People have been seeing surprising pictures in the papers and on our TV screens of migrants trying to storm ferries to Britain in Calais. What people have not been seeing is the violence suffered by migrants in Calais, especially over the last few months. The police and the council have gone on the offensive against migrants. They smashed up squats and smashed up camps in the wasteland around Calais – referred to as the ‘jungle’. Charities have organised soup kitchens where migrants can get food and other basic provisions – usually just once a day, often less. In recent weeks police have attacked migrants at the collection points for food, often arresting them. Migrants are regularly beaten up by the police.
At the same time as this police repression there have been fascist mobilisations against the migrants in Calais over the past six months. There have been a few marches under the banner of Sauvons Calais. A big one is expected today as I am writing this. But there have been other smaller ones over the last few months. Fascist thugs armed with pickaxes and other weapons have laid siege to buildings occupied by migrants and anti-fascists.
All this has accelerated the attempts of migrants to reach their destination – England. Yes, indeed that is where they want to go. The Daily Mail have made a great thing of this – these migrants mostly want to come to England, rather than staying in France, proving that the UK is a ‘soft touch’. But there are plenty of migrants who aim to stay in France – they go to Paris, Marseille, Lyons, or out into the countryside to find work on the land. They don’t go to Calais, because they aren’t trying to get to Britain. But the migrants in Calais are there to try and come to the UK.
The British connection is the main factor behind the repression in Calais. There used to be a Red Cross camp in Sangatte, Calais, where migrants could stay. Because of people managing to get across from Calais to Dover the Labour government under Blair called on the French State to close down Sangatte and strengthen the border controls. The French closed it down in 2002. But every time there is publicity about migrants getting across, the British government has asked for more action. Now it seems, the mayor of Calais has had enough of British demands and has called for the British authorities to be more vigilant instead.
Thousands of migrants every year are killed crossing the Mediterranean to get to Europe. But people are also killed trying to get across from Calais to Britain. Migrants may travel underneath lorries making the crossing and they sometimes fall off to their deaths. Infamously, the Dover 58, Chinese migrants, were found dead in a refrigerated lorry. Recently a man died in a container and another thirty coming from Cherbourg were close to death. Closed borders and immigration controls are a threat to life and limb.
Much of the commentaries about the events in Calais this week have revolved around traffickers. Traffickers are portrayed as the villains of the piece, exploiting the migrants. Of course they are nasty exploitative operators but they only exist because of immigration controls, requiring the organisation of torturous journeys for migrants to avoid detection.
The migrants from Calais come from a variety of places but the largest proportion of them are from Afghanistan, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. So they are often fleeing persecution, war and starvation.
But people are fighting back – migrants, anti-racists and anti-fascists. On Friday 5 September there was a pro-migrant demonstration in Calais of about 500 people, called by the migrants themselves. There has been a call across France and Britain for people to go to Calais to oppose a fascist march on 7 September.
The resistance of migrants in Calais needs support. Given the role of the British government behind the repression in Calais it is incumbent upon socialists in Britain to build that support and to demand the opening of the borders of Calais and Dover, and indeed all borders.