« You looked a bit like you were walking on the moon back there! ». So someone said to me on tuesday evening in Calais, referring to the previous afternoon, when Roos, Laura and I timidely walked into a scene long familiar to everyone in Calais – a tent camp by the canal just under the town's beffroi, « home » to 150 people and counting.
We were rue Massena, in one of the town's squats opened a few month ago by a number of NoBorder activists, drinking the tea one of the street neighbour had brought in with her, and all the while teasing me for our unsecure attitude earlier, Camille was showing me around the main room, pointing to the roof, which used to be leaky, to the floor, which used to, hem, not exist: « the eviction's order says we have to leave it in the state we found it – we're gonna have to work on restauring those holes! ».
The eviction's order had come in the previous day, and the squat would have to be empty by may 31st. One after another, as usual, the latest squats will close in a few weeks time, and outdoor camps will grow as more migrants will have to settle outdoor again. Evictions are no surprise – they're routine. Staying put 4 months in one building was the actual disruption.
The big, heavy looking black board in one corner will be carried to a new location – Macky, who has obtained 10 year residency in France and settled in Calais for the time being, uses it to give french and english lessons to migrants from in and out the squat, as well as arabic lessons to some activists – when they show up, n'est-ce pas, Philippe?
Dozens of bikes and bike pieces are stappled on shelves in the big room – products of a fantastic cooperation with the Netherlands and Critical Mass/Velorution Ile de France (Paris surrounding region), saving migrants precious time and energy while they roam the city to get to various food distributions, legal advice and medical help services , or, as that evening, out to watch a football game. The bikes will be moved to a bike workshop.
In short: things (as people) don't disappear with evictions. They are just moved further for other pairs of eyes to see, for other neighbours to call the police or lend their electricity. On newly occupied buildings walls, activists put up notices to the police claiming their tenants rights and to the neighbours, inviting them in for a chat.
The former squat's building will be shut down, windows and doors walled. Camille provided us with countless pictures of walled doors and windows taken as squats get evicted over the years. Some buildings are torn down after being evicted – sometimes, their (perhaps valuable?) front walls remain. Lots of empty buildings remain in Calais, enough for that cycle to sustain itself for the foreseenable time, consuming only the activist's energy. Julien, from Calais Ouverture et Humanité, reported on the daunting exhaustion, affecting the most engaged people.
There are migrants on Calais's streets since about 30 years now. With the exeption of 3 years during which Sangatte, a formal camp, was run by the Red Cross with their blessing, local and state authorities do not involve themselves in providing the necessary humanitarian help to migrants, leaving it entirely up to the local civic society and citizens. They were heavily critized by british authorities and media for just opening Sangatte, closed under that pressure by Sarkozy, then Home Secretary/Ministre de l'Intérieur. The pressure is still there, invisible as is England on the other side of the channel. At the moment, there is too little transnational civic society cooperation to call it out and make it visible.
I'm borrowing the 'Borderline' analogy from Philippe, who introduced us to Calais, and used it on his blog Passeurs d'Hospitalité a few weeks ago. In french, Borderline, a psychiatric term describing a mental situation not yet psychosis, but as close to it as it gets, translates as 'Etat limite', on the verge. It is indeed a good description of Calais, where life goes on under constant threat of humanitarian and ethical collapse.
Check out Laura's account of our day here.
ps: Camille is a french gender neutral first name sometimes used to preserve anonymity.
c'est au squat rue Masséna que vous êtes allés, pas au squat Victor Hugo