On a road sign in Calais—the closest French town to England—just next to the ferry port, a struggle for space is unfolding. “Fight the border! Fuck privilege,” says graffiti on one half of the sign. “Love the borders, your rights, your country,” says the other.
It’s a contest being fought right across Europe’s borders, as the number of migrants trying, and in many cases failing, to make homes in the continent rises. Meanwhile, increasingly popular xenophobic political movements agitate to keep them out. On Rue de Moscou, just five minutes from the ferry terminal that takes you from France to Britain, it’s clear which side is winning.
“We are tired of life,” said John Abdullah, a 40-year-old migrant from Kunar in Afghanistan. “We want human rights. We want the British and French governments to think about us, but nobody cares.”
If the British and French governments continue to ignore and harass them, they have vowed to take their own lives. “We have decided—all 25 of us—that if they do not listen, we will kill ourselves,” Abdullah said. “We will go to the high street, throw petrol, and set ourselves on fire.”
Abdullah was sitting in a large tent with ten other men, migrants from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Pakistan. An activist from Finland is checking their blood pressure. Nothing but water, occasionally mixed with a bit of salt, has passed their lips since June 12, when they started a hunger strike. Many are too tired to speak, but none appear willing to stop.
“We will not eat food until the British and French authorities sort out our problems,” said Ahmad Khan, a former journalist from Afghanistan and a spokesman for the migrants on hunger strike. “We feel tired, dizzy, and weak; most of us have stomach and back pains. But we will carry on until we get a positive answer.”
John Abdullah, 40, from Afghanistan, pictured left, sat with another migrant.
They are in limbo, unable to reach Britain without risking their lives and denied even the most basic living standards by the French authorities. Last month, on May 28, French CRS riot police violently evicted around 700 migrants from a makeshift camp in Calais, citing an outbreak of scabies as justification for their dispersal. Since then, dissent has built up, with hundreds of men occupying an empty courtyard used as a food-distribution center by the aid group Salam, and a small group refusing to eat.
Their demands are simple. Those that wish to travel across the channel want legal status in Britain. Those that wish to remain in France want legal status there. And in the meantime, the hundreds of migrants in limbo want safe accommodation and an end to police brutality.
“We don’t want benefits; we want to be citizens,” Khan said. “We have energy and education; we want to be able to work and contribute to society. I left Afghanistan in 2008 because I faced many dangers. I hoped when I got here I would be able to live as a human being, to rebuild my life and future. But I am still struggling.”
Occupations and hunger strikes have been a routine part of migrant life in Calais since the closure of Sangatte, a camp set up by the French Red Cross, in 2002. Not only does the French state provide no emergency accommodation for migrants; it refuses to acknowledge as legitimate any other shelter that might be erected.
Usually when a camp or squat is evicted, the migrants take their bags, leave the area and move to the streets, playing cat-and-mouse with a notoriously awful police force. But currently, things are different.
“Last month’s eviction was announced in advance,” said Philippe Wannesson, a blogger at Passeurs d’Hospitalités and a local activist. “That meant the group had time to get together and decide to occupy the place. Assemblies were held and decisions made in groups with representatives. There was hope that with such large numbers of organised people, another eviction would be difficult.”
Many more have joined since the occupation began. Tents, tattered suitcases, and sleeping bags now litter the courtyard in an area once part of the harbor. Some are involved in the politics of occupation; others are just looking for a safe place to stay. Most, like Assad Khan, a refugee from Peshawar, are waiting for a chance to go to England, where they believe they will find a better life.
“I’ve been here for ten days, but I’ve been traveling for two and half years,” he said. "We are trying to get to England because we heard it is good; you can have a nice life and find work. We will try and go through on a truck soon.”
Migrants playing cricket in Calais
Assad was playing cricket outside of the camp. It was Sunday afternoon, and with no trucks on the road, the atmosphere was relaxed.
On Monday, the struggle will start again. UK immigration law makes safe, legal travel almost impossible for Assad and the other migrants. Without a visa they cannot afford, and unable to claim asylum from abroad, they are forced to enter the country illegally, risking everything in or under the trucks that cross the channel. Nor is this the only danger the migrants face. Even in large, organized numbers, violence from both the police and public is common. Earlier in February an Iranian man was shot in one of Calais's many lonely parking lots.
In the middle of the courtyard, Adam-Joseph Gabriel, a 45-year-old from South Sudan, was busy chalking his story into the ground.
“At 1:30 AM on Thursday morning I was shot walking up the road with some friends,” he told me. “First I was shot in the hand, then in the back. I spent four days in hospital. I thank God I am still alive and thank my friends who came to visit me when I was ill.”
Since leaving South Sudan in 1996, Gabriel has had a tour of Europe: two years in Turkey cleaning cars, two years in Athens searching for work, then on to Milan, and now, finally, France.
“This is my last destination,” he said with a West Coast cap on his head and an unexpected but charming American accent. “I am not going to England; it is too dangerous crossing. I have friends that have died trying it, others with broken legs. So I have asked for asylum here, where I hope to get work, be a French citizen and have a good life.”
Gabriel’s journey looks like it will end well. Last week he found a flat to move into, and the French police have now caught the man that shot him, a security guard in his early 20s. Before he goes, he wants to leave a mark. “I don’t want my story to end,” he said as he finished the colorful mural and dusted off his hands. “I want to be remembered.”
Back in the tent there is little room for positivity. The UK has shown no sign that it will listen to the migrants, let alone help them. On Wednesday the local prefecture in Calais announced at a press conference that the migrants would have to leave the area they have occupied. Since then, no contact has been made.
For Abdullah, Khan, and the other migrants refusing food and now threatening self-immolation, time is running out.
The British government faces the imminent prospect of 25 men burning themselves on its doorstep because of the way it enforces its borders. At the same time a discussion about the importance of “British values,” mutual respect, tolerance, rule of law, and individual liberty is in progress. Try telling that to the migrants in Calais.
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