Calais: Solidarity is not an offence


A new self-organising space in Calais is an act of resistance against the brutal measures against asylum seekers
Rahila Gupta,, Thursday 4 February

For all those who have been depressed by increasingly harsh measures against asylum seekers by Britain, France and other European countries, here is a glimmer of hope. The transnational No Borders network and SôS Soutien aux Sans Papiers in France have come together to open a centre in Calais, a “self-organising” space to provide practical support, solidarity and information sharing for asylum seekers. Last summer we were subjected to pictures of people being chased like animals in brutal search and destroy missions by the French police in the woods near Calais, cheered on by the British government. The police dragged away 278 campers, nearly half of whom were minors from places like Afghanistan.

According to Sylvie from Calais Migrants Solidarity, opening this centre is an act of resistance to immigration laws and an attempt to draw attention to the plight of migrants. The No Borders network believes that “in a real democracy, every person enriches society in myriad ways, and no one is surplus to requirements; neither the unemployed, the young, the old, or the foreign”. A spokesperson from London No Borders said it will also operate like a drop-in centre, providing clothes, blankets, food and general cheer to those sleeping rough. It will be run mainly by No Borders activists who have been operating on the ground since last year.

The police action has forced asylum seekers to scatter; even the small comfort of solidarity of numbers has been snatched away. Fear of congregating in one place may undermine the potential popularity of such a centre. The legal situation is also fraught with complications. No Borders are relying on the fact that the hangar is private property, legally rented by them. However, that sounds like a fragile defence in the face of a catch-all French law, délit de solidarité, the offence of solidarity, which can be used against those who provide humanitarian assistance. In March last year, for example, a woman was arrested and questioned for three hours for allowing “illegal” immigrants to recharge their mobile phones in her home. The French government claims that this law is only used against traffickers and smugglers. However, No Borders have found that even offering a lift to an “illegal” immigrant has been construed as trafficking.

The mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, has used everything in her armoury to prevent humanitarian aid reaching the migrants and blocked the previous mayor’s plans to open another centre like the Red Cross-run Sangatte, which closed down in 2002. The rightwing media are already dubbing the Kronstadt centre Sangatte II, a label that No Borders are keen to avoid because it encourages the view that such a centre is the root of the problem and displaces the focus on the causes of flight – war and persecution.

Ironically, it was the French central government that originally asked the Red Cross to open Sangatte in 1999 in recognition of the scale of the humanitarian problem. It was public pressure, orchestrated by the media, that led the British government to put pressure on the French government to shut it down. We should, instead, be putting pressure on our government to live up to its responsibilities towards asylum seekers under the 1951 Geneva convention in recognition of the fact that many asylum seekers are the casualties of our governments’ policies in their countries of origin in the first place.