On Sunday I travelled to Calais to volunteer, helping with distribution of aid to those living in the camp. The day was relatively uneventful involving a successful distribution of warm blankets, sleeping bags and tents from the pink caravan distribution point.
Despite being relatively peaceful there was a sense of anxiety around the camp and with the volunteers. The next day, it was rumoured, the French authorities would be carrying out the court's decision to evict and raze the southern section of the camp. This area, according to a census carried out by charities Help Refugees and L'auberge des Migrants, is home to around 3,500 people including 445 children most of whom are unaccompanied. The court decision assured that the move would be humane and peaceful. What happened the next day was the opposite and was the most severe assault on human rights and dignity I have ever witnessed.
Early in the morning around 55 police vans arrived at the camp. I would estimate nearly 600 police (French CRS) in full anti-riot gear marched into the jungle followed by demolition teams. The prefectures went round knocking on the doors of the shelters in the area informing the residents that they have one hour to leave before their home would be destroyed. If they stayed they would be arrested. The police would not allow volunteers to enter the area to help residents with the move or retrieve supplies from the distribution points.
We sneakily managed to get past the line of police to retrieve tents from the distribution caravan which would be sorely needed after people's homes were destroyed. There was a reasonably tense moment: just as I was retrieving the tents the police began to march towards us, truncheons in hand with the water cannon in tow. Fortunately I managed to get out in time with the tents.
Police then began forcibly removing people from their homes, leaving them little to no time to retrieve their possessions and blocking people from getting into the area to gather their things. If you were unlucky enough to be out of your shelter when the police came, then you would return to find it destroyed and you would be forcibly prevented from collecting your things. Many people lost meaningful items such as family photographs, valuables and clothes. They were left with nothing.
There was then a stand off with police as some refused to leave their homes. They were joined by volunteers who stood with them and climbed on to the roofs of shelters to prevent them being demolished. Other volunteers watched and filmed the stand off and we were frequently pushed back aggressively by the riot police.
Tensions rose as people remonstrated and pleaded with the police. Small fires were lit in protest. This meant that we as volunteers had to try and extinguish them as best we could with the limited number of fire extinguishers on site. A large fire erupted among a few shelters that had been evacuated, as we arrived with fire extinguishers we realised the blaze was out of control. We were powerless. We decided to save the extinguishers for later and had to watch the shelters burn. A small crowd gathered in facing the front line of the riot police. They were carrying signs saying 'do not destroy our homes'. Some were understandably very angry. It was around this time that tensions peaked and conflict broke out.
I'm not sure how or why the first tear gas was fired into the crowd. I remember running with a fire extinguisher towards a fire near the distribution caravan when a tear gas canister exploded by my feet sending a huge plume of gas directly into my face. As I ran with the crowd a serious burning sensation at the back of the throat and of course at the back of my eyes forced me to sit down once clear of the gas.
Once I had composed myself I saw many people including families and children sprinting away from the gas which was being fired indiscriminately and excessively. The refugees fleeing the gas had the same pained expression mixed with fear on their face. The wonderful volunteers there were to hand with saline water treatment to counter the effects of the tear gas. The amazing long-term volunteer Annie gives her account on video here.
From this point onwards anger was at its peak. The camp was like a warzone, fires blazed, stones were thrown at the police who responded by charging into the crowd with truncheons, beating those in front, firing huge amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets and the water cannon on the crowd. One man was so incapacitated by the onslaught, he was dragged, lifeless but alive, by a group of friends away from the attack. I have never seen anything like it. There is a video of the teargasing here.
We pleaded with people not to throw stones as it would only make the police respond disproportionately with brute force. At first I felt that the people should not be throwing stones, and I still think that. Then again I have never seen my home being torn down infront of me. I can't understand the anger which would result if I was forcibly removed from my home and left with nothing. So whilst I do not agree that throwing stones is the best way to de-escalate the situation I do not blame people for being angry at the inhumane treatment they were subjected to.
These clashes and the clouds of tear gas carried on into the night until around 10pm when tensions simmered down. At this point much of the southern section of the camp had been demolished and/or burned down. The distribution points in which I used to sleep at night and used to give out aid had been burned and destroyed. Hundreds lost their homes and were out in the cold, volunteers desperately tried to give them blankets and clothes, other volunteers had been wrongfully arrested, there was a sense of defeat and hopelessness among the camp. Tomorrow the eviction would continue.
The next day was one of the coldest I had ever experienced. There was sense of confusion. We had expected the demolition teams to arrive early. So volunteers awoke at 5am to be in place. By around 8am there was still no sign. We afforded ourselves a sense of optimism, perhaps they wouldn't return today and we could work on rehousing those displaced and making sure we got aid to those who needed it. This hope was dashed by the sound of sirens, the rumbling of the water cannon and the march of boots as the police returned to camp in seemingly greater numbers than the day before.
We shivered in the cold as they continued their demolition. Then in perhaps one of the most distressing moments, the police approached the shelter of a refugee couple. The couple had climbed onto the roof of their shelter and were refusing to move. It was said that the woman was pregnant. The man passionately shouted out 'do not destroy my home, do not come near my home'. He held up a knife to his wrist 'if you try to take my home I will take my life'.
