Traffic snaked back in a long backlog from the ferry port at Dover in Kent last Saturday. Up to 1,000 protesters had occupied the road at the French border controls.
Over 200 vehicles from all over Britain had come to Dover as part of the Convoy to Calais. It was organised by a wide range of campaigns including Stand Up to Racism (STUR), the People’s Assembly and trade unions.
But the French state banned them from crossing the border.
Thousands of refugees are trapped by Britain’s border controls in desperate conditions in Calais. Charities working with them are constantly in need of fresh supplies. So campaigners collected through union branches, community groups and local campaigns.
Over a megaphone Weyman Bennett from SUTR explained, “We’ve got enough aid here to fill up that warehouse in Calais.
“It’s not enough that you lock people out to freeze and drown—when people come to bring them solidarity you send police at the border to stop them.”
The convoy was blocked with just three days notice last week. Some 9,000 people signed a petition to let it pass, and activists proceeded to the border to find it still closed to them.
Student Aishah from Manchester had come on one of the biggest delegations.
She told Socialist Worker, “It’s infuriating—if we’d just been tourists they’d have let us through. They’ve stopped us because we were bringing aid.”
Eurostar worker Arthur, whose RMT union branch backed the convoy, was angry at the hypocrisy.
“It’s all about freedom of movement when they talk about the European Union referendum—but it’s only when it suits them.
“How can they stop us taking aid to desperate people? It’s disgusting.”
Sohail, a social worker from Birmingham, said, “It’s a denial of our human rights, and of everything they say about free movement.”
When the convoy reached the ferry port, cops segregated it off into a separate lane, then let cars pass two by two.
French border police stamped their passports and refused them entry. The convoy stopped to negotiate a collective response. Frustrated drivers and passengers left their vehicles and chanted, “We’ve got aid, let us through! Refugees are human too!”
Getting no response from police, they then marched on the border checkpoint and blocked the road.
The protest was a defiant response to the brutality of closed borders—and it guaranteed the convoy media coverage that helped raise the issue of refugees.
Natalie, an office worker from Swindon, said, “We caused a lot of trouble for the French authorities after they shut us out—and that’s a good thing.”
The scale of support for the convoy had been clear that morning as most of its vehicles assembled in Whitehall in central London.
Some 185 cars, vans, buses and lorries, decked out with flags and placards, stretched down past Downing Street.
Around 200 people joined the send off. Others’ joined the convoy in Dover.
Meru and her friends were there from Newcastle. They have been organising aid trips to Calais for about six months. “Someone has got to do this—it’s the right thing,” she said.
“The media are lying to people that refugees want to come here and take their benefits and houses, or to use the NHS. That’s just rubbish.”
James from Fareham near Portsmouth had been collecting in his church. He said the response had been “phenomenal”.
John from Bolton Unison told a similar story. “We had collections of aid throughout our branch and had lots of positive support,” he said.
“It’s right to draw attention to the plight of refugees in Calais. Our government should be doing more to take responsibility for the crisis it has helped cause.”
A student coach was organised from central London. Shakira Martin, the National Union of Students (NUS) vice president for further education, told Socialist Worker, “Today’s a really important day.
“We’ve come together for refugees and to let them know there are people here fighting for their human rights—and for them to be able to come to Britain.”
In a short rally, Labour MP Diane Abbott said, “This convoy is a symbol of hope and solidarity—and that a better world is possible.”
There were send offs in several cities and towns on Friday night and Saturday morning. Bristol’s new Labour mayor Martin Rees saw off the delegation there.
Nearly 40 people turned up to send off the Chesterfield delegation on Friday. Union branches gave donations for the convoy to take.
Mayor Steve Brunt made an impassioned plea for Britain to admit all the refugees in Calais. On behalf of the council he said he “was proud to be part of this initiative”.
In Sheffield over 40 people gathered outside the town hall to see off the convoy, including several councillors.
Councillor Nasima Akther thanked Stand Up to Racism, saying “there is no place for racism and hatred”. “What has happened in Syria is not the refugees’ fault,” she said. Over 200 people attended a rally for the convoy in central London last Friday.
