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Sunday, 17 January 2016

"A border issue" France 2016

Photograph by Lisa Furness

The Jungle. An old rubbish tip between two chemical plants, is where the 'bordees' - i.e. Calais refugees - have been living over the course of the last two years. Two of my flatmates have been over recently to help sort donations in warehouses close to Calais: both have returned fairly scarred from the experience. Imagine then, the very real trauma of living in The Jungle, separated from family with a deeply uncertain future and appalling living conditions.

French police, taking their cue from their government, fire tear gas into the camps daily. There are accounts of volunteers being beaten up in Calais and Rosy recalled that "one night a bunch of people left [volunteers], because there was a threat their minibus was going to get attacked in the night". Worrying though this aggression is, perhaps even more concerning is the vans of skinheads who have actually travelled from Britain just to cause trouble for an already persecuted population.

In a depressingly uncompromising move from the French, this week the decision was actioned to raze to the ground 1/3 of the camp at Calais - including structures that are little more than huts but still provide significantly more shelter than the ubiquitous tent slum. It is then of little surprise to learn that the French government had to be sued by a charity to provide sanitation in the first place - if one loo per two hundred people can be considered as such.

Another friend, Lisa, recounted her trip to the jungle last summer - check her blog for photos: Having heard about a hunger strike being held by several migrants she set off with her camera and arrived as the sun was rising and the camp sleeping. Within minutes cries of 'police!' woke the camp and soon the place was surrounded. Those who tried to resist were pepper sprayed.

She went on to describe scenes in which volunteers, journalists, activists - and general white people - were ushered out of sight of the large-scale eviction. Lisa had been deeply worried by the consequential lack of witnesses and so she swapped her memory card for a fresh one and passed her camera back into the chaos, hoping that someone would record events taking place.

At this point the story gets a touch surreal, as an old German hippy who had been rounded up with the other white types - and was carrying tomato plants - announced that the only way to proceed was to demonstrate. And so they did. A small motley crew of activists and volunteers found themselves leading a swelling crowd of stray migrants into the town of Calais. Townspeople actively helped them evade the police, who were sweeping the streets for migrants, by passing on information of their whereabouts.

Amongst the volunteers was a vaguely held belief that an 'emergency meeting point' existed in the town. When the crowd finally reached the small empty church hall they realised that there was no more help. Lisa recalled the conversation between the volunteers and activists, about how they could hide nearly one hundred now destitute migrants in a city being searched by the police. One notable feature seems to have stuck out; the passivity with which the migrants now resigned themselves to others making decisions about their fate. The decision, reached due to lack of options, was to usher them into the park to hide themselves.

Over a year later and this situation has only escalated. Calais is considered a picnic compared to Dunkirk where some two thousands migrants are enduring significantly worse conditions. However, this is not a humanitarian crisis, the UN is not overtly involved and official aid channels are blocked. It seems France maintains this is merely "a border issue". The UK doesn't come out well either: Cameron pledged twelve million to help France secure the border and despite agreeing (somewhat loosely) to accept twenty thousand refugees in the next five years, he insists that these will only be from Syria and not our own borders. Given the struggle that these refugees have endured to reach the UK, this decision seems arbitrarily cruel.

The majority of applications for asylum in the UK are from Eritreans, a small country that borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The country has been shattered by an "unhinged dictator", President Isaias Afwerki and was described by the Guardian as being "Africa's equivalent to North Korea". The systematic repression, torture and indefinite military conscription has caused many to flee. In addition to the river of refugees, over fifty footballers have escaped the country as well as two pilots and even the Minister of Information.

Should a miracle occur and France and the UK decide to show some compassion, our "border issue" could be solved with a bit of co-operation and some empathy. Whilst accurate figures are hard to obtain, even if combined figures at the Calais and Dunkirk camps reach eight thousands, the two countries could easily accommodate the refugees. Seeing as we're allegedly taking twenty refugees from Syria but continue to sell off social housing to private developers, the government may want to consider opening up some of these empty buildings. As Rosy observes, anything must be better than the "violent mental cunts, riot shields, intimidation and fascist locals" at The Jungle.

Lisa Furness' photography offers insight into abandoned settlements, empty buildings and protest sites throughout Europe.