We volunteers shouted across to him not to put his life in such danger, but as the police rushed towards the shelter, he began slashing his wrists. The police climbed on top of the shelter and ripped the man and the woman from the roof dragging them to the ground and taking them away, I'm not sure where to. There is footage of this incident here.
Many occupied their roofs, whilst the demolition teams razed other shelters to the ground. There were fewer confrontations with the police this day, and to my knowledge no tear gas. A few fires were started but just to keep warm.
In a great display of gallows humour and making the best of a bad situation, as a shelter was burning down, a group of refugees brought a pot of tea and pan of food to warm up on the fire and then offered food and tea to everyone. They jokingly insisted on a ticketing system for giving tea and food to the British volunteers, poking fun at us who often use a ticketing system to distribute supplies. We all laughed around the fire as the destruction of peoples homes went on behind us.
I left to catch my coach back to London shortly afterwards, whilst the eviction carried on. Today (Wednesday) the destruction of people's homes continues. I see reports and images of refugees sewing their lips shut and going on hunger strike in protest against the eviction.
This is happening on our doorstep a few miles away. Its hard to get your head round it all. I haven't had time to properly consider everything but in my first judgement it seems that this eviction and the way it has been carried out is a moral outrage. The victims are people fleeing untold misery, poverty, deprivation, war, persecution and death who have travelled along perilous journeys, arrive in the already appalling conditions in Calais in the hope of reaching the UK where they seek to find safety, security and an ability to build and live their lives. How do we respond? By destroying their homes, and actively making their situation worse and removing any hope of comfort and dignity. How can this possibly be justified?
I wrote about my last visit where I said that this was the first time I had felt even slightly positive. This was because you could see the dedication and aid of the real volunteers working in providing shelters and supplies so that most were now clothed, fed and sheltered. It was an effort to simply attempt to improve the living standards of those people forgotten and abandoned in northern France. That improvement took months to achieve. It has been mostly undone within days. This is a tragedy.
For many this will not be the first time they have found that their homes have been destroyed. This would be the reason they had to flee their countries. I guess that few of them would have imagined they would experience the same thing in 21st century western Europe and seen the state sanctioned destruction and violence towards them. This is hard to comprehend.
Hundreds if not thousands of people are now displaced with nowhere to go. This includes families and unaccompanied children. They are subjected to violence and tear gas by the police. Conditions at this time are especially freezing cold, wet and windy. The removal of these wooden shelters leaves them no option but to sleep in tents which offer little protection from the elements. This is unacceptable.
French officials have said that this eviction would be done humanely with the co-operation with aid workers. First of all I would argue that the eviction of these people from their shelters is unjustifiable in the first place even if done humanely. But even if the eviction was justified, this eviction was brutal, carried out with pleasure and wilful aggression by police with absolute disregard for people's dignity, their future or their past.
Aid workers were not liaised with and were actively prevented from helping people recover their possessions. It was agreed that no distribution points would be demolished, I saw them destroyed in front of me.
Despite assertions that this eviction was out of humanitarian concern, this was a blatant example of aggression to intimidate, to discourage and to remove refugees from Calais. It is the result of a mistake. The mistake is to treat this humanitarian issue of the refugee crisis as an issue of security and one to be confronted with police and fences.
This is a mistake for two reasons. First of all this approach cannot work. Europe is facing the greatest movement of people and largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The sheer volume of people means that this reaction of strengthening borders and police powers is a short-term, unsustainable response. It fails to take into consideration the scale of the movement which is likely to increase, and it fails to recognise the resolve and determination of those seeking safety fleeing for their lives from unimaginable horrors. It cannot work and ultimately it does not solve the problem. Razing the camp in Calais does not solve the problem. Putting up razor wire at the border does not solve the problem.
Aside from this pragmatic mistake, the larger mistake a moral one, treating this humanitarian issue as a security issue dehumanises these people, ignoring their lives, autonomy, rights and dignity and treats them as something to be feared and controlled. This is how we are responding to people in desperate need of help: with forcible eviction, denial of freedom and rights, tear gas, razor wire, fences and violence. This is not just happening in Calais but across Europe, see the events at the Macedonian border this week where people were attacked with stun grenades and tear gas as they tried to cross the border. This appalling moral error is spreading misery and dashing hopes of freedom and safety for thousands who need it the most.
What is the right response when someone in desperate need of aid travels to seek safety? How would we want or expect other countries to respond if the situation was reversed? I think the answer is so obvious that it seriously troubles me that we ignore it. We ought to respond with sympathy, compassion and humanity, offer safe and legal routes to the UK and provide safety. Or at the least allow them to apply to seek safety in the UK or at the very least provide some aid to those in Europe. So far we (the UK government) has failed each of these moral requirements.
In fact we have worsened the situation. Those French police are funded by our taxes as part of an investment to strengthen security. We describe those in Europe as animals or criminals. We refuse aid, we do not recognise those in the camps or assess their claims for safety. As I have said before, even if you think it is not up to us to solve the world's problems, you might agree that it would be wrong to actively worsen those problems. If so then you ought to be opposed to the treatment of those in Calais today and the UK's response. The fact that our government is actively worsening this situation means we have a responsibility to challenge it, to provide aid and make it clear that the government is not acting in our name and that refugees are welcome and above all human.