Refugees and the Reflection of Empire
He had been spotted by a Belgian ship off the coast of France near Dunkirk eight days prior, in distress and yelling for help, wearing a makeshift life vest made of empty bottles. The ship had attempted a rescue but the currents swept him away and out of reach.
So it was somewhat expected but no less tragic when on August 23rd, his body was found off the coast of Zeebrugge, the currents having taken him from French to Belgian waters. On his body, authorities found a plastic bag that contained his identity documents, and it was determined that prior to his fatal attempt to reach England, he had been denied asylum in Germany.
It was the first time that the drowned body of a migrant had been found in Belgian waters, but undoubtedly not the first time that one has died there.
So far this year, nearly 1500 migrants and refugees have been rescued trying to cross the Channel from France to England, more than twice as many as the total number in 2018. French authorities have tried to explain this away as being caused by Brexit, and while it is likely true that smugglers have been using fears about Brexit to try to convince refugees to risk the passage across the Channel, that is by far not the only factor at play.
Common sense combined with on-the-ground reporting suggests clearly that the dramatic uptick in people attempting the journey across the Channel does not have as much to do with Brexit as it does with a set of laws passed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government. Those laws went into effect in early 2019, further restricting the ability of migrants to gain asylum in France. Their implementation arose in tandem with an anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept across the European continent, fueled largely by far-right governments who use refugees as a scapegoat in order to push their populist agendas.
Additionally, the French police have been ruthless over the past few years in cracking down on refugee camps in northern France, using violence and intimidation while destroying tents and belongings. And so, knowing that their asylum claim in France will likely fail, and not wanting to live in such conditions as was the norm at the infamous Jungle refugee camp in Calais, refugees knowingly risk their lives in hope that they have a better chance on the other side of the Channel.
And the numbers keep climbing. On Tuesday, September 10th, 86 refugees were intercepted trying to cross the English Channel in five separate incidents, the largest single-day total in history.
A few hours southwest of Calais, in my adopted hometown of Rennes, there is a fast-growing refugee camp, a new development for a city that has thus far been mostly shielded from the horrors of the refugee crisis due to its distance from both the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite the fact that, under French law, the state has an obligation to shelter those with active asylum claims, local governments in many parts of the country have failed to uphold this requirement amidst the ever-growing numbers. In Rennes, with nowhere left to turn, more than a hundred refugees took up residence last autumn in an abandoned building on the south end of town. Aided by a local refugee support collective, they were initially able to broker a short-term deal with the owner of the building. Eviction proceedings then commenced in the spring of 2019, and in late May, the court ordered an eviction. On August 30, the occupants left the building and most of them joined a camp in the Parc de Gayeulles at the north end of Rennes that had formed in early July by other refugees with nowhere to go. That camp had already been growing by 10-15 people a day before the evictees settled there.
The camp overall has widespread support and assistance from local residents, as this city has a long-standing reputation throughout the country for its left-leaning sentiments. But all the support in the world does not change the fact that winters in Brittany resemble those of England or the Pacific Northwest of the United States: unending cold, wetness, and winds.
And the rainy season is about to begin. As of the writing of this essay in mid-September, there are nearly 400 people living at the camp, including at least fifty children.
At the narrowest point, the English Channel is only 33 kilometers wide. On a clear day, one can stand at the coast of Calais and easily spot the White Cliffs of Dover, the towering formations on the other side of the Channel deceitfully appearing to be only a stone’s throw away. And yet, despite the relatively short distance in comparison to, say, a trek across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, the journey across the Channel from Calais to Dover is surprisingly treacherous. It is one of the busiest straits in the world, carrying 25% of the world’s maritime traffic, and the combination of strong currents and cold temperatures spell tragedy for any vessel that overturns.
Despite these dangers, attempts are increasing exponentially. Given the political climate and the never-ending combination of war, poverty, and climate change that trigger people to flee their homelands in the first place, experts estimate that the numbers will only continue to rise. The more that the English and French governments try to restrict border crossings, the more that great risks will be taken to reach the English shore.
And thus, the English Channel has quickly emerged as a secondary theatre in the migrant crisis that have dominated the European press in the past several years, recently sharing headline space with the longstanding primary site for such tragedies, the Mediterranean Sea.
