Over half term I and two friends spent 4 days over in France helping out with a charity called Care4Calais, set up 2 years ago by someone who could no longer find it within herself to stand idly by while refugees and migrants camps on the other side of the Channel gradually took on the permanence of small towns, with the trappings of normal life – basic shops, schools, places of worship, dwellings organised by ethnic lines into “Little Eritrea”, “Sudan City”, “Afghanistan Town” – but with none of the comfort or security, recreated instead out of tarpaulins, corrugated metal sheeting and whatever else the residents could scrape together. And all this within a literal stone’s throw of a downturn-trodden but still relatively affluent town centre.
I guess you could say that I was massaging my middle-class guilt at having done nothing more, until this point, than donating the occasional amount on charity websites or clicking my support for one or other of the security blanket of online petitions which paper our inboxes nowadays.
Our arrival in Calais coincided with the departure of the last busloads of young people for the Centres d’Accueil et d’Orientation, meaning that – in theory, and according to the French Government – the “Jungle” had been cleared. The problem solved. And any proximity to the ramping-up of of sparring before the upcoming French Presidential elections was all purely coincidental, of course…
But after a first day working in the two Care4Calais warehouses and the open space between them, checking the state of donated tents for dispatch to places of need, we found ourselves drawn to check the now burned-out and bulldozered patch of brown-field for ourselves.
As the sun set over Calais, we skirted the site to find it still guarded by gendarmes and CRS, and indeed still occupied by a handful of families with small children running apparently carefree amidst the container dwellings and now-defunct infrastructure of what had been, until days before, a “town” of 10,000. We also saw three young men of apparently north and west African origin walking the edge of the Jungle site, followed barely 5 paces behind by an escort of 3 gendarmes. Where were they heading? Had they not made it onto the buses? Had they arrived since the “problem had been solved”…?
My thoughts about what the Calais “Jungle”, the camp under the métro arches at Stalingrad in Paris (and the other mini-camps we never hear about in our news media) represent have been swirling around in my head since I left behind the can-do camaraderie of the Care4Calais volunteers and returned to *my* normality after having my eyes well-and-truly opened.
And now they have been thrown into sharp focus by the events across another stretch of water, in the American Presidential Election.
On the day we heard that the political landscape had tilted so suddenly to the right, memories flooded back of a day exactly 27 years ago, when a popular movement fuelled by peaceful positivity tore down a wall which had represented a scar across not only a country but a continent and a geopolitical world. The irony of a President-Elect whose most eye-catching campaign pledge had involved selling the idea of a 2000 mile border wall to keep out a people tarred as one with the brush of “rapists” – despite facing legal proceedings for this very crime himself – was almost physically sickening.
And my mind returned to this gate in the “Jungle” wall:
Now we hear that the President-Elect “probably can’t get Mexico to pay for a wall… But is was a great campaign device.” (Newt Gingrich: potentially the next Secretary-of-State). Apparently, Mr Trump “knows how to build big buildings. He knows how to build golf courses. He knows how to build lots of stuff. The idea that he can’t figure out how to control the southern border is just silly.”
27 years ago, I was an 18 year-old working in a shop in Paris, and debating whether to lose my job and hitch to Berlin just to be there as the German people carved a brave new chapter in their history, completely sidelining their political classes by getting it done, themselves. I don’t have many regrets in life – but not having done so is one of them…
Now we live in the so-called “post-truth” world, where a whispered lie can be on the other side of the world before truth has time to tie its shoelaces. Walls, philosophical and political if not physical, are being thrown up all around the globe as right-wing opportunists fan the flames of the precariat’s anger at perceived injustices.
On our final day in Calais, we spent the morning observing proceedings at the Tribunal de Grande Instance, in the shadow of the sprawling monument to consumerism that is Cité d’Europe. Care4Calais had heard from some of the refugees in the detention centre that they were being poorly treated, and so French-speaking volunteers were asked to go along incognito, without our charity tabards, to see if our mere anonymous presence would encourage the police and judiciary to “do things right”.
We were buzzed in by the brooding police, searched from head to foot and told to switch off our mobiles. We then saw a succession of Vietnamese, Albanian, Eritrean, Sudanese and Afghan men aged between 19 and 35 come before the presiding magistrate, with just one female police officer lightening the prevailing sense of tension. Alongside us was a French law student, and we exchanged thoughts after proceedings paused. We agreed that, whilst there had been no maltreatment of the detainees, the sheer back-slapping, off-hand “palliness” between the présidente and the lawyers acting for the State and the refugees had been distasteful of itself: a lack of respect was shown them which all had found hard to stomach.
Well, I am not *going* to stomach this sort of thing any more. To quote a banner-bearer on the streets of New York, this morning: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept”.
Do what you can. If we *all* do all we can, legally, peaceably yet forcefully, there’s *nothing* that Presidents-Elect or their dog-whistling poodles can do about it.