Open the borders: reflections on a solidarity trip to Calais

Open the borders: reflections on a solidarity trip to Calais

Date: 29 September 2015

Before I visited Calais last week, I thought I had a good understanding of the refugee crisis. But after meeting the people living there, I realised just how much I’ve been influenced by media stereotypes.

On Saturday thousands of migrants marched through Calais to demand the opening of the border to the UK and against the dehumanising treatment of the refugees living there. Three of my colleagues from Global Justice Now and I, along with activists from other solidarity organisations, joined the refugees in Calais to show our support.

We people marched from the refugee camp popularly known as “the Jungle”, to Calais port. At the end of the march, people living in the camp and activists there to support them assembled in front of a small stage. As we gathered under the hot sun, refugees and activists took their place on the stage either to tell their story or to declare to the audience that change was needed. People were encouraged to sign a declaration to European governments that demand the borders to be open. There were cheers and shouting – more determined than angry. The atmosphere of the protest was dynamic, and as a musician went on stage to perform the crowd cheered up.  

One of the themes of the day was the social media oriented #morethanamigrant action, in which people from the camp were photographed holding placards with their name and the hashtag. The action`s intention is to portray migrants as people and to not let their status as refugee or migrant define them.  In the same vein, a fake border wall was constructed for people to write their wishes and opinions. When we first arrived the wall was white and empty. At the end of the day the wall was full of writings in different languages and colours: “No Jungle!”, “Refugees Welcome”. For me, these actions were strong and meaningful. I felt like the intentions got through, and that the focus on the people behind the refugee stamp created a good space for the meeting between protesters and refugees. I just hope that the people living in Calais felt the same way.

The message of our protest was clear: “No Jungle, jungles are for animals!”. The refugees want to be seen as human beings and treated as such. They risk their life in attempts to cross the border to live a life of dignity. So far this year 12 people have been killed trying to cross the border to the UK. One minute of silence was held to commemorate their lives. We sat down on the ground listening to a reading of a poem in honour of the dead. The statement “borders kill, refugees don’t” couldn’t be more true.. The mood had changed, and suddenly I felt hopeless and sad over the conditions for people living in the jungle. I realised that this is about more than a protest and hashtags, and the seriousness of the situation hit me hard.

Our day in Calais was interesting and challenging. There were many emotions at play for me: by turns I felt happy, sad, angry, hopeless and hopeful. I do feel the trip has given me a deeper understanding of the refugee situation. One thing I can definitely take away from the experience is that the term “refugee” dehumanises people living in refugee camps. It creates the impression that refugees are a homogenous group.  Refugees` stories are told as a victim narrative which creates a one-sided, top-down perspective. The refugee crisis we see today is more than camps and tents. Their stories are grounded in deep structural issues and conflicts. Their stories don’t start in Syria and end in the UK. Their stories are embedded in a complex framework of unfair economic systems and ongoing historical processes.

The protest was a part of a strong international movement for opening borders. While borders are a part of the problem, we cannot lose sight of the broader systemic changes that are needed to solve the refugee crisis. The situation today is long-term. Therefore we should seek long-term solutions – including, crucially, a more just global economic system.