Different Occupations, Different Voices: Three Opinions on the European Refugee Crisis

Students facing carabinieri after the Ventimiglia No Borders camp was destroyed on September 30th 2015. Credits: Jacquelyn Rudich

From the beginning of summer 2015 until it was destroyed on September 30th, the Ventimiglia No Borders camp, located less than two kilometers away from our campus, arose emotion and unease within the student body. A small community of refugees mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, along with No Borders activists supported by volunteers and French and Italian citizens, had spontaneously established itself there, stranded between two countries between which a border should not even exist. But how should we look at this crisis when its actors engage in such contradictory discourses?

Le Zadig provides you with the voices of three of these actors who will walk you through different opinions on the current European refugee crisis from their different perspectives – local activist, local authority, and European bureaucrat.

By Jacquelyn Rudich & Nesma Merhoum

Special thanks to Alix Burgun, Ana Caldeira Beels, & Ella Carmi.

Alfredo – No Borders Activist

Interview by Jacquelyn Rudich & Nesma Merhoum

What happened on September 30th?

At 5 AM twenty police vans, the carabinieri, the military police, arrived from France. It was still dark, 5:30 AM, and they jumped on the flat part of the rocks and started ripping out tents. It was really bad, there were materials donated by people and bought with the money that people gave us. They ripped everything out, they took the food, but luckily a bit of water was saved. We cowered toward the sea. And they kept us there for basically twelve hours without giving us any water or any food. They wouldn’t let even the people in solidarity who arrived to bring us food. Our lawyer didn’t show up until 5 PM.

We had the force to stay longer, and the migrants wanted to stay longer, wanted to resist.

It’s very impressive when they say: “We don’t need water, we don’t need food, we just need freedom.”

And when they say that, these people who have crossed the sea in a boat with maybe 400 people, a boat drifting to the sea without food and water…

So the migrants were taken on tourist buses to the Red Cross, and us activists were put in police vans that were all waiting to be loaded up, and then they started a caravan all together with all the sirens screaming from the border to Ventimiglia and blocking all the traffic and showing all the people that these dangerous No Borders people were finally being taken away.

Then, if you want all the details, we were put in the commissariat, and they kept us for two hours sitting in the ground, because there were no seats. And they said we were used to the camps, so for that, we could sit on the ground. This was what they said. We could stay on the ground. And they charged us, 49 people were charged.

We were told that one of the charges you faced was an “expulsion order.” Can you tell us about it?

Foglio di via, the expulsion order, is based on their presumption that you are a problem for public order, or even a social danger. Yes, social danger (laughs). This is really offensive, because in the end, we were basically doing humanitarian jobs. We were helping, and even feeling the gap of the welcome institutions. They were not sufficient.

If you see a person starving, and you want to give him a sandwich, in Ventimiglia, you risk a 200€ fine.

Anyway, the humanitarian and political job that we did cannot end up as a public order problem. We were even working on civil rights for everybody in the end, because we noticed that our civil rights can be suppressed, like the migrants’.

We always say that the border can be everywhere, and often the border is represented by the police control. It’s a moving border, and that moving border is sometimes even effective toward European citizens.

You went to Calais, can you describe the situation there? How is it different from the situation at the Ventimiglia camp?

Calais is a free zone – a temporary, free, autonomous zone controlled by the migrants – in the north of France. It is a piece of Africa and Asia (because there is a large Afghan community) shifted to the north of France. Here [in Ventimiglia], it was different. Somehow, the rules of the camp were different from the rules of the outside world. Living there, staying there for days or weeks, will take you a bit apart from the real world.

You know, it was like a sliding door that shuts and opens and there are humans that have to change their lives and forge them according to this. This is basically what Europe is.

What happened on October 1st at the Ventimiglia train station?

After the demonstration, we started collecting our stuff, unsetting [taking down] the tents. Really, the police could see that perfectly, and this police officer came and said, “Two minutes, we charge you.” So he understood we were going – he saw we were going – and he charged us. You know, bringing boxes and having a tent and a sleeping bag in our hands; all of a sudden the carabinieri came from behind and they hit us with their shields and their batons. Four people got beaten in the head, and then everyone escaped.

