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Thursday 24 September 2015

London to Calais: Report on 19 September solidarity demonstration

Sign painted with messages from refugees migrants and supporters. Photo: Mark Boothroyd

On Saturday 19th a solidarity demonstration for migrants and refugees was held in Calais, organised by French solidarity groups. The London2Calais solidarity organisation brought a coach load of supporters from London to participate in the march. Activists from Syria Solidarity came along to make contact with Syrians in the camp, find out their stories and see what assistance we could provide.

We arrived in Calais and were dropped off by The Jungle. A group us went to find the Syrian camp. Conditions in the camp are appalling. While some people had tents donated by solidarity organisations, many were still living in self-made shanties of wood with tarpaulin or plastic wrapped over it. The ground was muddy and covered in litter. The camps residents were bagging litter and made some attempts at keeping the place tidy, but with no bins or refuse collection this task was impossible. Another problem was the ramshackle aid efforts by some groups who were turning up at the camps without coordinating with the existing aid organisations. They brought unusable or unsuitable aid that ended up discarded, adding to the mess of the camp.

We found the Syrian encampment and started chatting to the refugees. Two very talkative guys welcomed us, they were Ahmed from Damascus and Ahmed from Hama and both spoke good English. They offered us shisha and coffee and asked us to sit with them. We took them up on this kind offer and sat down to speak with them. They reported there were about 300 Syrians in Calais out of a total of 5000 people. The other were from many nations; Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghanis, Kuwaiti bedouin, Pakistani’s and others. 150 Syrians were in the camp and 150 camped in town. Ahmed from Damascus was a mechanical engineer, while Ahmed from Hama was a computer programmer. Both had left to escape conscription drives, that are becoming more draconian as the regime runs short on manpower.

They described the situation in the camp as generally good, everyone getting on, but at night it was different, with the threat of violence due to the lack of law, and the fact the authorities didn't care what happened to the camps inhabitants. Ahmed from Damascus said “if someone was to stab me tomorrow, who would investigate? They don’t care, I would just be forgotten”. They reported a Syrian had died the previous day trying to climb onto the trains. He had been electrocuted after falling from a bridge and grabbing the electric cables.

Many of the people in the camp had injuries to their hands from their attempts to climb onto the trains and lorries, and from the barbed wire fences around the port. They also complained of being pepper sprayed regularly by police. A lot of them had red and inflamed eyes from the previous night when they tried to get into the port. Every night hundreds would gather and try and climb into the port, and the French police would beat them and pepper spray them until they retreated.

Both Ahmeds and the other refugees we spoke to later on had all left Syria recently, earlier this year. Those from pro-regime areas were all fleeing conscription. They were all graduates of some kind, many were just out of uni and were being subject to conscription and so fled. They had a variety of reasons for wanting to get to Britain. For some they had relatives in Britain so wanted to travel their to be reunited with them (Ahmed from Hama’s case) while for others it was because they knew English and preferred to settle there rather than have to claim asylum in France or Germany and have to learn another language (Ahmed from Damascus’ case).

There was a large group of men from Daraa in the camp who hung out together and took part in the protest together, but didn’t have any clear leadership or leading members that we could meet. They also didn’t have a good grasp of English so it was difficult for British SSM activists to communicate with them. A Syrian SSM activist did manage to speak with them, and they reported they were all fleeing the regime violence in their province. They were more overtly pro-revolution than those from pro-regime areas, painting revolution flags on their foreheads and clothes to demonstrate their support for Free Syria. Several didn’t want their photo taken because they feared regime reprisals against their family.

We had brought some phones and water proof jackets for the refugees to try and give them methods of contacting people in Britain or elsewhere. They rejected all offers of aid and said they simply wanted the border to open so they could claim asylum in Britain and work and support themselves. They all had smartphones already and said they could support themselves in the camp. Their demands which we heard again and again when we asked what help we could give were “open the border” and “stop the war.” They said they didn’t need or want anything else. Their response was dignified and humbling.

Eventually we managed to get them to accept some Arabic sweets and Turkish delight which we had brought, and they took them and began sharing them out among the Syrians and other refugees and migrants.

There was a march of several thousand refugees, migrants and supporters from the jungle to the border. It was led by a sound-truck playing music, which was clambered all over by people. The mood on the demo was amazing with refugees chanting in their own language, all chanting for freedom and to open the border. The march got to the border and had a rally with various speakers. One of the main French solidarity activists, Francois made an impassioned speech saying “You are not refugees! You are not migrants! You are people, you are human beings, you are individuals with rights!”. This was greeted with cheers from the crowd. A refugee from Syria spoke, criticising the nations of Europe for continuing the oppression of people who had already suffered so much war and oppression in their home countries. He stated that all the people in the camp had skills and could be productive and active members of society, if they were only given the same rights as others. The solidarity organisations organised activities like painting on the large sign, or people making signs to explain who they were and where they wanted to get to, trying to restore a sense of humanity and self-worth to people who were being kept in humiliating and dehumanising conditions.

We had to leave early to get the coach back. We managed to get contact details for a few refugees and interviewed a few about their situation. When we were getting back on our coach a group of refugees clustered around the coach and pleaded with us to take them. A few scouted around the coach to see if there was some way to stow away. Seeing this desperation firsthand was terrible.

The situation of the people trapped in Calais is a huge indictment of European border policy. The EU urgently must reform its border policy, create safe routes for refugees and share them across all the nations of the EU.

Women march in Calais, 19 September. Photo via Calais Solidarity.