In the dining room in a cheap hotel in Calais, a table of men are having breakfast. When they finish their coffee and croissants, these men – meaty, booted, uniformed, well-paid – will spend their shift driving around Calais and its bleak industrial surrounds.
They will confiscate the blankets of refugees who are living rough on scraps of wasteland, perhaps setting fire to their tents, or pepper spraying the insides of the tents to make them unusable.
They’ll oversee the blocking off of underneath motorway bridges, to prevent anyone sheltering under cold concrete from the sleet.
These uniformed men — the French riot police — are carrying out orders, their actions sanctioned and paid for by the UK and French governments. An anonymous officer, interviewed by a small French journal last year, said:
“In Calais I follow orders and I don’t think.
At the next table in the hotel dining room are a group of women, aged from 20-something to 60-something. They are not in uniform, and are not paid. Nor are they here on a booze cruise, like the other English speaking people dotted around the room. When they have finished their coffee and croissants, they too will head to an industrial area of Calais, to a freezing warehouse where they will spend the day chopping things.
Oranges, onions, garlic, fresh herbs, bread. Firewood, filling up sacks with kindling made out of smashed up pallets. They will work with all the other volunteers in the Refugee Community Kitchen, helping to make hot dinners for the same people that the uniformed men at the next table will spend their day persecuting.
Which table would you rather be at?
It’s easier for us to forget about the “swarm of migrants” (David Cameron’s words) since the destruction of the Calais Jungle in October 2016. No longer newsworthy, until the latest “migrant crisis” (the BBC’s words) when a few dinghies of half frozen traumatised people washed up on the Kent shore this winter.
People always talk about charity beginning at home; about us having enough home-grown problems. Yes, of course we do.
Calais is two countries away.
But there are problems, and there are human rights abuses; there are problems, and there is state-sanctioned violence; there are problems, and there is suffering beyond reason, beyond humanity. Beyond what makes us human.
In that steamy, bustling, hip hop filled kitchen in a freezing warehouse in Calais, are currently people from Belfast, Barcelona, Osaka, London, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich. Human rights lawyers, chefs, copywriters, accountants, PhD students, medics, teachers.
Still there, donating their time when they can. Still doggedly plugging away, as outside, in hidden places, the people demonised by the media and dehumanised by the state continue to try and stay alive, even as we invent terms like ‘snowflake’ to stigmatise empathy.
What is happening to us?