What the hell is going on in France?

Seriously, I’m at a loss here.

I saw the headlines this morning about a hardline militant strike by port workers in Calais, France, who had set tires on fire on the road leading to the Channel Tunnel to the UK, and I had vague thought of solidarity, and I moved on. But then this evening I discovered that the story had mutated into one about migrants and refugees trying to use the chaos the strike created to sneak onto UK-bound trucks.

And so I thought to myself, what the hell? What’s going on?

So I dug. And here’s what I found out.

Calais is located roughly sixty kilometres from the UK and is the entry point for England-bound European traffic. For this reason, it has attracted thousands of refugee migrants from war-torn countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Libya, who have somehow made their way into Europe, all of whom are trying their damndest to get to England.

Why they want to go to England is a mystery to me. The UK is degenerating into a neo-fascist surveillance state run for the benefit of the capitalist elite, and xenophobia is on the rise. (If you don’t believe me, search “Calais migrants” on Twitter and see what British folks have to say about their situation.) If England is a better choice than France – which it very well might be – how sad is that?

The CBC reports on the stories of some of these migrants:

Ahmed left Syria six months ago, paying smugglers to take him by boat to Greece and then making a long and painful journey overland through Macedonia, Hungary and beyond.

He says he kept expecting the war to end. But when ISIS took over his hometown of Deir ez-Zor he decided the time had come to try and build a new future for his family.

Three children and a wife are still back in Syria depending on his success, he says, so he can send for them. He still hasn’t told his wife he’s sleeping on the streets in France.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees says more people are being forced to flee their homes because of conflict or persecution than ever before in recorded times, nearly 60 million last year alone.

Syrians make up the largest part of that figure…

The camp residents say local hostility towards them has been growing, and many report police brutality.

“French nationality boys hate black boys,” says 16-year-old Xavier from Eritrea. “It’s very difficult. There’s no freedom.”

The growing number of people in the camp has also increased tensions within it. It has its own internal organization with refugees from Afghanistan in one area, Sudanese in another, Somalia in another. And so it goes…

Sitting down for a chat with him has the feel of the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice in Wonderland, but Alpha is far from mad.

“I do it to respect myself,” he says when I ask why he’s taken so much time to decorate the small patch of earth that he is presumably trying very hard to leave behind.

“Because I don’t want people to say, ‘Look this man, he want to beg.’ I’m not a beggar and I respect myself and that’s why I build.”

Alpha doesn’t want to talk about where he’s come from, beyond saying he left there 10 years ago. But he says his circumstances don’t make him any less human.

“People are fighting because they’re hungry. People fighting because nobody care about them. People fighting because not enough water.”

He says outsiders are happy when they hear about trouble in the camp because it confirms their prejudices.

“But we are not animals. We are intelligent people. We have personalities. We have minds.”

European powers for centuries have arbitrarily carved up the world, extracted its resources, pitted its various ethnic groups against each other, deposed leaders, enslaved whole peoples, imposed governments, encouraged conflict – and then after the age of formal colonialism, created artificial crises of debts, imposed harsh punitive neoliberal economic regimes which have cost the lives of millions, sponsored fundamentalist religious militants to take on unfriendly regimes, turned a blind eye to human rights abuses up to and including genocide, and actively created instability for the benefit of multinational corporations and Western political parties’ domestic electoral prospects.

None of these statements is controversial. All are incontrovertibly historically accurate.

Now all that Europe has wrought is coming home to roost, as people flee from the instability which grips large sections of the ex-colonial world. They seek safe haven in Europe, where they are met with contempt and disdain and violence and accusations that they are there to mooch, to reap the rewards of the generous welfare state.

Europeans may want to pretend that this isn’t about the past. But as William Faulkner so aptly observed, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

The historical conditions established by imperial European powers inform the crises we see unfolding in places like Syria and Afghanistan and Libya today. As well, the very recent Western interventions in those nations have wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. For Europeans – and especially European politicians – to pursue war-mongering policies, benefit from centuries of colonialism and resource extraction, and then refuse to deal with their consequences is the height of irresponsibility.

What the hell is going on in France? Racism. Imperialism. Victim-blaming.

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