Sunday, 20 September 2009

The imminent destruction of the Calais "Jungle"

A dispatch from the Associated Press in calais today reports that the "Jungle," the migrant camps in the region, "will be razed by French authorities who see it as a public-health nightmare, a haven for human traffickers and a point of contention with the British, who want the border to their country better sealed." "French Immigration Minister Eric Besson announced plans earlier this year to dismantle the camp" but has apparently "promised to offer options to migrants."

These options, however, are that "they can get a stipend" if "they leave voluntarily," whilst those who "meet the profile" will be able to "demand asylum in France." All others "are to be expelled." The plans affect "some 800 migrants" who, according to Philippe Blet, president of the Calais region, "are all 40 kilometers (24.86 miles) from happiness. That's the real drama."

Al Jazeera adds that "aid groups working in the area said that the closure would not stop the would be migrants congregating in Calais hoping to get across the Channel." Friar Jean-Pierre Boutoille of the C-Sur coalition of aid groups is quoted as saying that the situation is "ridiculous," whilst Besson has insisted that "the closing of the jungle will not be the end of the fight against the underground networks."

This news confirms reports that have been coming in over the past week - mainly through Indymedia, No Borders Brighton, and Calais Migrant Solidarity.

Coverage in the mass media has tended to border on the hysterical, such as the Daily Mail's prediction of "
a repeat of the British humiliation when France closed the Red Cross refugee camp at Sangatte seven years ago" with "the great majority" of those entering Britain "costing taxpayers £100,000 a day in benefits." However, the activists on the ground continue to challenge the reactionary doctrines. No Borders asks, "where is the evidence to back up the constant references to violence from the migrants that has apparently turned calais into a "zone of lawlessness"?" Calais Migrant Solidarity tells of "an escalation of the intimidation" and an inability to get medicine for migrants as there is "nothing open." On Indymedia, they further note the trend of "destruction of squatted houses and further police brutality." All of this goes unnoticed by a mainstream press seeking out every opportunity to paint migrants as caricatures to be feared and despised.

The myths are easily challenged. Activist reports on the ground demonstrate that the migrants camped in calais are the victims, not the perperpetrators, of chaos and violence. One brilliant example of this is offered by No Borders Brighton's "Mailwatch" postings;
In MailWatch #1 we pointed out the the paper's claims that "would-be illegal immigrants are forming human roadblocks to force motorists passing through the French port town to stop. Travellers are then robbed at knife-point by the migrants, who are desperate for funds to help them sneak into the UK" and that the local police had issued a public statement warning "the nine million Britons a year who pass through Calais ... to keep their windows closed and doors locked until they are safely inside the ferry terminal."

Strangely, no confirmation of these claims could be found in either of the main local Calais papers, Nord Littoral or La Voix Du Nord, on the police website or anywhere on any French websites despite exhaustive searches. The local police station denied all knowledge of it and so far the Mail has failed to respond to requests for copies of the statement and their sources for the car-jacking story.

Now, the Nord Littoral itself has waded into the argument with their own article on the veracity of Mail stories, saying that Anne-Sigrid Catton, Deputy Commissioner of Police, denies the Calais police had issued any public warning to UK tourists. Nearby Coquelles detention centre is also quoted as saying that it has no records of any incidents involving migrant violence against tourists.

The Nord Littoral article also goes on to point to other occasions when the Mail also played fast and loose with the truth. On Tuesday the paper alleged that Calais migrants were now squatting empty council houses, quoting one Philippe Bouvard, the president of a Calais association of residents, as saying: "Many families in Calais are furious that homes meant for French families have been overrun with migrants." Except no one at the Office Public de l'Habitat de Calais has ever heard of this person. On top of that, they have only one empty council house on their books and they state that, even if the squatting story were true, it is impossible for the migrants to have illegally reconnecting the utilities as the Mail has claimed.

Now the paper that the Association of Chief Police Officers has in the past accused of misquoting information about immigration and warned that its "racist expressions towards asylum-seekers appear to have become common currency and 'acceptable' in a way that would never be tolerated towards any other minority group"*, likes to print at least one story a day vilifying the Calais migrants or asylum seekers in general. But that day they had two such articles, the second bemoaning the fact that tax payers money was being used to bribe migrants via the IOM assisted returns policy to return home for £1,700 and a free flight.

Another non-story. In fact, this program was originally set up in 2007 and the fact that it was receiving additional funding from the UKBA's Returns and Reintegration Fund and France's Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration had been announced back in May. Why publish a story about this now? Maybe it was because it "emerged last night that the Government is reconsidering funding joint flights with the French to take failed migrants home." Except this in fact came out of the recent Evian summit at the beginning of the month, not on Monday night.

