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