Thursday 14 July 2016

Convoy to Calais: taking aid and hope, but blocked at the border

The Convoy to Calais sets out from Whitehall in central London (Photo: Guy Smallman)

The Convoy to Calais sets out from Whitehall in central London (Photo: Guy Smallman)

Some 200 vehicles set out in a convoy to take aid collected around Britain to the refugee camp outside Calais on Saturday 18th June. It showed the level of support for refugees among ordinary people—but the majority were stopped at Dover

From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine July-August 2016, issue 16. Email UAF to ask for printed copies

Vehicles gathered early in the morning in Whitehall, central London. The Convoy to Calais wanted the prime minister, David Cameron, to hear it leave. It was organised by Stand Up to Racism, the People’s Assembly, Momentum and the Muslim Association of Britain, among others.

At the launch, Sabby Dhalu of Stand Up to Racism, said, “What we have across Europe is not a humanitarian crisis, it is a crisis of politicians losing their humanity and conceding to racist, far-right and fascist groups and refusing to take refugees.”

Diane Abbott MP said, “This convoy symbolises hope; it symbolises solidarity and that a better world is possible. In the darkness we must look towards light. I have been to the camps in Calais and in Greece. I know how desperately needed this solidarity is.

“I want to bring you a message of solidarity from the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and I want to wish everybody in the convoy and everybody helping to support the convoy a great trip and a safe trip.”

Some people joining the convoy from round the country have not been able to come to London. Julie Bremner from Norwich Stand Up to Racism said that they have organised two mini buses, including one from the local mosque, and are bringing 26 people to join the convoy in Dover. “The convoy has brought together the movement and the trade unions,” she said. “We raised over £2,200 in total for refugees. This is making a real difference to attitudes in Norfolk. We’ve got people in the Mothers’ Union getting really angry. It’s about keeping pressure on Norfolk County Council who have not yet accepted any refugees.”

The convoy assembled at a motorway service station—now more than 250 vehicles—to drive together into Dover, where it was held up by the police. The first two cars advanced to the “frontier control” and after a long delay were refused entry by the French authorities. The reasons given for refusing the convoy entry were spurious, including the “State of Emergency”, football hooliganism and the threat of terrorist attack.

Organisers of the convoy negotiated with British police and then with the French border authorities, but were turned down. They did manage to get the authorities to agree that two lorries full of aid could go through.

Members of the convoy then left their vehicles and blocked the entrance to the port as they held a peaceful protest. Some chanted, “‘Freedom of movement is a right, not just for the rich and white”.

Convoy to Calais protest at being stopped in Dover (Photo: Guy Smallman)

Convoy to Calais protest at being stopped in Dover (Photo: Guy Smallman)

Raheel Khaliq of Syria Relief spoke to Stand Up to Racism, just by the frontier control. He had driven down from Manchester with a van load of relief supplies.

“We’re based in Manchester and we focus predominantly on helping people inside Syria,” he said. “But since the refugee crisis developed last year we’ve branched out and help refugees elsewhere—in areas like Turkey, Greece and so on. And anyone we can help here as well.”

And have they ever been stopped from delivering aid before? “When we very first started in 2011 we had issues sending containers to Syria, but that was when the conflict had just started and obviously it was very difficult. Otherwise we’ve never had anything like this before.

“To be perfectly honest I’m absolutely astounded that here in Europe we’re attempting to deliver aid and essentially we’re being held back by another European power.

“Right now the Euro 2016 football championship is happening in France. Hundreds of thousands of people are pouring into the country. All these people travelling wasn’t an issue when they bid for the championship and they’ve had no qualms since. But a convoy of 250 cars taking aid to refugees is too much. We’re just normal people trying to help.”

Much of the convoy then drove back to London to protest outside the French embassy. Several batches of aid were symbolically placed on the steps of the embassy. One organiser said, “We expect the French government to deliver that for us first thing on Monday morning.” But the police removed it as the French have refused to take it, and convoy supporters took it back to find another way to deliver it.

People from the Convoy to Calais protest outside the French embassy in London

People from the Convoy to Calais protest outside the French embassy in London

Weyman Bennett from Stand Up to Racism told the crowd, “The aid that has been delivered in Calais has come from the people. It has not come from David Cameron or Francois Hollande. We are all 24 hours away from being treated as a refugee. For a few moments at the border we had the experience that refugees feel all the time of being held back by police at the border.”

Zak Cochrane added, “We are five days away from a referendum where they are trying to keep refugees out. And today they tried to keep us in. We say to David Cameron and Francois Holland, ‘We welcome refugees here and we will continue to bring solidarity to refugees in Calais and across Europe. We stand in absolute solidarity with people fleeing war and poverty’.”

A minibus from Lambeth was separated from the main convoy and was not stopped at the border. They report what should have happened on a much larger scale if the rest of the convoy was not blocked.

Some of the Convoy to Calais who were not stopped dropped off supplies at a storage warehouse near Calais

Some of the Convoy to Calais who were not stopped dropped off supplies at a storage warehouse near Calais

They reported, “Our donations included £500 from train drivers and teachers and £400 from school children. We went to the Care4Calais distribution centre and emptied our minibus of clothes, shoes and other donations.

“As we arrived we met delegations from Wakefield and Birmingham who had also made it over without any problem.

“We visited the ‘Jungle’ camp and were struck by how quickly the bulldozed area had grown over. There was no evidence of the large sections of homes that we had seen in January and February.

At the end of the day, we drove miles out of town to a remote field where the authorities had granted permission for a rally to be held. It was a small gathering of all those who managed to get through. Around 100 people listened to a group of refugees on stage,  talking about their experiences on the camp.

Their stories were moving, in particular from one young man from Sudan. The frustration was so explicit as he spoke about the way refugees are portrayed in the media, the dehumanisation and the preconceptions.

“The message from our group in response was unanimous. Yes we took supplies over, because we know people are cold and hungry. But we are not a charity. Ultimately we want the camps to be closed down and the people living there allowed into Britain.”

Art auction in Walthamstow to raise money for Calais refugees

Art auction in Walthamstow to raise money for Calais refugees

Breaking Borders art auction

The Stand Up to Racism group in Waltham Forest in north east London raised £7,440 for refugees in Calais with an art auction. It was among many local groups that arranged fundraising activities to support the convoy.

Two Waltham Forest artists, Esther Neslen and Lorraine Huddle started the ball rolling by asking local artists to donate works.

Collette Levi, Holocaust survivor who is a poet and artist, opened the Breaking Borders 2 exhibition showing the works at the local pub. A week later the art works were auctioned.

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