Interview with No Borders in Calais

Originally published in January 2010.

Submitted by shifteditor3 on December 11, 2012

What was the No Borders camp in Calais last summer set up in opposition to?

Joe: The camp was organized in association with the UK No Borders network, so of course the camp was set up in opposition to controls on the movement of people. In particular the camp was set up in opposition to the French-British border in Calais, but most importantly in solidarity with those undocumented migrants currently living in and around the port who are both suffering from and resisting the imposition of this border on their lives. It is the incredibly concrete and practical opposition of the undocumented present to this border every day that made the No Borders camp possible. To say ‘No Borders’ is not a demand for rights, but an expression of solidarity with all those who use their capacity to move in resisting oppression, exploitation and the global divisions of desire.

The French-British border in Calais has for sometime condensed many of the anxieties and tensions surrounding migration in contemporary Europe. Between 1999 and 2002 the Red Cross had a refugee reception centre stationed just outside Calais, in the village of Sangatte. The centre became the topic of at times vexed political exchanges between the French and British governments. The British charged the French with providing a magnet for illegal immigrants who were using the centre as a stop-off point before trying to enter Britain. The French complained that in having to provide for undocumented migrants trying to reach Britain, they were being forced to foot some of the bill for the UK’s purportedly over-generous asylum system – supposedly the real magnet for illegal immigration. With both administrations vying for the electoral capital to be gained from being seen to be tough on immigration, the centre was closed in 2002 by none other than the current French president Nicholas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior. Since the closure of Sangatte the UK and France have been working more closely on border control in Calais, with the UK adopting a kind de facto policing responsibility, funding many of the new security initiatives in and around the port.

Today the provision of all but the most rudimentary services to undocumented migrants in Calais has been outlawed. As a result a number of makeshift settlements have sprung up, locally known by all as the jungle. Living conditions in the jungle are very bad, and those living there are constantly harassed by a police force that actually have targets for how many migrants they must arrest - and inevitably release again a day or two later - each week. The No Borders camp was set up in opposition to this particularly brutal border regime, and in solidarity with all those who actively oppose it in their struggles for a dignified life.

Where did the idea for the camp come from and how was it organised?

Dan: During the Gatwick No Border camp of September 2007 the idea of a transnational action/gathering in Calais and/or Dover was proposed. Late last year, activists from the UK, France and Belgium met in Calais and decided to plan a camp in Calais.

The camp was organised by a series of meetings in Calais between British, French and Belgian activists. The camp was organised on a non-hierarchical basis, and all decisions were made by consensus. There were general meetings every morning and evening on the camp, and everyone was welcome to all meetings. The meetings were facilitated by a number of different people, and the agenda was set collectively. All the meetings were held in French and English, and sometimes there were translations into other languages as well, including Arabic and Farsi.

Who was involved?

Dan: Various groups and individuals were involved in the camp, including local activists in Calais, many individuals from Lille including from their local anarchist group, activists from other parts of France and Belgium and people from various No Border groups in the UK. Migrants were involved in all aspects of the camp itself, some of the migrants lived close to the site of the camp and were present most of the time. Some people from the local area also came to the camp to chat with the
migrants and the activists.

What were the aims of the camp?

Dan: The aims of the camp included: showing solidarity with migrants in Calais, showing solidarity with the local organisations working daily with the migrants, strengthening networks between British, French and Belgian activists, raising awareness of the situation amongst the local population and the public at large, and taking action to demand freedom of movement and an end to border control.

What were the main problems organisationally and politically considering the camp's aims?

Dan: A main organisational problem that we had was involving migrants in the planning of the camp. This was for many reasons, including the transitory nature of the migrants in Calais and difficulties with translation. A main political problem was overcoming the propaganda in the local press, which painted us as terrorists coming to intimidate, steal and to destroy local property. We worked hard to communicate our message and let local people know of our intentions for the camp.

The No Borders position attempts to move beyond humanitarian responses to immigration controls and restrictions on freedom of movement. How were these political aims negotiated at the camp considering the immediate situation of migrants there?

Joe: This was perhaps one of the most difficult things to come to terms with in Calais. When confronted with human suffering you want to know what you can do to help – and help immediately. Of course the camp infrastructure ameliorated some of this suffering for the week we were there. Police couldn’t harass people inside the camp and food, shelter, washing facilities and basic medical assistance was provided to anyone who came to the camp. On a singular level there is and was no problem in mixing humanitarian concerns with politics. The problem in Calais was that the immediate situation of the migrants living there was so bad – living without basic sanitation, medical care, adequate food, access to clean water and so on – that even in the space for political discussions made possible by the camp, humanitarian sentiments too often overrode more explicitly political discussions. The frustration felt by many at this situation was captured in a meeting where the public statement to be issued by the camp was being discussed. A young Afghan interjected: ‘Every time I come to the meetings we discuss about blankets, but we are not hungry, we do not come for blankets, open the borders!’ This separation of humanitarianism from politics, and the consequent triumph of humanitarianism thanks to its emotive pull, was one of the borders that the camp really struggled to break down. At times such bordering made itself manifest in political discussions through the implicit reservation of political agency for those who could afford it (i.e. the citizen-activist) and correlatively, by making those who couldn’t afford it into objects of humanitarian concern (i.e. the non-citizen). Perhaps the border between politics and humanitarianism presented less of a problem to be negotiated than a field of tension through which the camp was experienced.

Some people have criticised No Borders as being an idealist position that is irrelevant to the British working class and anarchist politics. How would you respond to this criticism?

