND why will millions of people like you join us?

It starts with a little history…

The Occupy camp in London, November 2011.

Why did I become an anarchist? (A short history, 1971-2011)

The story of my inevitable progression towards anarchism begins in 1971, some 11 years before I was born, when Ronald Reagan made the unilateral decision to move the US dollar off the gold standard. From then on, money would no longer be real. This has had serious consequences, not least that banks and other lenders could now create money out of thin air in the form of credit or loans.

And the story ends in 2011, when, like the rest of the world, I watched on as the Middle East erupted into revolution, and then joined hundreds of thousands of people in creating horizontal public spaces under the banner of the Occupy movement.

Police defending the home of democracy from democracy, 2013.

So why was this progression inevitable?

I spent my childhood living under the rule of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1992). I started going to secondary school, where politics started to trickle into my consciousness, under the government of John Major. The country was struggling to recover from the recession of the early nineties and I remember well the chaos of constant scandals of that long discredited Conservative regime.

And so it was with a euphoric feeling of relief and excitement that I stayed up all night to listen to the election results of 1997. Labour, under Tony Blair, had won a landslide, with a mandate to do anything they could possibly dream of. A number of policies did indeed emerge to check the shocking growth of inequality under the destructive decades of Conservatism: the minimum wage being the leading example.

But then, shortly after Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001, two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York. This appeared to change everything. It is probable that Tony Blair had always intended to intensify his pro-business and anti-human policies, but 9/11 gave him every excuse.

By this time, I was at university and not remotely political. I had my beliefs and disillusions, but I made no attempt to participate in my democracy and I knew no one who did.

That changed in 2003. I joined over three quarters of a million people marching through the streets of London to protest the invasion of Iraq. This was the biggest protest ever organised in the UK – and organised is the word. Unions, students and pained lefties were mobilised by a hierarchical coalition known as Stop The War. It was extraordinarily successful and we were jubilant. But we were ignored.

Demoralised at my first failure of political action, I continued to speak out against the war, but no more. Then the 2008 recession hit and I, like others I’m sure, felt a certain schadenfreude as I watched the stock market plummet. We’d had it coming, with laissez-faire financial policies that encouraged reckless speculation and remuneration packages that rewarded bankers and lawyers disproportionate to their value to society.

Then I watched as the opportunity to restore equality to our society was missed; the banks were bailed out;  homeowners and tax payers hung out to dry. Inequality soared.

Still I did nothing.

Then, at the end of 2009, I joined a political movement, completely by accident. I wanted to travel to Gaza, to see for myself the country that I had written about for my masters in Middle Eastern history. Independent travel to Gaza is almost impossible, so I found a group going to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Israeli massacre in Gaza in December 2008.

The whole trip was a farce, involving the Egyptian dictator Mubarak’s wife and a job lot of roses. However, it was led by a feminist group called Code Pink and, while in Cairo, I learnt the principles of consensus decision making and direct democracy. Without really meaning to, I had my first encounter with anarchism.

Finally, in October 2011, I joined the Occupy movement at St Paul’s in London. Here I saw up close how anarchism can bring people together to create a community from nothing more than a few tents and a lot of goodwill.

I saw anarchism create the very society that our new leader David Cameron was begging us for: The Big Society. The only problem for Cameron was that Occupy didn’t look right, he wasn’t in charge and most of the people involved hated him and his policies.

As a society sleepwalks towards greater and greater inequality, the bulk of the population will seek a politics that is based on radical equality, a politics that is based, not on a vertical hierarchy, but on horizontal power structures. That is why I and so many other people are turning to anarchism to address the problems in society.

Hierarchy and anarchism

Organisers in Cairo, 2009.

“Anarchy” means “without rulers”. I have worked in all kinds of organisations, from warehouses to offices, from film sets to human rights organisations. I have ended up hating every single one of them. Why? Hierarchy. I could not subsume my individual existence as a human being to another human being. It bred in me hatred, paranoia and outright rebellion.

This sort of hierarchy is found throughout our society, most insidiously within our own homes. The ubiquitous system of private housing and landlords is a form of hierarchy. Every decision you make for your rented flat is at the mercy of an overlord.

After six months of living in London under a landlord, I wanted to kill myself. And it would have been a small mercy: I was working 37.5 hours in one of the aforementioned office jobs for the sole purpose of paying my landlord usurious rates of rent. I was working for someone else at my place of work, and the money I exchanged for my freedom there went directly to my master of my own home.

No wonder I was depressed. Hierarchy dogged me at home and at work. Now I live in a housing cooperative run by members, with no landlord and no hierarchy. I am empowered to make decisions for myself and for my home.

Why you should be an anarchist too

If you’re still wondering why you should join us, then consider this: Maybe you are already an anarchist.

Think about it. In your favourite relationships, where is the hierarchy? With your partner, who is the boss? With your family, who is the boss? With your friends, who is the boss?

Wouldn’t you rather make all of your relationships, at home and at work, based on true equality? This is the aim of anarchism and it is possible, cooperatives are just one example.

The Starbooks library, opposite Starbucks, at Occupy St Pauls, 2011.

But isn’t hierarchy only natural?

The most common counter-argument to the idea of anarchism is that hierarchy is natural. Some people will always be stronger, faster, more capable than others and these people will naturally become leaders.

This is, of course, idealised nonsense.

Think about it among your friends. There are some things that you are the best at, say cooking Mexican food. You are the best cook out of all of your friends. When you all get together, everyone wants you to cook because you make the best meals. But you still wouldn’t dream of shutting them out of the process. No. You would encourage them to give it a go, to get involved. You would want them to cook because then they’ll get good enough that you won’t have to cook every time. You understand that sometimes you let them cook, so they can improve their skills. And you understand that this is better for the group as a whole. And what happens when everyone fancies Vietnamese food? Are you still the best cook?

But a hierarchy generally comes about when one person or group puts themselves at the top and says: We’re better at everything than you – and we’re not even going to let you try because then you’ll improve your skills and eventually want to take our place at the top of the hierarchy and we can’t let that happen!

I suppose it all comes down to a simple question: What kind of relationship do you want to have with the rest of humanity? One based on inequality, superiority and dominance or one based on equality, respect and partnership?