The phase of the border camp is finished. The camp is over, but the activism and the struggle for the freedom of circulation of humans, for the movement, is still open. The border is still there, always there, and they can come after you, like that night.

Closing the borders is useless, ineffective, and ultra violent. Here in Ventimiglia, we have all seen this.

A Sciences Po student facing the carabinieri at the French-Italian Border. Photo: Jacquelyn Rudich

A Sciences Po student facing the carabinieri at the French-Italian Border. Photo: Jacquelyn Rudich

Natacha Bouchart. Photo: http://www.calais.fr/

Natacha Bouchart. Photo: http://www.calais.fr/

Natacha Bouchart – Mayor of Calais, Senator of Pas-de-Calais

Interview by Alix Burgun, Ella Carmi, & Nesma Merhoum

What parallel can we draw between the situation of Menton and that of Calais regarding the Refugee Crisis?

The migrants that arrive in Calais exclusively and absolutely want to reach England, even at the cost of their lives. Within the last fifteen days, we have seen five new deaths – one death every three days. We are located at the end of a long road; consequently, they are willing to face death to cross the border.

We first witnessed this phenomenon in 1999, when Kosovan refugees arrived in France. Prime Minister Jospin had opened a temporary facility called Sangatte that welcomed more than 3000 refugees. After the Touquet Agreement [2000] was signed, the center was closed. The British government agreed to take all the refugees that were staying at this center, but in compensation, England could impose its own border control system on the Calais border. Consequently, the British Air Force is present in the tunnel and the harbor, along with the French authorities, to prevent the migrants from crossing the border.

After the Sangatte facility was closed, we witnessed the spreading of squats, that is to say, unsanitary places that can go from a house to a whole industrial wasteland, where a population of up to 900 migrants live. These squats have no running water, and therefore no hygiene, which raises a concerning public health issue.

In the migrant population, some people have good intentions, but others are ruthless and willing to deteriorate the situation and commit public offenses.

Besides, since the 2012 London Olympic Games, for which France had to display a perfect image through Calais, there has been a sloppy migrant situation. That negligence allowed some groups called No Borders, involving mainly foreign activicts, to settle in Calais to manipulate the public services.

What kind of manipulation by the No Borders activists are we talking about?

The No Borders activists are extremely idealistic people, who do not have much to do or to think about besides that. They organize public disturbances because they stand against the very notion of borders, in extenso all the public apparatus designed to control and manage the migration flow. In Calais, they express those beliefs by protesting in front of symbolic places like the Calais City Hall during wedding ceremonies. They also locate the uninhabited sites and establish squats there.

We cannot extradite these people, because they are surrounded by very efficient jurists who have a precise knowledge of the grey areas of French law.

However, being in touch with a few No Borders activists from a Menton perspective, we wonder whether they are providing humanitarian support that some organizations like the Red Cross cannot sustain.

They are mainly helping by providing a sharp juridical knowledge that is really valuable for the migrants.

The No Borders activists only give them bad advice. That is good for the migrants in a way, because it allows them to not be registered in our system. Then, they control them. They become their migrants.

What measures have you put in motion since 2012?

The situation got worse in July 2012. We went from 900 to 1500 migrants, which is a increase in a population that was already hardly manageable at our local level. Therefore, we made a voluntary and humanitarian move: Providing migrants with a place to eat, shower, and even sleep in case of extreme weather conditions (0-5°C) in decent living conditions.

And why not establish a permanent night shelter facility?

In France, we cannot merge daytime and nighttime shelter, because we do not have enough space. Furthermore, the government refused to set up a night shelter center because they feared it would create a pull factor… Or maybe the pull factor already exists.

By August 2014, I therefore offered a 15 hectare site to the State, so that the government could create a proper night shelter facility at an estimated cost of 30 million euros. However, they refused. Migrants were, indeed, evacuated from squats, and they settled at this site. However, instead of being welcomed in temporary structures, since they are only here waiting to cross the border, the area became a slum. Today, we call it the Heath [The Jungle].

