[ 12. Oct 2009 ]

Calais No Border Camp 2009. (In)visible subjects?

Noborders campsite, Calais, June 2009

Between the 23rd and the 29th of June 2009 a No Border camp was held in Calais...


Estimates range between 500-800 participants in the camp, with many coming from outside of Calais, mainly from other parts of France (Lille in particular), the UK and Belgium. The camp was also visited and used by people from the nearby neighbourhoods and by about 100-200 migrants, the majority coming from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the week there were several actions in Calais and elsewhere (in particular the blockading of a detention centre in Lille) with many workshops, meetings and discussions also taking place. The camp culminated with a :: demonstration involving 2000 people (and an estimated 2500 police!) with unions, in particular the CNT, and parties such as the NPA travelling from outside of Calais to join the event.

The Calais camp has thrown up some interesting questions and this post will only deal with one of them. Questions such as, where were those that had mobilised for Strasbourg? Or, how do No Border politics and environmental movements relate, which is a vital question in relation to the looming Copenhagen COP-15, will have to be left for another time. However, this post will focus on what is perhaps the most exciting outcome of the camp, that is, the strengthening of the relationship between sans-papieres and activists that is being increasingly based upon real, rather than abstract, solidarity.

"we have access to food, we have access to clothing, you came here to talk politics so lets talk politics"

This was a comment from an Afghan participant at one of the final meetings discussing how we move forward from the camp. This comment came in response to protracted discussions surrounding potential humanitarian work which sections of the camp were wanting to take forward. This discussion had clearly shown the attitude of some members of the camp, an attitude that had also been replicated in the pre-demo meeting, during which one participant had suggested that migrants be discouraged from attending for fear of their safety, an opinion which (thankfully) elicited disgust from many within the meeting. As well as being indicative of a patronising view of our relationship with sans-papieres, these comments also represent a concomitant lack of ambition for the camp. For most of us in Calais, we were not present to discuss soup kitchens and clothing handouts solely, but to link these practical activities to an antagonistic political project seeking to permanently alter the situation in Calais, to actually "talk politics" as the comment at the meeting had suggested. Important as it is, humanitarian work is self-defeating if it does not seek to alter the factors which produce the need for it.

One of the huge successes of the camp was to issue a statement and a list of demands that had been jointly produced by activists and sans-papieres within the camp (although no locals from the area were present, a problem which will need to be solved if we wish to continue this campaign in the long term). Although this meeting was long and tiring, (with comments often being translated into five languages!), it is an important step forward. The demands expressed (:: see here) accommodate direct and immediate changes alongside the long term political goals of the No Border position. They could become a bridge through which our energy, our actions and our desires could be focused and articulated in common.

If we are to act in solidarity with those struggling against migration management then we must work with these autonomous movements, not for them. The Calais-Dover border is an impediment to all who attempt to cross it, for those with papers and those without. This border is an anachronism within the Schengen system itself, and only remains due to stubbornness of the British state and many of its citizens. A campaign to destroy this border must do so on the basis of our shared desire for its removal, not on the basis of sympathetic or charitable solidarity.

The camp and the declaration it produced is, therefore, an important step in creating this shared solidarity. The declaration accommodates diverse desires and provides the basis for moving forward collectively. This declaration is an important step in producing a political voice for people often silenced by the state. Those without papers are usually spoken for rather than allowed to speak. However, this will not be easy. Institutions and communication channels will have to be created that can provide a long term framework for an inherently transitory population. A population which also houses internal hierarchies imposed via violence and intimidation must also be dealt with. As well as organisational problems, our political positions must also be brought into conversation. At the camp translation difficulties resulted in our demands for no borders sometimes being interpreted into a demand for open borders (a very different proposition!). Important questions surround the ways in which we work across political, cultural and privilege differences to form the basis of our work together.

The Calais camp felt like an important, albeit initial, step towards building a movement based upon real solidarity within the Calais region. In order to build upon the camp, important questions surrounding the forms and the nature of our relationships with the sans-papiers of Calais, and local residents must be answered. The answers to these questions can only be produced through our collective action. As we move towards the :: Lesvos No Border camp, an encouraging sign can be seen in a recent :: protest in Athens on the 7th of July which attracted 2500 participants including many without papers. In the ensuing confrontation with the police those without papers played a prominent role. As demonstrated by the policing of the Calais demonstration, where police prevented the attendance of sans-papieres, a partnership between those with papers and those without, based on solidarity rather than charity, is a powerful force. A force which the state is anxious to prevent.

Article published first :: on July 11, 2009.