Recently, two German women, both ship captains in command of rescue boats on the Mediterranean Sea, have found themselves the subject of international news for similar controversies that have played out in Italy, simultaneously hailed as heroes and castigated as criminals, depending on which side you ask.
This past July, Carola Rackete of the vessel Sea-Watch 3 was arrested by Italian authorities after she rescued and escorted 40 refugees stranded in the Mediterranean to safety at the port of Lampedusa, in defiance of orders from the Italian government not to dock. The story made headlines across the world as Rackete quickly became a poster-child overnight for the refugee cause, and crowdfunding effort featuring well-known German television personalities raised over 500,000€ in only a few hours. Rackete quickly and simultaneously became a hero of the left-wing movements across Europe as well as the epitomic villain for the right-wing, and the divided reactions around her actions as well as her arrest aggravated already-simmering tensions between European nations regarding this issue, especially between Italy and France.
This follows a similar story from the summer prior concerning Pia Klemp, former captain of the rescue vessel Iuventa which is owned and chartered by the German organization Jugend Rettet. Italian authorities seized the Iuventa in the fall of 2017, alleging that the ship and its crew were collaborating with smugglers, and in the summer of 2018 it was announced that Klemp and other crew members were under investigation for aiding illegal immigration and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Despite these threats of prosecution hanging over their heads, both Klemp and Rackete have made it clear that the investigations will not deter their work or their mission, and that they are willing to risk prison time in order to rescue people stranded at sea.
But on the other hand, accusations of trafficking and criminal activity by authorities have resulted in the grounding of another rescue vessel, the Aquarius, owned by the rescue organization SOS Méditerranée. The Aquarius was involved in a series of controversies that gained international attention in the summer of 2008, when the ship, carrying hundreds of migrants, was denied permission to dock in Italy by Salvini. The government of Spain eventually stepped in, allowing the ship to dock at Valencia, but then a month later the ship was denied by Spain after a subsequent rescue mission, with the government claiming that it was not the closest safe port as defined by international law. The 129 migrants on board were eventually taken in by neighboring countries including France, Germany, and Portugal.
A month later, in September 2008, the ship was once again denied entry into Italy and Malta, with those on board eventually taken in by a coast guard vessel and distributed amongst several European nations.
And then a few months later, SOS Méditerranée and Médécins sans Frontières, who were working in a partnership together with the Aquarius, announced an indefinite cessation of rescue activity. They stated that the ship had become a target of authorities despite their adherence to the law, and that they hoped to resume rescue missions in the future.
In both the United States and Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is grounded in emotion and prejudice, utterly devoid of practicality. In both places, historically low birth rates spell out a potential economic crisis a generation down the road.
Most liberal-minded folks in the US have yet to draw the connection between the dropping birth rates, the cruel determination on the part of the Trump administration not to let immigrants cross the border, and the increasing and alarming amount of anti-abortion laws that have recently been passed in conservative states. They chalk the latter up to pure ideology and the effectiveness of the “pro-life” movement, not recognizing that there’s a practical economic reason for such restrictions. For an administration that has openly embraced white supremacy and has taken terrorizing immigrants to a whole new level, forcing poor white American women to bear children they don’t want is a practical solution to the simple fact that the ruling class of the next generation will need someone to exploit, and if it’s not going to be undocumented workers, it will have to be poor, American-born citizens with no other choice.
Meanwhile in Europe, despite the fact that reports and studies out of Germany have shown definitively that refugee labor is the most practical solution to a declining birth rate and the economic hole that is left in its wake, populist mentalities still run rampant throughout the continent. Eastern Europe, meanwhile, is experiencing an emigration crisis and brain drain so severe that controversial emigration controls are being considered despite the EU’s dedication to freedom of movement for all its citizens.
To Europe’s credit, their answer to the birth-rate crisis is not to force women to give birth but to offer generous benefits and stipends for those who choose to have children. On one hand, it’s a much more humanitarian policy in terms of the rights of the potential mother, but in the face of the refugee crisis and the anti-refugee sentiment that pervades the European continent, it is still a policy somewhat rooted in nationalism and European supremacy.