Mme Bouchart avec Alix Burgun, Nesma Merhoum et Ella Carmi.

Mrs. Bouchart with Alix Burgun, Nesma Merhoum, & Ella Carmi

Today, the State realized that they made a mistake, but the government is doing everything backwards. Manuel Valls visited last September and announced the building of a night facility with the capacity to shelter 1500 people on a site that is already occupied by 4000 people.

A similarly serious situation is that of the companies upon whose land the migrants squatted, like the Tioxide factory, that has the Seveso status of a high-risk site. Numerous companies consequently left Calais, with economic fallouts that nourished a major social crisis, all because of the migrant issue.

Facing this global carelessness, I had to take initiative while sustaining a balance between humaneness and firmness.

When something has to be done, one has to keep one thing in mind: Being firm allows you to be human.

Therefore, I presented a global European strategy aimed at establishing venues in each European country where migrants would be welcomed and informed that they couldn’t cross the border in Calais. Afterwards, the migrants would be provided with a list of alternative European destinations or helped to return to their homeland.

I also asked for the revision – and not the invalidation – of the Touquet Agreement. The British must review their welcoming conditions: When one arrives on British soil, they have a job, because there is no work inspection. They are also granted housing and a weekly 20 to 30 pound salary. All that is a lot for Eritreans, and it is the precise reason why migrants want to go to England through Calais.

So, in your opinion, the welcoming conditions must be harmonized between all the European countries?

We absolutely need to adjust them and create the same conditions in all European countries. The full factor lies in England; therefore, it is where we need to mobilize. Since the British government, and particularly Mr. Cameron, remains relatively strict, the Mayor of Calais [referring to Mrs. Bouchart herself] has to stand against them, or sometimes even provoke them, in order to make them react.

For now, who says what to do?

I am the one who says what to do. Since the very beginning of this crisis, I have been imposing propositions and ideas that have been put into motion by European leaders a few months or a year later.

And how do these leaders react to your ideas?

They have no choice but to listen to me. They must do so, because they do not have any ideas themselves. My decisions are obeyed by the government, the European Union, and progressively starting six months ago, by the British. They started to amend their rules, especially regarding fighting illegal work. This is a positive first step.

What do you think about the European Union project of establishing hotspots [camps where asylum seekers would be “selected” or sent back to their countries]? Don’t you fear that these hotspots would create new spaces of exclusion in every border?

I think that hotspots are a good idea. I understand your concerns, but as I have always said, I would rather have migrants in a proper reception structure than wandering in my city, in my citizens’ gardens, in front of schools, etc. I am also here to protect my citizens, so this whole “pull factor” story is a big joke. I would rather say that the “pull factor” is Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Hollande’s thoughtless declarations.

We are facing a lack of experience and governance, because here in Calais, we always predict the international events two years before they happen.

A year ago, when we noticed the growing influx of Syrians, Eritreans, etc., we warned the government. I was told that this issue should not be talked about, because it would scare the people. Yet, here we are today, facing a situation that we are unable to deal with.

What I am demanding today: A supervised camp, with rules and registered people, because I want to know who they are. It is my daily struggle, my everyday battle.

Behind all the economic and touristic implications of this issue, there also lies an important social crisis that we often forget about. We talk a lot about migrants, but little about the population of Calais. Throughout the history of Calais, we were rewarded with the Legion of Honor twice and with the Order of Merit once. I think that the people of Calais deserve the Legion of Honor again, because they have been remarkable knowing all they have to go through on a daily basis.

Speaking of the latter, how is this problem perceived by the people of Calais?

It’s a fatality. A very heavy psychological weight to bear, which, unfortunately, with the current elections, fuels certain reactions, because the extreme right and left wings politicize the subject very easily, as does the Front National.

Do people align with the rhetoric held by the Front National?

They are fed up with the state of things. You must understand that what you are living today in Menton is the epitome of what we have been subjected to, up here, for 15 years. We have endured social misery and psychological hardship, and an added visual pain, because they have barricaded the entire city. For that matter, I have demanded an economic compensation in the form of local investments, estimated at 50 million euros.

