Home > Commentary > “No borders. No nation. No deportation.”

“No borders. No nation. No deportation.”

This was the slogan that activists shouted today as French police cleared an improvised migrants’ camp outside Calais known as ‘The Jungle’.  The UNHCR has criticised the move. Detailed accounts of the clearing process and of the difficult living conditions which prevailed in the camp prior to its destruction are given (in French and with audio) in Le Monde and (in English) in the New York Times, the Calais Migrant Solidarity Blog, Trust Your Struggle, the Guardian, Time,  the Telegraph, the Times, the Irish Times, the Independent, on the UNHCR website and in this clip from BBC Radio 4. Photographs of the clearing process are here and  here. All are well worth a read/look and Irish readers may remember that we have been in places not so different from this in our recent past.

Eric Besson

Eric Besson

What to think about this episode? It seems to me that the borders-nation-expulsion triptych set up by this morning’s protestors provides the beginnings of a useful framing of  ‘The Jungle’. ‘The Jungle’ raises problems about law’s relationship to space: both abstract – or imaginary- and physical.  At first, we see there a violent encounter between law and an existing local place, as the police remove people and structures from one space (the camp) and move them to others (police stations, and “special centres” for the many minors in the group).

The more important encounters, for me, require us to ‘scale up’ from Calais and consider, first,  the relationship between the camp and the internal space of the nation state. Eric Besson, France’s gloriously titled Minister of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Development Solidarity is reported as saying of the camp: It’s the law of the jungle that reigns there. On the territory of the French republic, the law of the jungle can’t last eternally.’ So the ‘Jungle’ becomes a dangerous space; a space of dangerous resistance, to authority, to law, to the dominance of the French Republic. (And this  discourse of threat leaves no room for resistant narratives, which tried to present the Jungle as a home space, a space for struggles towards a new beginning, a space where solidarity between migrants themselves and between migrants and protestors was possible. And this discourse of separateness absolves the state from responsibility for its production – if the law of the jungle reigns in the camp, it is in response to the immigration law of the state.)  The move from ‘The Jungle’ – a  forced displacement of the already dislocated –  is from a lawless, uncontrolled space to other spaces designated for state control of difficult (criminal, migrant, trafficked, vulnerable) bodies. Is an invocation of the summer’s hit movie District 9 – in which unwanted alien newcomers are forcibly moved from a makeshift camp in central Johannesburg to a new government camp far from the city – much too glib?

The representation of the camp as a threatening space can be traced to another spatial relation; between the camp and the external borderlands of the nation-state . We know, for instance – and the British Home Secretary Alan Johnson reinforces in  this interview–  that events at Calais turn on immigration control agreements between Britain and France; on their joint efforts to reinforce what Britain’s immigration minister Phil Woolas has called ‘the ring of steel that protects Britain’. But if anything, the ‘Jungle’ episode highlights the artificiality of such defensive efforts.  It flags up the interconnectedness of immigration systems in a supposedly post-national era; in which a crumbling European immigration regime – which means that Greece‘s inadequate immigration system can become Britain’s burden by way of France –  connects with population movements sparked by an Afghan war which seems determined to follow Britain  home. The border comes under increasing pressure and is ever more vulnerable to breach. Indeed it becomes vulnerable to breach in mundane ways: the men and boys at Calais waited to sneak on board a passing truck; a  thumb in the eye to Britain’s  ever more expensive border control efforts. Make no mistake, as an article in today’s Le Monde argues – analogising this closure to that of the Sangatte Red Cross base in 2002 – this sort of operation cannot have any significant impact on illegal immigration to Britain from France. At most, the border is reduced to a site for the performance of the remnants of sovereignty, for sending out messages of exclusion; as when white Europeans are allowed to pass, visibly and without trouble through the border at Calais while Afghans must take great risks to do the same.

I am reminded of this fantastic lecture by UC Berkeley’s Professor Wendy Brown, in which she makes the point, among others, that there must be something to be said about the performance of these border control exercises even in the face of their own futility. They underline a dependence on exclusionary structures, a sort  of governmental anxiety which manifests itself as a need to perform and be seen to perform a state sovereignty which cannot exist any longer in its desired form. What else can we say about the deployment of such state force against a few hundred men and boys? It is in this sense that L’abbé Jean-Pierre Boutoille has condemned the operation as ‘un coup médiatique pour dire «regardez, l’Etat fait quelque chose»’.

What can we say then about the relationship between human rights and space? The migrants at Calais are taken to embody, in their mobility and in their desperation driven ingenuity, an important threat posed to the nation-state. But mobility in turn is deployed against them – think of the ‘portability’ at international immigration law of an unaccompanied minor illegal migrant – when the French state offers them voluntary repatriation or the chance to apply for asylum in the country of their first entry to Europe. The mobility of these men is not that of the cosmopolitan world traveller. When they move, they are moved by or at the whim of others. They are mobile because their position is precarious, because they have no space to put down roots. Can they find purchase in the space set apart for human rights? It is telling that Eric Besson  has cast the destruction of the camp, in part, as protecting its inhabitants and future migrants from people smugglers- ‘les passeurs’. People are to be forcibly moved to facilitate a goverment attack on another form of forced movement. This is a discourse which turns human rights into little more than another post in the border fence, and that should be a source of shame.

Photo credit

Categories: Commentary
  1. September 22, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    This is an excellent post. Like other readers, I am sure, I was shocked to see the live, minute by minute (and I have to restrain myself form saying blow-by-blow) broadcast of this on Sky News this morning (although I’m sure it wasn’t limited to Sky) and to hear commentators (although not the presenter, it ought to be said) noting that the UK–where many of thes people were said to want to go–had no responsibility whatsoever for accept people who might want to claim asylum in its territory. This was especially shocking when the people being discussed were Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers, displaced and persecuted as a result of the failure of the UK and other forces acting in those states to successfully facilitate a safe and rights-based transition in their allegedly human-rights-directed military campaigns in these countries. If Besson wants to talk about the ‘law of the jungle’, he ought perhaps to rethink his conception of the political space within which he and his law enforcement officials operated this morning.

  2. maireadenright
    September 23, 2009 at 8:10 pm
  3. maireadenright
    September 24, 2009 at 9:44 am

    And the Guardian reports that many of those evacuated from the camp have taken to sleeping rough

  4. maireadenright
    September 27, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    More from the Guardian on children evacuated from the camp http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/25/young-children-calais-refugees

  1. October 23, 2009 at 2:53 am

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