Radio Calais: La voix des “sans papiers” – di Ed Emery*

“Mantieni bianca l’Europa!”. Un enorme complesso di ciminiere e tubi nella distesa desolata di aree industriali dismesse accoglie chi  arriva in Francia dal traghetto Dover-Calais. Una metafora perfetta per un paese (la Francia) dove a Brignoles (nel Var) il Fronte Nazionale è risultato  vincitore contro il fronte repubblicano, lanciando Marine Le Pen verso una possibile leadership in Francia. La fabbrica è il più grande impianto d’Europa di biossido di titanio, in grado di sfornare grandi quantità di candore – pigmento bianco per fare vernice bianca, denti sbiancanti, carta bianca, bianco tutto quello che vuoi. E proprio a destra di questo quadro, vi è  un piccolo gruppo di quattro neri africani rannicchiati intorno a un fuoco improvvisato per scaldarsi nelle notti d’inverno.

Benvenuti nella realtà che ci spiega l’idea di cittadinanza e di non-cittadinanza della nuova Europa.

* * * * *

“Keeping Europe white!”. A huge complex of chimneys and pipes that greets you across the desolate expanse of industrial wasteland as you come ashore from the Dover-Calais ferry. The perfect metaphor for a country where the Front National’s Brignoles by-election result on 13 October shows Marine le Pen’s Front National heading to become France’s third largest party.[i] The factory is Europe’s biggest titanium dioxide plant, turning out vast quantities of whiteness – white pigment to make white paint, tooth whitener, white paper, white whatever you want. And just to the right of the picture a small group of four black Africans huddled round a makeshift fire trying to keep warm as the winter nights draw in. Welcome to the defining reality of citizenship and non-citizenship in the new Europe.

* * * * *

 Calais – city of shame

Here, at a northern sally-gate of Fortress Europe, migrants arrive – many hundreds at any one time – hoping to reach the British Isles, and the possibility of asylum and a new future. The pressure is particularly acute now, as highlighted by the drowning of three hundred boat migrants off the island of Lampedusa two weeks ago.[ii] Since the closure of the Sangatte “reception centre” in 2002, after a sustained campaign of pressure by British rightwing newspapers, those migrants have been forced to live rough in the streets of Calais. If they are lucky, they manage to find sleeping spaces in empty commercial properties – Calais has the boarded-up shops, workshops and warehouses typical of atrophying economies at the outer edges of a crisis-hit Europe. With the help of “No Borders” activists, they squat these buildings in search of warmth and shelter. And regularly the French police raid these buildings – usually in defiance of proper legal procedure – and carry off the “sans papiers” migrants to detention centres for deportation, or for release into a further cycle of daily ID checks, harassment and (as reported by Calais Migrant Solidarity – CMS) physical beatings. It would do no harm to set up a team of international monitors in Calais, to bring them to heel.[iii]

But who is going to do that for hapless migrant who are the embodiment of the “abject subject” vilified the length and breadth of Europe as spongers, welfare tourists, bogus asyum seekers, the unwelcome etc. Nobody has decribed their condition better than Imogen Tyler, whose insightful account in Revolting Subjects describes the case of Abas Amini, an Iranian political activist who escaped from imprisonment and torture in his home country and made the Channel crossing to England by strapping himself to the underside of a lorry. When his asylum application was first granted and then submitted for appeal by the British Home Office, he took needle and thread and sewed his lips and eyelids together, resolving to die rather than face further humiliation. While pointing out the salient humanitarian facts of his case, Tyler also highlights the obvious – that the creation of these abject subjects is functional to the profitable and rapidly expanding asylum and immigration industries (“the neoliberal economics of illegality”), and is also the fuel that feeds the electoral machine of Europe’s rightwing parties. Speaking of Britain she asks what this country would look like if we mapped it not by its geographical features but by its places and practices of immigration detention, dispersal and deportation. She concludes that the picture which emerges is a deeply melancholic map By mapping Britain’s asylum invasion complex, we see “the ontological obliteration of personhood that is central to Britain’s neoliberal immigration industry”.[iv]