I think that amidst this whole drama, we can still act at the legislative level. It requires first and foremost the strong will of the government, with equal parts equity, justice, and firmness. There is an obvious dysfunction in the judicial system, which means that even though the law enforcement does their job, they don’t have the power or the judicial tools to act properly. Today, we have many migrants declaring themselves as minors, even though they aren’t, with the goal of obtaining underage protection. However, in France, it is illegal to conduct a “bone age” x-ray exam on suspicious individuals.

Though, how do you put in place appropriate arrangements to keep count, without falling prey to the logic of concentration camps where people wore number tags?

It is very delicate, because something must be done, and yet we are always referred to history.

According to what you have told us, there is a very large cultural difference between the refugees and the French population. Do you think that their integration would be possible if the concept of quotas was applied within European countries?

It depends on how it is done. If it is built, if we have progressive and precise plans concerning these families, and if we have the means. I’d like to remind you that we have been claiming for two years that we have no means whatsoever. We should therefore pay attention to what we say, because that’s the Front National’s nest, where they lay the children.

I myself was born to parents of Armenian and Polish origins, having fled from genocide and war, so I know what integration represents. And it’s not easy. You have integration when it is easy to find jobs, but when there is a larger economic problem, it is much more complicated to manage. For this reason, I think that these quotas should go toward the countries that are economically in need of workers.

Every European country has a different response, and I have the impression that we are heading toward the collapse of the EU.

Everyone is selfish. Everyone doesn’t mind migrants, but not in their homes. This is why it is intuitive to impose a global strategy: Schengen 2.

It shouldn’t be shameful to say and to think of the migratory situation; these accords should be revised every five years.

And we could rework the Schengen Agreement following these bases: Say that we return to the frontiers while working on the substance to better organize and prepare things – we can’t go on like this.

So should we pause free movement within the Schengen Zone until there isn’t a uniformity in the receiving conditions?

It’s unfortunate, but leaving the Schengen Zone is the only solution. Evidently, it would be an economic catastrophe. This is why our leaders must seize and process the subject while they still can.

Students waving their identification at the French-Italian border, September 30th, 2015. Photo: Jacquelyn Rudich

Students waving their identification at the French-Italian border, September 30th, 2015. Photo: Jacquelyn Rudich

Photo © European Union 2011 PE-EP

Tom Feeley. Photo © European Union 2011 PE-EP

Tom Feeley – Political Advisor on Values: Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Interview by Ana Caldeira Beels

Were the events of September 30th legal?

Well, if you take it out of the context of the border town, then it is. The police can choose to block a road, or anything, for your safety. You need to separate that from the humanitarian issue, although they happened at the same time. Humanitarian-wise, it was not “nice” or “good,” but also not illegal.

The system is broken. The system is meant to provide food and shelter, but it is broken, there is not enough infrastructure, reception centers, housing, etc.

What would “safe and legal routes” to Europe look like?

Reception centers, for example in Tunisia, where requests would be processed, then people would take a plane or ferry to Europe and be welcomed as refugees. People leave because they are pushed out, because they are escaping something, not because they are attracted by some great Red Cross center.
What about intervening in the region and “solving” the situation in Syria to eradicate the push factors?

Well we tried to “solve” Iraq and Afghanistan before and it didn’t really work out, military intervention would probably be disastrous.

We have the EU Blue Card, for highly skilled people (on the model of the U.S. Green Card). We need a “low-skill” Blue Card.

More voices from the Mentonese students of Sciences Po:

  • A slam poem : Ventimille – 30 sept 2015, by Paul Leclerc (3rd year abroad in Jerusalem)
  • Billet d’humeur, by an Anonymous student
  • De Menton à Vintimille: la crise des migrants en question, by Théophile Lepage (1st year)
  • Stranded in Italy, Chasing the European Dream – An Immigrant Story, an in-depth investigation by Tina Bellon (3rd year abroad in Berlin)
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