On Wednesday the Mail took a slightly different tack in that this story was based on fact: 'Calais migrant cried rape as revenge against people smuggler who failed to get her into Britain'. Now we don't mean to minimise the seriousness of any rape allegation, however this one was in fact only 'newsworthy' in the eyes of the Mail's editor because it happened in Calais and involved migrants, conveniently provided another stick to beat them with. Had it not involved migrants, even if it had occurred outside the Mail's own offices, it would not have rated the column inches given this Calais story.

The most amazing Mail story of the week however, and not just because of its length, was 'Bloody siege of Calais: The violent new breed of migrants who will let nothing stop them coming to Britain', by one Paul Bracchi. In it he relates the story of how the Mail's very own intrepid photographer Will Leach was allegedly attacked on 22nd of July by irate migrants using lumps of concrete to smash his car windows; the Mail's reputation obviously precedes it, even amongst the migrants!

Whilst trying to get "dramatic footage" of two "would-be asylum seekers "climbing into the gap between the cab and trailer of a lorry, the sun glinting off the giant telephoto lens of our slumming-it paprazzo appears to have alerted the migrants that yet another bloody tabloid journo was on their case. So they did a Pierce Brosnan/Alec Baldwin/Lindsay Lohan/Hugh Grant/Lily Allen/Robbie Williams/Pete Doherty/Britney Spears/Kayne West/Amy Winehouse [delete as applicable] and saw him off in a less than friendly fashion.

This incident provoked 2,000 plus words of vituperation in response from the paper. Unfortunately, like most of the Mail's diatribes, it was shot through with prejudice and errors. After a little riff on the name of the 'Jungle', "where fights and feuds between rival factions are commonplace", "a godforsaken 'community'" more "akin to the trenches", the article mentioned "a security guard at an American owned company on [Rue des Garennes] was clubbed over the head with an iron bar a few weeks ago." This clearly refers to an incident at the Thioxide plant, also the site of a meeting that the article claims the French immigration minister Eric Besson attended "a few weeks ago to listen to the views of those who work and live near the Rue des Garennes."

The big problem with this is that the meeting actually occurred on 23th of April, with the attack on the night-watchman happening on the 16th of March. That's 14 and 19 weeks ago respectively, hardly "a few weeks" in anyone's book. But this is typical of the Mail's fast and loose way with the facts.

Here's another Mail classic from the same piece: "A single raid by the CRS in April resulted in 194 arrests of suspected people traffickers. In other words, nearly a quarter of those living in this sprawling cardboard and tarpaulin city had possible criminal links." Yes, 194 people were arrested in Calais on 21st of April in raids, which was ostensibly aimed at traffickers, many of them children. However, despite the 194 "suspected people traffickers" being dragged off to police stations in 3 nearby cities, the prosecutor's office in Boulogne-sur-Mer found no one to hold on trafficking charges and almost all were eventually released, a fact that was widely covered in the French press and even made it in to the pages of the Daily Mail!

Further on in the article, after all the babbling about police having "now stepped up patrols" (apparently "not just a story spun by the local council's public relations department." What can he mean by this, even if he and his cameraman "had seen the evidence for themselves"?) and nonsense about migrants willing to "mutilate themselves to conceal their identities" (referring to removing their fingerprints** to avoid detection, which is hardly mutilation), we get some crocodile tears.

Then, having reluctantly conceded that many of the Calais migrants are children (so they are not all money-grabbing 'economic migrants' or even people traffickers), the article tells some of the children's "pitiful stories" and says "equally tragic examples of forgotten youngsters were standing in the long, winding queue for the twice-daily soup kitchen (sic) in Quai de La Moselle". Yet more lazy journalism. The Quai de La Moselle is in fact the site of a food distribution operation at lunchtime run by Belle Etiole, one of two volunteer-run projects in Calais. The second evening distribution however is run by Salam, a completely separate humanitarian organisation, and takes place half a mile away at the Hanger Paul Devot on the Boulevard des Allies.

Now, the incident with the photographer was meant to have occurred on the 22nd, with the article being published on the 25th, but Salam stopped operations on the 17th of July to give their exhausted members their annual summer break (with Belle Etoile stopping on the 31st). So this highly paid and supposedly observant journalist does not seem to know that his "twice-daily soup kitchen" occurs in 2 separate places and that only one was still operating when his and his photographer's skirmish in the "Bloody siege of Calais" was meant to have taken place.

So what are we to conclude from all this? Good old-fashioned stupidity? Genuine mistakes? Lazy mealy-mouthed journalists trying to beat a deadline? Or just the standard yellow journalism we have come to expect from the sort of mendacious hacks that are employed by this tub-thumping right-wing anti-immigration rag? We'll leave you to make up your own minds.

* Which ACPO held was increasing the risk of "significant public disorder."
** Interestingly the Mail has consistently failed to mention one of the most common means of removing fingerprints used by the migrants, sanding them down with glass-paper. But that is far less dramatic than burning the tips of ones fingers. [See also: MailWatch #1]
At the same time, the Mail's claims (I could also cite the Daily Express, Sun, and Daily Star, but - frankly - their particular brands of fear-mongering lies make the Mail look thoroughly reputable) about migrants who make it into Britain are equally fatuotus. Whilst the paper warns of these people "costing taxpayers £100,000 a day in benefits," a more balanced article in the Independent - with no racial axe to grind - reported somwhat differently. In the wake of Sangatte's closure, "migrants were expected to fill job shortages in the hotel, catering and food processing industries," with offers immediately put forward by recruitment firms.

Likewise, a quick scan past the Telegraph's headline in 2006 that "most Sangatte migrants are out of work" reveals that the facts are less concrete. That "four-fifths" of the migrants "claimed Job Seekers' allowance [JSA] at some time since entering the UK" is not the same as them being "out of work" in the present, given that they were openly offered support until they found work. The claim that "a third [of the group] has never been in work" are equally falacious, with the figure on JSA at the time of the article, not neccesarily constantly, was "up to" 25%, with 42% "known" to be working. The rest had, at least by Telegraph standards, "disappeared. This opens the way to speculation that, in the headline, became concrete fact. However, the fact that "they may have melted into the black economy" amounts to working passes the writer by. Apparently, being a victim of gross exploitation on the black economy is the same as not working and a heinous crime based purely on the fact that such virtual slaves are scandalously "paying no taxes." The paper's obvious bias only allows for "a very small number" to "have left the country of their own accord."

What we see, on even cursory inspection, is that tabloid stories about migrant activity are at best based on rumour and speculation. Less generously but more honestly, they are bald lies built up in service to a thinly-veiled racist mythology. At the same time, hearsay and wanton speculation, led by ideological bias, suffices to "prove" that migrants in the UK aren't providing the net economic gain that empirical fact, obviously a tool of political-correctness, unequivocally demonstrates.

It is fair to say, then, that the destruction of the migrant camps in Calais has nothing to do with solving a "public health nightmare" or removing a "haven for traffickers," but with enforcing the rigid ideology of border control. Under this ideology, human solidarity and empirical fact are no match for strong rhetoric or the politics of reaction. No Borders Brighton, then, are not being overly cynical with today's analysis;
In the run-up to the expected destruction of the main 'Jungle' zone on Tuesday morning, Calais is coming to resemble an occupied city by the hour. More and more military trucks have arrived, the CRS presence has increased and the streets are crawling with unmarked police cars (PAF - border police? BAC - Brigade Anti-Criminalité?). The Telegraph has even claimed that the army will use flame throwers. Its beginning to sound more like a re-enactment of the Sands of Iwo Jima rather than the Battle of Algiers in the Zones des Dunes!

And to top it all, Besson is expected in town tomorrow. Its obviously too good a photo opportunity to miss - first over the top come dawn. Or maybe he'll ride into the Pashtun 'Jungle' in the turret of a tank? And no doubt Calais own Iron Lady, Natacha Bouchart, will be up there too, with her headscarf and tin hat à la Thatcher. She has already volunteered to mop-up the all the smaller 'Jungles', the squats in Calais itself, and has already claimed responsibility for the destruction of the Ethiopian squat (le squat Pagniez, where the arrested migrants have returned over the weekend after being released from detention, only to find all their possessions that they had left behind trashed by the CRS).

What ever happens in the next days, one thing is certain, this problem will not go away. Greece, as it has consistently done over the years, will not take any of the migrants that have passed through its territory (as the majority of the migrants in Calais most certainly have), Dublin II or no Dublin II. Which means either large-scale deportation flights or Green Cards all around. France may have deported 17,000 people in the first 7 months of the year, and its aim may be to deport 27,000 over the year as a whole, but they will find it difficult to return many of the migrants given that they come from war zones.

And inevitably the migrants will return, 'Jungles' will spring up elsewhere and the humanitarian associations in and around Calais will be left to pick up the pieces long after the media circus has left. Just as they were post Sangatte. Plus ça change...
If this cycle of repression and degredation, aided by the mass media's perpetuation of dehumanising falsehoods, is to end, it will require concerted action. The migrants in Calais, as well as the activists and humanitarian groups supporting their cause, need urgent solidarity. Those who can join them and help them on the ground should do so. Those who cannot should spread the word and raise awareness in any way possible. Only with continuous pressure and action can we demolish the lies of media propagandists and force a system that thrives on human division, repression, and isolation onto the back foot.