In order to inform the world of the daily persecution of migrants in the streets of Calais, CMS has set up a website which documents the everyday happenings in this massively securitised port town. A typical entry (22 October 2013) reads:

“The Eritrean squat in rue Neuve has been evicted, 70+  people newly in the street. Tents, sleeping bags, blankets are very much needed. Most of all we need activists to go to Calais and support! Following lots of arrivals to Italy via Lampedusa there are now well over 100 Eritreans present in Calais. They are escaping a brutal dictatorship and a long war with Ethiopia. There are a record number of women from Eritrea and Ethiopia in Calais, most are in the safe space opened by No Borders. The ‘jungles’ where Eritreans and Ethiopians wait to go to England are full over the limit.”[v]

Solidarity with the migrants

CMS and other well-wisher organisations maintain a daily activity of providing food, shelter and moral and legal support for the migrants of Calais. Despite being stretched to the limit, during the past few weeks they found the energy to organise a two-day Migrant Solidarity Festival at the Calais “Maison pour Tous” (“House for All”), a large community theatre a few hundred yards from the Town Hall on Boulevard Jacquard. I arrived there full of expectation to see how the Festival was progressing. On the door was a hand-written note proclaiming that the “Maison pour Tous” would be closed on Saturday. A young man who was also trying to get into the building explained. The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, has banned the Festival at the last minute because, she says, it is political. Not so, say the festival organisers. It had been an honest and decent attempt to create an opportunity for Calaisians and migrants to come together to discuss the realities of this difficult situation, together with a photographic exhibition and free concerts with a wide range of invited artists. And the banning of this festival – as well as being an affront to basic human solidarity – is a yet further example of the restriction of democratic spaces in France. So much for the “House for All”!

Ms. Bouchart, by the way, was originally called Nathalie Keuroglanian. She is of Armenian descent, and her family arrived in France after the Turkish genocide of Armenians in the 1920s. There is little point in discussing the paradoxical irony of her anti-immigrant stance. The daughter of a rightwing father who, according to miners in the Lille area, was a member of the Service d’Action Civique, a “parallel police force which was the perpetrator of murders and criminal operations”.[vi] Presumably she changed her name to improve her chances of election this year – in a campaign in which she was supported by the Front National (don’t call them fascist or they’ll sue…) in order to end 37 years of municipal rule by the communists.On 15 May last, in a vote-catching meeting between Bouchart and ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, set up at her request, “on a parlé de la problématique des squatts, on aimerait un accompagnement des collectivités pour accélérer les procédures d’expulsion et de destruction. Elles sont trop longues et mettent des vies en péril.” Frank and forthright. She wants to expel the migrants and destroy their makeshift housing because, she claims, they are putting the lives of Calaisians in peril. She has called for Calais to be declared a “priority security zone” to this end.[vii]

[Later in the day our SOAS Ceilidh Band joined the protest march in solidarity with the “sans papiers”. Led by the “Rhythms of Resistance” samba band from Lille, we marched from the Place d’Armes to the Town Hall, where we all stood in a two-minute silence, our mouths gagged with white bandages and scarves, a symbolic protest against this act of summary censorship.]

Refugee squats harassed and destroyed by police

At the port is a large area of tarmac left abandoned by the de-industrialisation of the harbour area. Every day a group of volunteers arrives – at 2.00pm and then again at 6.00pm – in a minibus, bringing food, fruit, pots, plates and a trestle table, to feed the migrants. Currently about 200 in number, from many different countries, not least from Eritrea and the sizeable contingent from Syria, driven into the desperation of refugee flight by the horrors of war in that country. Around the perimeter are built-up benches where the men can stand under scanty roofing to eat their daily dole in the cold and rain. The ethnic groups tend to keep themselves to themselves – in part because of language problems, in part to avoid the occasional flare-ups between angry young men trapped in desperate circumstances. After supper the Muslim faithful gather at the wire-fence corner and perform their prayers on small mats placed on the tarmac. The quiet and decent observance of spirituality. Recently the Council added barbed wire to the top of this fence, to add to the gulag effect, but it was removed during the night by No Borders activists. 