For the past few weeks, I have been collecting funds and buying supplies for the refugee camp here in Rennes. Admittedly, going there brings on a long-repressed but still strongly active secondary trauma response that has lingered in my psyche since my days on the front lines of homeless camps in the United States.
But once I recognized my reaction for what it was, it was immediately assuaged by the realization that, while living in a soggy tent in a far-away country where you don’t speak the language is a miserable experience for anyone, it’s still an improvement from how the same asylum seekers would be treated had they crossed the southern border into the United States.
In the US, these same folks would be housed in for-profit prisons, separated from their children, and kept in inhumane conditions for which they had no means of escape. For all the misery of tent life in our local park, at least they retain basic liberties in terms of movement. At least they are still with their children. At least they are not trapped in overcrowded cells amidst spreading diseases. At least they were being watched over by local volunteers, not ICE employees.
That’s not to say that there aren’t refugees sitting in detainment centers in France. There are, and the conditions of their detainment have been the subject of controversy, protest, and demands for better treatment. But a for-profit prison industry does not exist here, and thus far there has been a lack of will on the part of the government to systematically round people up the way recent administrations in the United States have done. However, if/when the far right ever gains control in France, which very well may be the case in the 2022 presidential elections, that will likely change.
One factor linking these situations together, one that cannot be stressed enough, is that whether it’s migration across the Mediterranean, the English Channel, or the Rio Grande in Texas, in each case the respective leaders who oppose the presence of refugees are taking advantage of public ignorance of international law in order to paint refugees and humanitarians alike as criminals.
In the cases of Klemp and Rackete, the Italian government accuses them of aiding smugglers and participating in smuggling, when the reality is that, whether they were deliberately acting in a humanitarian role or not, international maritime law requires ships to attempt rescues when they spot humans in distress on the open water. Former Italian Deputy PM and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini has made it a top priority to mislead the public in order to negatively frame the actions of both refugees as well as rescuers, and in doing so is only adding to the crisis.
Similarly in the United Kingdom, current PM Boris Johnson has characterized those who try to land on English shores as “illegal migrants” and has publicly threatened to send them back. The exact same can be said for President Donald Trump in the United States, who arguably has acted in violation of international law by intentionally restricting asylum seekers from crossing the border at points of entry.
Despite the fact that the right to cross a border to claim asylum is codified in an international treaty that came out of the Geneva Conventions, in all of these cases, the mainstream media in each respective country has largely failed in their duty to report the truth. Very seldom are these factors mentioned when reports are made about the comments from Salvini, Johnson, or Trump regarding who is coming over the border. And by not doing do, the media only strengthens the negative public perception around those who risk their lives to start over elsewhere.
As someone who spent years writing about and fighting the homeless crisis in the United States, and who now finds themselves aiding a refugee camp on the other side of the Atlantic, the parallels that can be drawn between the way the homeless in the United States are treated and how refugees in Europe are treated are deeply haunting. As I had written about before when still living in the US, the similarities between camps such as The Jungle in Calais (both in terms of living conditions as well as the constant campaign of misinformation on the part of the authorities) and the homeless tent camps throughout the United States were too stark to ignore or dismiss as coincidence.
And in analyzing the tactics of Salvini, Johnson and Trump, I’m further reminded of those similarities in the present day, as so many of the negative attitudes towards the homeless in the United States (especially in the Pacific NorthWest) stem from the falsehoods constantly propagated by local governments that there’s enough shelter space for everyone, or that those on the streets are there by choice and therefore in violation of the law. In reality, just as refugees have a right to cross a border for asylum, federal courts have ruled numerous times that homeless individuals have the right to sleep on the street in the face of an inadequate number of shelter beds.
In late August of this year, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo decided to award the Grand Vermeil Medal, the city’s highest civilian award, to ship captains Pia Klemp and Carola Rackete for their humanitarian actions at sea. Klemp responded by publicly rejecting the award, calling out Mayor Hidalgo for her hypocrisy in honoring those who rescue migrants while at the same time subjecting refugees and other homeless people in Paris to horrifying treatment and violations of their human rights.