Speakers included Guardian journalist Gary Younge.
John Rees from the People’s Assembly took on the scapegoating of migrants by racist politicians. “If there’s one fundamental thing about human beings, it’s that they move,” he said.
Collecting for the convoy had provided a chance to take on some of these arguments on the ground.
Beth, an activist in Labour left group Momentum from Warrington, said, “You’d get people coming up saying things like, ‘we should look after our own’. But you quickly realise those people aren’t doing anything to help what they call ‘our own’ either.”
Ferrial from Harlow said, “We did get quite a bit of hostility from other drivers on the way here, some disgusting abuse.”
But Sohail said, “We were just driving out of London, and someone ran up behind us and tapped on the window. This white woman gave us £20 and told us to give it to the people in Calais. That really made our day.”
After cops made it clear the convoy wouldn’t be allowed through, drivers turned back their cars and vans to the French embassy in London.
Hundreds chanted “Say it loud, say it clear—refugees are welcome here!” And “Brick by brick, wall by wall, racist borders have to fall!”
Maria from London said, “We’re showing them that it’s not acceptable to try and make the problem invisible.
“We won’t accept that the refugees in Calais have to live in those conditions, and we are going to shout about it.”
Norwich shop worker Lucinda was determined to keep fighting. “We have to do everything we can,” she said. “Nothing is going to change until ordinary people get up and do something.
“It’s important to get people talking about it—anything that makes the issue harder to ignore.”
Michelline Safi Ngongo, a Labour councillor in Islington, north London, agreed. “They are doing this to make us get fed up and stop,” she said.
“Instead, when we go home we have to ask ourselves what we can do next to show our solidarity.”
For Natalie, the convoy had given the movement something to build on. “We’ve showed a lot of solidarity,” she said. “It was great to see so many people travel all that way, and so many organisations come together in unity.
“We’ve got to keep that going and keep up the fight.”
Some aid did get through on the day (see below). Many groups did manage to take their donations to Calais on second attempts—starting the next day on Sunday.
Clare Mosely from charity Care 4 Calais told Socialist Worker, “They brought a load of food which is brilliant, especially because it’s Ramadan.
“The refugees like to cook their own food in the evening to break the fast.
“They brought a lot of shoes and second hand clothes which is really good because our stocks are running low. But we know there’s so much more stuck in London that we’ll need to get brought over.”
Local groups are setting up report-back meetings on their return to spread the word and build the movement.
Sohail said, “Social workers in the West Midlands donated so much. We’ve taken photos and videos of what’s happened today that we can take back and show them.”
The Stand Up to Racism summit on 8 October is also crucial.
Shakira said, “This is just the beginning of a long fight. Coming back, I’d advise students to set up Stand Up To Racism groups on campus, to campaign locally and be part of the bigger movement.”
Weyman announced over the megaphone, “The solution is simple—we want those people over there brought over here.”
To cheers he added, “We’re not going to stop. We’re not going to give up.
“You can’t stop solidarity.”
Activists got some aid through to help refugees
Some activists did manage to get through, along with the aid that was in their cars and the convoy’s lorry.
Socialist Worker cartoonist Tim Sanders was one of them. After unloading donations at the Care 4 Calais charity’s warehouse, he went to meet the refugees in the “jungle” shantytown.
Tim said, “The jungle is apparently filling up again fast, and looks set to return to a population of 7,000 or more in the coming weeks.
“There are rats everywhere. Residents told us the cops teargas them every day in the late afternoon.
“But they are very resilient, and have organised shops and restaurants of wood and tarpaulin.”
The majority of those currently in the jungle are young men, but there are also many women and older people and around 700 children. Some 150 children are there unaccompanied, vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Tim said, “We went up and spoke to a young boy who was flying a kite. He had come from Afghanistan, and made his way to the jungle more or less by himself.
“It’s very upsetting to see people having to live like that. We met a Yemeni man who told us this is a bad place and they don’t want to be there.”