Joe: ‘No Borders is an idealist position.’ Yes, but only if you think like a state. ‘You can’t make this work, its unmanageable, its not practical,’ the anxious statesman will cry. From the perspective of the state No Borders is indeed idealistic. But for us, No Borders is an axiom of political action, a principle of equality from which concrete, practical consequences must be drawn. It means recognizing, on the basis of our equality, solidarity in struggle irrespective of origins. It is this principle of equality which distinguishes the No Borders position from the ideology of free marketeers, of whom it is said also advocate the removal of controls on movement. Crucially of course they only advocate the removal of controls on the movement of labour-power - which only means people insofar as they are the bearers of a potential to work, or more precisely, be exploited.

Today the movement of labour is free, so long as it is profitable, which also means disciplined. It is precisely in this disciplining that the border affects all of us. The disciplining of the border separates us from one another, such that politics ceases to be about something common and collapses into the simple play of private interests. Thus it becomes possible to mark out some political positions as more or less relevant to your social group, and then choose your politics like you choose between fair-trade, organic or smart price brands in a supermarket. Is there really a need here to rehearse the closing lines of The Communist Manifesto? Doesn’t the weakness of left-movements today stem precisely from the kinds of sectarianism and state fetishism that both Marx and Bakunin in their different (red and black if you will) ways warned against? At the border the calculation of interests meets the lived reality of our lives. It is thus, like the factory, both a site of suffering and a vector of antagonism.

A list of demands were drawn up at the end of the camp. What were they and how did the demands reflect the aims of the camp?

Dan: The demands were as follows:

1. Entry to the UK for all unconditionally.

2. The cessation of attacks and destruction of places of life of migrants. Access to care and showers must be guaranteed.

3. Freedom of movement for all in and around Calais: the ability to move anywhere without restrictions, harassment or fear of being arrested.

4. The cessation of repeated arrests.

5. Freedom of expression for all, including migrants, the right to protest and complain to the authorities individually or collectively.

6. To stop evictions whether by charter or not to countries at war or not.

7. The end of the repression of associations and individuals who support the migrants including the provision of means of transport.

8. Provide free and impartial legal advice in the UK on the rights of asylum and immigration.

9. The British policy of arbitrary detention without time limit cannot be exported to Calais. No new detention centre can be built and particularly a structure of the Guantanamo kind.

Joe: Drawing up the list of demands was a difficult process. A mixture of practical demands and principled propositions made it in to the final draft. The real difficulty was in trying to get these two dimensions to work together without the practical demands appearing like a request for better social policy and the principled positions looking like empty radical gestures. Of course the greatest challenge to the border in Calais was the actions of the migrants themselves, the actual attempts to cross day and night. No arrangement of words could ever match this force.

The statement focused, not mistakenly, on highlighting the situation of police repression on the ground in Calais. No doubt this was in part because police harassment really was a common experience shared by activists, migrants and local youth, albeit in significantly differing intensities. One of the demands read something like ‘freedom of expression for all, including migrants, the right to protest and complain to the authorities individually or collectively.’ I remember this demand getting a quite a laugh when it was read out in Pashtun in the closing meeting. It does sound like a ridiculous demand; the police violence in Calais is in a very direct sense a manifestation of the violence of the border. But this is the sort of demand that the No Borders camp made it possible to think. Despite the phrasing it is not really a right which is given, bestowed or handed over - like charity - but a capacity which must be exercised. It is only understandable when it is concretely put to use. If words have any power at all it is encouraging action, in instilling it in their audience. Hopefully some of these words sketched out hurriedly and collectively did indeed encourage action, not necessarily to lodge complaints against the police, but simply to carry on kicking back.

Was this the only tangible outcome?

Dan: No, I believe there were other tangible outcomes from the camp. Firstly, there was a heightened awareness of the situation of migrants in Calais amongst British, French and Belgian activists, and a willingness to take action. Since the camp, there had been a continual presence of activists in Calais, monitoring police activity. Secondly, the idea of freedom of movement and settlement was introduced to a large number of people (locals, migrants and various associations and individuals). I believe that the camp achieved a lot of the aims that it set out to achieve.

Joe: Well the border is still there, so the camp failed on that measure. Yet for a week its naturalness and necessity was manifestly called in to question. That the French state was actively unnerved by this was evident enough in the truly hysterical show of force we were confronted with. Helicopters, some 2000 armed and anxious police officers, road blocks across the town throughout the week, arrests for buying toilet roll and distributing flyers, the list of absurdities is endless. Yet however transitory, and however limited given the resources put in to policing the camp, the action shouldn’t be dismissed for failing to ‘break the border’, or whatever. There are less geographical borders which also need to be challenged and broken down, very intimate borders you carry round inside your head. In this I think the camp had more success. Physical movement against physical borders will always provide a more effective challenge than any amount of protest. But not all borders are physical, and it is really the confluence of physical and social borders which people suffer from. In the camp some of the social borders which accompany physical ones were actively broken down. Some meetings and discussions were held in four or five languages, and discussions, exchanges and encounters occurred which disrupted the rhythms of everyday lives and the habituses of the activist, the citizen and the undocumented. In facilitating this, the camp helped undermine assumptions and preconceptions about different kinds of difference. We shouldn’t underestimate both the necessity and immensity of challenging the manifold borders we carry round in our heads, including the border between citizen and non-citizen.

What’s happening now in the mobilisation around Calais?

Dan: As stated, there has been a continuous presence of activists in Calais since the camp. A group, Calais Migrant Solidarity, ( has been formed to
coordinate the work happening there, which involves monitoring police activity, offering practical support to the migrants, and preventing arrests and destruction of the jungles when possible. It is hoped that Calais Migrant Solidarity will soon have an office in Calais.

Joe Rigby lives and works in the North West and is active in the No Borders network. Dan is an activist based in the south of London who has been active in Calais during and following the camp.