Calais, France. A modern day city in which you shouldn’t expect to find an ever increasing shanty town with a population in ever increasing need of shelter, food and hope for their future. Since 2003, Calais has been home to a minimum of several hundred migrants and refugees, but since the Syrian civil conflict which began in 2011, the size of the refugee population has more than trebled, with little support being given by the French and European authorities to accommodate and support them.
In response to the lack of action taken by the EU and French and British leaders, to the refugee crisis, people from across Britain decided that it was their duty to help in whatever way they could. So several trade unions, activist groups (including the People’s Assembly against Austerity), NGOs and political party members came together to form the ‘Convoy To Calais’. For months, people up and down the country have been collecting food, clothes, tents, blankets and a wide array of other resources that are in high demand in the camps of Calais. Members of the public who are sick and tired of the xenophobic rhetoric of mainstream politicians and the press donated to show their support for refugees and to say loud and proud, Refugees Welcome!
After months of organising, the day finally arrived. Early on Saturday 18th June, more than 250 vehicles packed full of aid set off from Whitehall in London and headed for Dover, beeping their horns and making as much noise as they could to make sure David Cameron in Downing Street, and all our MPs in Parliament would hear our anger and bitter disappointment at their treatment of refugees and their lack of commitment to help those in dire need.
After a couple of hours of driving, we reconvened at a service station close to Dover so that we could enter the town all together showing our unity and solidarity. However, upon arriving at our rendezvous point, we were greeted by a number of Police vans and cars. It then became apparent that some Police officers were recording the number plates of the cars that were forming part of the convoy. This is deeply concerning. In order to do this, the driver of the vehicle must have done something illegal, which meant that the act of taking down the number plates were in fact an abuse of the Police’s power and was therefore unlawful. When this was raised by one of the activists from the People’s Assembly, a senior officer informed us that they should not have been doing this and that they were stopping it. It then transpired that the Police had been following instructions from their counterparts in Calais. Since when do the French police have the authority to give Kent Police instructions to intercept and record law abiding British Citizens? An aid convoy travelling from London to Calais is hardly a threat to national or European security now is it.
12.30pm. We head into Dover, admittedly causing travel chaos in the process. It was a mixed welcoming: some waved and cheered in support of our action; whilst others not so much. A few drivers shouted “W******” at us but we simply waved back and kept a positive and optimistic spirit.
Finally our car arrived at the entrance to the port where we were greeted by a very friendly Police officer. Asking if we were going to be allowed to board the ferry, the police man informed us that someone from the French side would be along soon to speak to us, but that we must wait in a segregated queue for the ferry. Still with a bit of hope, we drove into the separate queue laid out for the convoy and waited. And waited. And waited. And waited.
Gradually the message came through from the organisers that the local government in Calais (sadly ran by the Front Nationale) had told the British Police to prevent us from boarding our ferry, despite us having paid for the tickets and all holding valid British passports. As far as I am aware, we are still in the European Union and therefore have a right to freedom of movement. This is a right that we all share under European law, but this was taken away from us, with no explanation or justification whatsoever. Personally, I think it’s because the French are absolutely ashamed of the fact they have a shanty town full of the world’s most desperate and vulnerable. And so they should be!
This abuse of our right to freedom of movement and our desire to get this essential aid over to the refugees meant that we wouldn’t let ourselves simply be turned away. Everyone left their vehicles and marched down to the frontier. 100’s of us stood on the border, met by a line of Kent, Surrey and Sussex Police. Chanting and waving our banners, we stood in solidarity and stopped the other traffic from crossing the border, delaying the ferry for over 2 hours. (Very sorry if we annoyed innocent holidaymakers but we had to try and take some action). The Calais authorities refused to negotiate our entry, but did allow a 36 ton lorry that we had filled with aid to board the ferry, although sadly this was just a small proportion of the aid we had: there was still 250 cars filled with much needed resources.
The decision was eventually made for us all to head back to London to demonstrate outside the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. Whilst on our way back, we got into contact with Sky News and the BBC in an attempt to break the story and get national coverage on the abuse of our right to free movement and the shameful blocking of an aid convoy. It worked. One of the activists in the car with me, Catherine Mitchell, gave a few phone interviews and organised for a reporter from Sky News to meet us outside the Embassy.
Once at the embassy, numerous activists placed the undelivered aid on the doorsteps of the embassy and requested the French to deliver it to Calais themselves.
This whole day was not quite what I had expected, but nonetheless was a good day of direct action. We had been told a few days earlier that it was unlikely that we would be allowed to board the ferry, but I had faith in the EU and in the freedom of movement of law abiding citizens. I am a supporter and a fan of the European Union, but this day disappointed me deeply. Where was our explanation? I’m almost certain we weren’t given one, because there was no legal reason for them to take this action against us. It’s beyond my comprehension that British Police forces would take instructions from foreign forces to prevent UK citizens from travelling. Something must be done to punish the French for infringing our right to travel.
Being British is about helping those in need, and fighting on their behalf: these are fundamental to our national identity. Refugees are welcome in Britain and we will continue to defend them!
Vice President Treasurer