CALAIS - JUNE 28-29, 2019
Across the two days there was a lot of discussion about the need for a radical shift both in the way refugees are seen and in thinking about what borders are for. For the Secours Catholique team this was in part prompted by the widely distributed and shocking pictures in the press of the dead father and child on the Mexican border, but also by the ongoing and relentlessly degrading experiences of refugees on this border at Calais.
In each of the settings we worked in, refugees themselves spoke to us about being perceived as a threat, as inhuman, as animals, as problems, as dangerous, as ‘other’. This is in a town in which walls and fences greet everyone who makes their way around the port town, and in which refugees are the ones that die on the roads.
This extract by writer Maya Goodfellow was simultaneously in today’s Guardian:
“There has been far more discussion about immigration and the supposed threats that certain people crossing political boundaries pose to the “nation state” than there has ever been about the problems and logic of borders: the ways they’re policed, the risks they compel often desperate people to take, the death and the destruction they produce and if they are really necessary at all. But it is exactly these responses that are the appropriate ones when people are dying, and will continue to die, trying to cross borders.”
The day centre was busy, many new faces, the weather not yet too hot, the atmosphere convivial, lots of people resting and chatting. Our time in the day centre was divided by a two hour session with the Medecins du Monde ambulance on the edge of town. We set up the typewriters on The Community Table and left them there for people to use at their own pace across the afternoon.
One man stayed at one of the machines for several hours writing one letter after another, poetic texts that described both the warmth and kindness he has experienced from volunteers in Calais over the three years he has been stuck there, and the brutal treatment he has received at the hands of the police and state. In many ways these writings amounted to love letters, addressed to a named person, human connections and memories held safe.
Here we were struck by the increase in numbers around the ambulance and the upsurge in numbers of tents pitched in amongst the undergrowth and on the roadside verges tipping out into the road itself. There were new arrivals and those who have been in the Calais area for a very long time.
We placed the tablecloth map on the dry ground and the large map on the ambulance and were impressed by the different ways the maps were responded to across the two hours.
Unusually there were families present and the children seemed to allow a different sort of playfulness. The map on the ground was respected, not walked across, and there was a lot of curiosity about why we brought the maps to this setting - and about borders and crossings. The tantalisingly small distance between Calais and Dover - after these massive journeys - was commented on by several people around both maps.
One man filmed himself talking in-front of the map, and then showed us his phone which held breathtaking and shocking footage from his entire journey, much of it by foot, all the way from Kurdistan. Another man spoke philosophically about the impossibly challenging struggle on the border being a necessary part of the journey towards a chosen refuge - once you reach it you know you have arrived.
This afternoon, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze, we completed the final set of Ship of Tolerance cyanotype prints. The Community Table continued inside with the typewriters and there was a relaxed transition between the interior and exterior spaces.
The letter writer from the day before returned to the day centre this afternoon. He told us quietly that once he had got back to his tent last night he had read each letter to himself, one at a time.