- Created: Wednesday, 09 December 2009 12:28
- Written by Cat Wiener
FRANCE: Law of the Jungle
At daybreak on 22 September, more than 500 police officers encircled the migrant squatters’ camp known as ‘The Jungle’ outside the port of Calais in northern France as police helicopters hovered overhead. Despite protests by migrants and their supporters, who shouted out ‘Shame on France’ and held placards reading ‘We need shelter and protection, we want peace’, 278 migrants, half of them children, were rounded up, with riot police cordoning off the area to pick up any who tried to escape, and herded onto buses. The tents and tarpaulins, including a makeshift mosque, were razed to the ground with bulldozers and flame-throwers.
Calais is a focal point for undocumented migrants desperate to get to Britain – what campaign group No Borders, which has been active in defending the camps, calls ‘the bottleneck of Fortress Europe’. Because Britain refuses to sign up to the Schengen agreement (which allows free movement between European countries), these migrants are corralled in a no-man’s land, forced to attempt to secretly board trains and lorries destined for British ports, often risking their lives; some have been there for months or even years. Until 2002, the Red Cross provided facilities for such migrants – many of them young, many of them traumatised by their experiences – at Sangatte, where there was access to food, shelter, clean water and medical care. Then, under pressure from Britain, the Sangatte centre was bulldozed. With nowhere to go and no means of supporting themselves, makeshift camps began to spring up in woodland all along the northern coast. Lacking sanitation and running water, these camps are inevitably squalid, crowded places where disease is rife. Despite appeals by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Britain has flatly refused to take any of the Calais migrants.
Although under French law it is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a £25,000 fine to ‘aid or facilitate either directly or indirectly the arrival, circulation or residence of illegal immigrants in France’, all over the Pas-de-Calais region local groups have been providing food and other essentials, sometimes with the tacit support of local authorities, and defending camps against harassment from police, who regularly destroy dwellings, tear-gas woodland and arrest and detain people. In early September 2009, in a dawn raid, police detained 85 migrants at a long-established camp in Angres, destroying the camp and all their possessions. After the migrants’ release from the detention centre in Coquelles, local people set up a new camp in the square outside the town hall, with the full support of the town’s mayor.
This wholesale onslaught on the Jungle, described by French Immigration Minister Eric Besson as an attempt to clamp down on ‘human traffickers’ and make Calais ‘watertight’ against migrants, marks the start of a new, harsher strategy, part of a deal drawn up in July by the French and British governments whereby Britain will allocate an extra £15 million to new scanning equipment, dog controls, lorry searches and a processing centre while France steps up deportations and obliterates the Jungle by the end of 2009. Although France has gone through the motions of promising that each migrant will be offered the option of voluntary repatriation or a chance to make an asylum claim in France (a opportunity many migrants say they have been denied until now), with forced removal reserved for failed claims, it is planning to charter a record number of ‘repatriation flights’ from northern France, mainly to Afghanistan and Iraq, and to build a second detention centre to supplement the existing centre at Coquelles. This new centre will be located on a carved-out ‘British control zone’ in Calais; this will allow Britain and France to circumvent French courts, which have been refusing to send illegal immigrants back to countries where they may face persecution. It will be what No Borders describes as ‘an “off-shore, on-shore” detention centre that exploits legal systems and evades European and international law on immigration and asylum in order to fast-track people out of Europe, no questions asked’. In addition, those seeking asylum who traveled via Greece or Italy will have been finger-printed and will be sent back to those countries to make their claim. In the last year, Greece has not accepted a single asylum claim from either Afghanistan or Iraq; recently Italy has been turning back boatloads of refugees from Africa without even giving them a chance to claim asylum.
But even these vicious measures will not stop the migrants. The 22 September attack had been widely heralded, and the majority of the camp’s 1,000-2,000 inhabitants, mainly Pashtun young men and boys fleeing the war in Afghanistan, but also including Iraqis, Somalians, Eritreans and Palestinians, had already melted away to join other camps along the coast or lie low until the raids were over before trying again to make the last, desperate leg of their journey to Britain. As long as imperialism continues to condemn the majority of the world’s population to poverty and insecurity, as long as the brutal occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq continues and as long as Britain refuses to open its borders to those fleeing the appalling global conditions it has helped create, these ‘jungles’ will continue to mushroom along the northern coast of France.
New law criminalises immigrants
Under a law passed by the Italian government on 8 August, it is now a criminal offence to be an ‘illegal’ immigrant in Italy. Such immigrants will face a court appearance, an eviction order and a fine of between €5,000-€10,000, with imprisonment for those who cannot pay. Given that the vast majority of migrants who land on Italian shores are destitute refugees from north Africa, this is a cynical manoeuvre to lock up migrants for terms that can now stretch to six months. In addition, the law makes it a criminal offence – punishable by three years’ imprisonment – to rent accommodation to ‘illegal’ immigrants; those who help such migrants in any way will be punished. Teachers and other state officials are legally obliged to inform on immigrants they suspect and – in a sop to the far-right Northern League, who helped draft the proposals – President Berlusconi has agreed to the formation of vigilante patrols to sniff out suspected ‘illegals’. The quasi-fascist uniformed Italian National Guard has already announced its intention to patrol the streets. Parents registering a birth must prove they are both legal residents, otherwise their child will be denied access to public services. Already, there is marked drop in attendance at hospitals and clinics by migrants, who fear being denounced; homelessness is soaring. Perhaps most shocking, where once fishermen rushed to help migrants lost at sea in makeshift rafts, at the end of August 73 Eritreans died in a boat in Italian waters when their motor failed and dozens of fishing boats refused to answer their calls for help. The one boat that did stop threw food to them but was too afraid of the consequences to let them board. As a West African resident in Italy told Afrik.com, ‘this is reminiscent of the Nazi era except that it is aimed at those of us who are black... we live in fear’.
FRFI 211 October / November 2009