Last week, Philippe Mignonet, Deputy Mayor of Calais, dismissed volunteers who travel to migrant camps in the region as ‘extreme left activists and anarchists’ in an interview on the BBC.
This is only the latest iteration in the war of rhetoric that the migrant crisis has become – think of Katie Hopkins’ ‘swarms’, and sigh. However, it also indicates a change in focus by the beleaguered local government, away from the migrants and onto the people trying to do something practical.
It is also a brazen act of sabotage, capitalising on the fact that there is, truthfully, a great deal of ignorance among the public about the reality on the ground. Mignonet’s words are designed to sow confusion among us about what is actually going on in France, and, more worryingly, they imply that a basic act of humanity is an act of civil disobedience. Or worse, a wholesale rejection of European liberal democracy.
Perhaps that is a rather grandiose and rhetorical way of putting it – but it is what we have come to see time and again over the past few months.
Thankfully, the volunteers have been fighting back. A week ago, Calais Solidarity Action UK launched a campaign against Mignonet on social media, challenging his statements. They called on anyone who had volunteered in the camps to come out on social media and tell the world who they were.
It turns out that the hundreds of those who have put in a weekend shift at Calais – helping sort aid in the warehouses, distributing supplies in the camp, building and repairing shelters – are not anarchists. They probably aren’t really even extreme left activists. They are, like the migrants they are trying to support, just people.
People with jobs, families, fiscal responsibilities, pension pots, Spectator subscriptions. Management consultants. Businesswomen. Engineers. Teachers. Medics. Aromatherapists.
Honestly, it’s a big society wet dream. Davey. Eat. Your. Heart. Out.
The results of the #calaisvolunteers campaign have been great to see, but just as importantly they have reaffirmed one thing: that no matter how hard politicians attempt to reduce political debate to a dichotomy of ‘for’ and ‘against’, a ledger of policies ‘why’ and ‘why not’, there are a thousand human narratives that underly and complexify that debate, and must not be disregarded.
Mignonet’s comments obfuscate the reality of what the volunteers are doing. His is a slur campaign against an operation that is actually run reasonably well, in spite of the challenges it faces.
Without a mandate to operate in France, aid agencies like the Red Cross and UNHCR have been supplanted by a charitable group called L’Auberge des Migrants. They constitute a small group of experienced aid workers, a large warehouse, mountains of donated clothing and supplies, and a rotating parade of volunteers, who are registered, briefed, and get down to work sorting, distributing, and repairing.
And that’s it.
L’Auberge don’t ‘run’ the camp. They don’t encourage migrants to clash with police – in fact, they highly recommend all volunteers are out of there by nightfall. They cooperate with the police and local officials – recently an agreement was made to establish a permit system for vehicles near the camp, in order to bring organisation to aid distributions.
They attempt to do the work that the French government ought to be doing.
Mignonet’s words imply that human compassion is incompatible with the formulation of robust, fair, workable policy. And that is the most worrying thing of all.
Check out the Facebook page of CUCRAG, the Calais Refugee Action Group, to see how you can get involved.