A few hundred yards to the west of the feeding-lot stands the magnificent Calais lighthouse. A beacon of hope and security that pulses like the heartbeat of this town. A thing of mesmerising beauty, especially when the full moon is rising behind it. At the foot of the lighthouse is a plot of land, the remnants of the railway marshalling yard where once – in days that I recall with pleasure – the railway trains used to arrive directly at the harbourside to collect the passengers as they disembarked from the cross-Channel steamers. Today the tracks are rusted, truncated and useless, but the yard has found a new purpose – it is here that the Syrian refugees have set up their camp. Huddled close to a moth-eaten hedge to get some kind of shelter from the wind. Better than the wind-exposed realities of the “Jungle” – the migrant hiding-places in the sand dunes by the sea, where the migrants build makeshift tents that are regularly raided and destroyed by the police. Here, in full public view, the Syrians seem to have gained temporary respite from persecution. But winter is about to descend on them, and it will be bitter, not least for the young children who are part of the encampment.

The men with whom we talk include Africans, Egyptians, Eritreans, Albanians, Afghans and the large contingent of Syrians – 60 or so – who staged a mass protest in the port area a fortnight ago. During our stay one of the young Syrians, a neatly-dressed gentle young man, explained how his mother and father had been killed in the war in Syria, and he and his colleagues – all without papers – are trying to find a way to reach England. He wanted advice about how he could pursue a request for asylum, because there is nobody in Calais to give that kind of advice. It was for that reason that they occupied the Port facilities – demanding to see a representative of the British government.

It has been said that the confiscation of speech is the beginning of exploitation. By the same token, the acquisition of voice is the first step towards citizenship.

The migrants need voice. They and their supporters need democratic spaces. They need medical care, integration and education for their children. All this would be normal in a civilised society, but Calais is not a civilised society. And of course voices need listeners to hear them.

This was the thought that brought us – to Calais.

Ethnomusicology on the road

“We” are the SOAS Ceilidh Band from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Fiddles, flutes, drums, that kind of thing. We like to travel. Travel with musicians is the best. Especially travelling in a spirit of solidarity. “Ceilidh beyond Borders!”  And ethnomusicology in action.[viii]

In mid-October at a Harvest Festival at St Nicholas’ in Chiswick we played a special hornpipe – “The Rights of Man” – at the tomb of the artist William Hogarth to cheer his mouldering bones where they lie by the dank muddy shores of the Thames. The following weekend we followed in Hogarth’s footsteps to Calais in northern France, to that strange and liminal place where Britishness finds its first definition. To the “Gate of Calais”, as portrayed satirically by the artist on the occasion of an abruptly terminated visit to France in 1749.[ix] In that year, taking advantage of a lull in Anglo-French hostilities, Hogarth popped over to Calais. He decided to sketch the famous gate, a sketch later published as “O The Roast Beef of England”. He includes himself in the picture and we see the heavy hand of the law about to descend onto his shoulder. Hapless artist, he found himself arrested and incarcerated to face charges as an English spy. True to their perennial vocation, the Calais police promptly deported him, short shrift.[x]

So anyway, we thought, following in the footsteps of Hogarth, and in a similar spirit of inquiry, let us visit this French port town.

The Place d’Armes at twelve noon on a Saturday. Totally deserted. We stood in the middle, took out our instruments and began to play. An ad hoc scratch band consisting mostly of new members, most of whom had not played together before. We learned a couple of sets each of jigs and reels. Watched by eight Albanian migrants perched on a bench, who later became our friends. Nothing ever happens in Calais, they told us. The town is dead. Mind-numbing tedium, in short.

Then to the Salam feeding centre by the lighthouse. Empty warehouse yard, exposed to the elements. Two hundred migrants gathered there, for their twice-daily food dole. Served by volunteers from solidarity organisations, struggling with limited means to do what the French state refuses to do. Arriving through the portside streets from where they are holed-up for shelter in a variety of squats. Once again we take up our position at the centre of the tarmac, by the lamp standard, and we play our tunes. There are only four of us – the others missed their ferry and will arrive later. Our tunes are well received. A light drizzle begins, so our Scottish fiddler has to put away her very expensive violin, and uses mine instead.