“We do not need authorities deciding who is a ‘hero’ and who is ‘illegal,’” Klemp stated. “In fact they are in no position to make this call, because we are all equal.” (Klemp’s full statement can be read here.)
Meanwhile, former Italian Deputy PM Salvini is currently facing a libel investigation for comments made in his official capacity as Prime Minister regarding Carola Rackete’s actions at sea. Salvini, who was recently ousted from his post on September 5th after a series of political maneuvers that resulted in a new coalition government, has likened the charges against him to a “badge of honor.” And as of this writing, the Iuventa is still in the hands of Italian authorities.
Last week in Rennes, the local government finally responded to the existence of the camp and the demands made by the refugees and their supporters. In a public statement, a spokesperson for the local préfecture stated that it was their belief that the majority of those currently at the camp did not qualify for asylum and that instead of providing lodging, the préfecture would be opening a help-desk next month to assist refugees with “voluntary departure” back to their home countries. To their credit, the préfecture also criticized the landlord of the former squat, Archipel Habitat, for initially welcome the refugees and then later asking the state for assistance to evict them.
A week later on 10 September, in response to the statement from the préfecture and quickly deteriorating conditions at the camp, a group of activists occupied a government-owned building in the center of Rennes in support of the refugees. They declared that they would stay put “until the bidonville (slum) of Gayeulles is closed” and those staying in the camp were given proper lodgings. The group also accused the préfecture of lying to the public the week before, and stressed that under French law, the state has an obligation to welcome and house asylum seekers.
The local government responded by swarming the camp with police on the morning of September 12th, demanding identity documents from each of the nearly 400 refugees camped there. The police declared that nobody could leave without presenting documents confirming that those sleeping there had gone through the proper administrative procedures. Four people were taken away and arrested for lack of papers.
The day after that, support organizations announced that they had begun the process of moving refugees into another abandoned building, an old warehouse at the edge of town. “It’s better than nothing,” stated a spokesperson. “Here there is water, electricity, and heat so to face the rain and cold that will come with winter. It’s here where we will lodge the families with children.”
As of September 15, the préfecture has yet to respond and support organizations have put out a renewed call for donations and supplies.
One could say that the Atlantic acts as a funhouse mirror, reflecting a slightly different version of the current state of Liberal Democracy back to the other side. On one side, those with a conscience are shocked at images of small children crying in cages. On the other side of the Western world, those with a conscience are shocked at images of small children washing up dead on beaches.
Not only are the situations reflections of each other, but their causes are as well: namely, the consequences of Empire. In both cases, the West bears a huge amount of responsibility for the material circumstances that are resulting in children ending up in cages or dead on beaches. In both cases, a significant percentage of the population treats the situation either as an intellectual exercise or simply refuses to acknowledge the suffering and humanity of those who are affected.
And far too many people on each side of the Western world are not realizing what is happening on the other, nor how or why the situations are connected.
The American liberal cry of “we shouldn't be putting children in cages” helps just as much as to say “children shouldn't be washing up on beaches.” Both, while thankfully coming from a place of conscience, still ignore the reason why families are risking their lives and the lives of their children to cross borders into unwelcoming places where they are treated like animals.
Ignoring those reasons…while at the same time benefiting from the actions that lead to those reasons. Ignoring the fact that those who live in comfort under the protection of Western liberal democracies do and have always done so at the expense of those not lucky enough to have been born within the right borders.
In both situations, the right-wing is successfully building more and more power by scapegoating the victims in order to distract from the fact that the systems and policies that their governments support are the reasons behind the suffering. And far too many people, often the same people who are also being victimized by those systems and policies, take the bait.
When I say I'm against capitalism, when I say I'm against Empire, I'm not just talking about consumerism or political theory. I'm taking a stand against the collective blood on the hands of the West, blood which has been flowing without rest for over five hundred years now.
And until we take a stand against that system as a whole, not just its shocking effects—until we take a stand against the disease and not the symptoms, the blood will continue to flow. And eventually the images of live children in cages or dead children on beaches will be the very least of what shocks and appalls us.
NOTE: French-language links can be translated into English (or any other language of your choice) simply by pasting the link into the left-hand column of Google Translate. Further information on the above-mentioned rescue organizations and support collectives: