The Occupation Continues

Tomorrow, the occupation of SALAM by the inhabitants of the three camps evicted yesterday will enter its fourth day. They arrived early Tuesday morning, in anticipation of the destruction of their homes, at the food distribution center, which is normally closed except for an evening meal (and lunch on the weekend). They were looking for a safer space to stay, protected from the wind, the rain and the police, but also for a place to take a stand, to demand access to basic services and political consideration from the government, locally and across Europe.

Over the course of the day Wednesday, as bulldozers razed the grounds where more than 600 people had found shelter, people continued to join the occupation. Members of all the communities represented in Calais came together to plan a response to the brutality of the prefect’s orders and the uncertainty of their own situation. They decided to stay in SALAM, demanding that the prefect make an offer for their future or at least tell them where, in the end, he thought they would go now. Instead, he sent the police.

Shortly before 10:00 am, the gendarmerie cut through the fence and attempted to enter the grounds by force. Barricades were quickly assembled and those who managed to break through were forced to retreat. Confused and seemingly without any plan for how to proceed, they stood mutely on the Rue de Moscou, waiting orders.Meanwhile Serge Szarsynski, the director of the Direction départementale de la cohésion sociale, had been charged with the difficult task of convincing everyone to get on a bus surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of cops and go – somewhere. Where, he could not say (at first, he claimed Sécours Catholique, a rumor they vigorously denied), but he promised it would be very nice there and everyone would be happy and clean. Few people were impressed. The charitable mask stretched over this operation (treatment of disease, hygienic concerns, etc.) was beginning to tear and the bared teeth of racism were visible beneath.

Soon, he was forced to start negotiations with representatives of the occupiers. At first he demanded they leave SALAM before he would speak with them, threatening them with a police charge, but the occupiers resolved to stay until concessions were made. Szarsynski backed down and began shuttling back and forth between the occupiers and the prefect. In the end, he promised they would be allowed to remain in SALAM until Friday, and asked that they leave during the next day in small groups to find somewhere out of the way. He did not know or care where they might go, as long as no one would have to see them, but he promised they would not be harassed on their way.

Just like the government’s scare tactic of scabies, Szarsynski’s story began to fall apart very quickly. Several Afghans who accepted the offer of a shower and blanket found themselves 150 km outside of Calais, spending the night in a SAMU social (homeless shelter) – hardly the hotel room they had been promised. That night in the city, some men caught by the police were beaten severely. The message was clear: when the cameras are gone, one way or another, we will make you disappear.

As the occupiers discussed that night and into the following day, many voices demanded something more: it’s not enough just to be ignored and moved out of the public eye, where the police can attack, as they always have, with impunity. “We want rights,” one man said. “We want education. We put our lives on hold to come here, to flee from war and persecution, but we did not come here to live in tents and jungles. We want to start our lives again. We are not animals. Here, I eat once a day and I shower once a week. I am a human being.”

At the end of a long discussion and debate, involving several hundred people and up to six languages, they decided to act “as one hand,” together, finding strength in solidarity. They will remain in SALAM tomorrow morning and stay for as long as they can, demanding a solution, both to their immediate problems and to the larger political situation which created them. They demand a new location in the city of Calais, where they can live together, whether they decide to stay in Calais or continue their journey to England or elsewhere. They demand the creation of sanitary facilities, showers, toilets and laundry. They call for a meeting with the Prefect to address their demands and for a response from the politicians of Europe, who have trapped them here in Calais, and now expect them to disappear.

They also ask for the continued support of the people and associations of Calais and for solidarity across Europe and the world. They ask for you to come and help, to contribute food and infrastructure, to stand at their sides when the police arrive and to fight the border here and everywhere!

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