Over by the bins an angry row breaks out. A cross-national thing. Between Eritreans and Albanians. A formidable young woman volunteer in a red coat steps in to break up the fight. Two of the young men grab wooden staves broken from a pallet and exit towards the main gate, intending to settle the score outside. The fight comes to nothing, but on the opposing pavement the CRS riot police have arrived. A large knot of migrants on one corner and the police on the other, fortified behind their riot shields. The migrants face down the police.

It happens that we had brought with us an Iranian frame drum (daff). The multi-ethnic community watched with curiosity, enjoyment and some puzzlement as we did a polka set and two of our girls danced on the tarmac. Then one of the Egyptians asked to borrow the daff and within seconds a loud rhythmic clapping began, and the Arab contingent got into a huddle to do an amazing call and response number, pulsing fiercely in the greyness of this portside venue. And all of a sudden there it was, an eruption of pure and simple human joy, joy in song, joy in being together, joy in a shared cultural identity in this alien and unwelcoming land. We won’t forget this moment of pure humanity in a long time. And an elderly French lady, one of the volunteer helpers, came across to thank us for bringing a bit of “gaité” into this landscape of abjection

The Albanian fort

On the Friday evening, walking at the back of the Fort Risban I caught a whiff of woodsmoke. Curiosity was tickled.

This fort has a venerable history in the business of abjection and subjection. In 1346, having defeated the French at the Battle of Crecy, the English King Edward III decided that the heavily fortified port town of Calais would make a fine staging post for English military operations in France. He could not take it militarily, so instead he laid siege. To that end he built a fort overlooking the harbour to prevent ship-borne supplies arriving. After a year the Calaisians surrendered, and in a famous moment of humiliation Edward ordered that six leading burghers come out of the town gate  wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and the castle. This was done, and the men expected to be executed forthwith. However the king’s wife Philippa was expecting a baby, and asked for the men to be spared, to avoid ill omens.  This event was immortalised by Rodin in his famous sculpture “The Burghers of Calais”, of which one copy stands in Calais, and another next to the Houses of Parliament in London. A striking story, which exemplifies the constant to-and-fro of the possession of Calais, between France and England (in whose possession it remained until 1558). Such a history makes for very strange liminal identities.

The fort is still there. Modified over the years, with Napoleonic stone-built angularities. Looking out over the enclosed space of the harbour to the ferryport, with the brightly lit ships of P&O and DFDS ferries moored in the middle distance.

At night, walking across the swing bridge, I saw a freshly laid bed of cement. Somebody had scratched a slogan into it “No Borders”. A little thought that will last there for years to come. At my back two men passed. Speaking a language that was not French. I knew the sound of it from the stonemason migrants on the Greek island of Hydra. It was Albanian. The men disappeared into the dark down a track that led to the inner recesses of Edward III’s fort. Curiosity newly aroused. Woodsmoke and migrants means a camp. And in a camp there are stories. So I plucked up courage – seriously so, because it was pitch black and scary – and came around the point.

With a “hey” and a “ho” I approached them and they approached me, and in no time at all we fell into conversation. Warm, cordial, friendly. They told me of their travels and their plans. London. Not as some fantasy reality, but as a concrete problem. One of them had been living in North London, has been deported, and was now trying to return. We talked of the job market, the building trade, the police, and this and that. Were they waiting to jump a passage, I asked. They were non-committal. “We’re waiting to see what will happen.”

As it happened, the following day the detail was filled in by two of our girls (fiddle and spoons). Arrived by hitchhiking, valiant stuff. With a Turkish truck driver, shipping between Birmingham and Düsseldorf where his family live. He explained to them aspects of the migrants’ art of entrism. As is well known to all lorry drivers, there is a sharp corner in the road at the entry to Calais port. At that corner the migrants wait at night. The lorries are obliged to slow, to take the corner. A bunch of migrants will rush the lorry from the rear. They climb onto the top. They slit the canvas with knives and climb inside to hide. In the hopes of getting transit across the Channel to England. At the embarkation checkpoint the border police have a rigorous system of migrant-spotting technology. Machines that detect heartbeats, heat-sensor machines, drug-sniffer dogs, X-ray machines and more besides. But still the migrants get through.[xi]

Multiple cross-cutting layers of poetry and paradox, here. These men, snugged in the dimple recess at the heart of the fort, their makeshift tents pitched below the gun emplacements, their wood fire licking flames up the wall. These men, watching and waiting, like the besiegers of the fourteenth century who sat here year-long by their fires waiting for Calais to capitulate. These men, battering at the securitised borders of Britain. These men, in their very own fort, sublime, its panorama outreaching to the dark and uncrossable waters of the North Sea.

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country, and the awaking mountains.” James Joyce, Ulysses.

The next night we returned. We had promised the men a party. To break the  tedium of their seashore existence. We shook hands all round in greeting. We marvelled at the amazement of this place. We brought instruments. But in the end only one instrumentalist played – our Iranian santur player. A promise to one of the Afghan migrants who had joined our party. Willing hands held the santur off the ground while our man played. Over here, all was intimate and dark. Over there, all was bustle and light, of the ships and lorries and cranes that are the commerce of Calais. Water, breeze, ancient brickwork, glow of fire, a magic that we all of us felt. And then a sudden shock. A voice called out excitedly – “Look, look!”. Across the water, at the midpoint of the harbourline, the full moon was rising, breaking clear of the horizon. Venus anadyomene. Through flecks of cloud. Straight and direct, into the sky. And the santur, with its myriad strings and multiple harmonics, played to musicate the moment. And, as seriously as I have ever said anything serious in my life, our heads and our hearts – ourselves and the Albanians alike – were bursting with the wonderment of it all.

And so saying, we exchanged addresses, and on our way.

C’est tout. I have nothing further to add. Except, in conclusion, a couple of practical matters.

Come to Calais: To see is to know

The call has gone out from the good people of Calais Migrant Solidarity, to all concerned persons to come to Calais and help support the migrants. Blankets and tents are needed – they are regularly torn up and trashed by the police. Cameras are needed, to photograph the excesses of the local police. Willing hands are needed, to cook, bring and serve food at the feeding-lot. Lawyers are needed, to assert the rights of these displaced persons. All that, and more besides. It is very easy to get to Calais. The return journey by ferryboat from Dover costs £8, or even less if you shop carefully. They ask that you take the step, catch the ferry, make the trip, and come and see for yourself on what sick foundations the Europe of today is being built.

If you want to travel over, you can write to Calais Migrant Solidarity at

The Radio Calais of my title does not in fact exist. I invented it for the purposes of this article. However it needs to exist. It is a project for the future, when we shall be returning to Calais in February 2014. We shall bring audiovisual equipment to record the sounds and stories of the Calais migrants. In the fulness of time you will find these interviews online at SOAS Radio.[xii] 

And now, dear reader… If it happens that you have read this far, I thank you for your forbearance. The account is rather bitty. Gathered from scraps of jottings made in odd corners on boats and trains. One does what one can… Onwards and upwards…

PS: You will find the film of this tour at 


[iii] In Greece last month, in an attempt to root out Golden Dawn fascists, racists and brutalisers from within the Athens police, the authorities (i.e. the police) raided the Omonia Square police station and arrested members of their own force.

[iv]Imogen Tyler, Revolting Subjects, Zed Books, London 2013, pp. 76-7..

[viii]SOAS Ceilidh Band tour to Iraqi Kurdistan:

[x] David Wallace, Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004.

[xi] So too do illegal lorries full of beer, wines and spirits. Up to a hundred per week. Loaded at the booze depots which are a Calais speciality. The police know about it but do not stop it.

 * Ed Emery plays fiddle in the SOAS Ceilidh Band [School of Oriental & African Studies, London]

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