It has been instructive watching the way the media in the UK, and those who were actually caught up in the ‘chaos’, have reacted to the consequences of the suspension of air travel in Western Europe courtesy of Eyjafjallajokull, have reacted to the inability to travel as of where and when one expects and desires. After all this is one’s ‘right’ if one has the correct passport, the money and, above all, the expectation to be allowed to “pass freely without let or hindrance”.
Instead, travellers found themselves stuck at internal (airports and train stations) and external (ports) borders unable to proceed, to get to where they wanted to be. They found themselves, when they could not afford the hotel bills, having to rough it: sleeping in uncomfortable and often increasingly squalid conditions, on floors and in chairs (the modern equivalent of the park bench?) in departure lounges, wherever they could or were allowed to doss down and wait for the opportunity to proceed; unable to shower and having to wear the same clothes for days on end.
And, of course, the major trope of the UK media coverage was the stoic British / ’Dunkirk’ spirit: the endless queuing and resigned complaining; the polite exasperation at bureaucracy and the lack of information; and the apparent propensity of the (largely European) businesses to seize the opportunity to ‘profiteer’ and make a quick Euro by putting up the price of dwindling resources such as hotel rooms, hire cars, train and ferry tickets was one of the subtexts.* Fortunately, that picture that was counterbalanced by the large number of people interviewed who chose to highlight the positive nature of their experiences, the solidarity and general helpfulness of others and the sheer liberatory adventure of having boring routine existence confounded.
However, from the viewpoint of those of us involved in the struggle against borders and who understand the futility of the concept of the ‘nation state’, the most astonishing and overtly hypocritical feature of the media’s coverage of the whole episode was what occurred in Calais, that transport-bottleneck between continental Europe (and ‘Johnnie Foreigner’) and ‘home’ (‘Dear Old Blighty’).
First, we had the bizarre sight of some minor BBC celebrity deciding to try and do his very minor bit to try and revive the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ (sic) by taking a handful of inflatable speedboats across the Channel to ‘liberate’ ‘stranded’ UK passengers supposedly stuck on the other side of the water (just what he expected to achieve by shuttling a few dozen people back to Dover when the ferries manage to carry tens of thousands of passengers a day is a bit hard to fathom, but that’s celebrities for you!). Only to be frustrated by the collective deadweight of Border bureaucracy, as the Calais port officials (after apparently initially OK’ing the enterprise, only to have second, and probably job-saving, thoughts) passed the buck up the bureaucratic command chain till the Prefect of the Pas de Calais vetoed the whole scheme and the combined Stuka squadrons of EU border policy sank his little ego-fuelled enterprise.
The other vomit-inducing spectacle was the endless shots, hourly updated just in case we failed to grasp the apparent monumental significance (or maybe it was purely one of those endless non-news creating side effects of the 24 hour news experience?) of more bloody Brits queuing for tickets, this time for an average 3 hours we were helpfully informed, in order to get on a Calais-Dover ferry. And to top it all, the Red Cross, who many years before had run another less favourably received humanitarian project in the area called Sangatte, was out in force, handing out cups of tea and emergency blankets to combat the overnight cold to the endless line of people snaking across the ferry terminal car park, as they slowly made their way to the ticket office windows, only 3 of which were open we were also helpfully told (it’s amazing the fact one accumulates from watching 24 hour news).
Now, not demeaning in any way the trauma some people experienced whilst having their comfortable and ordered lives so disrupted by the suspension of air travel for a few days, but the errant hypocrisy of this non-epic saga (the only good think we can say about it is that it cleared the airwaves of some of the interminable coverage of the election) was mind boggling in the extreme.
Has no one noticed the irony that the few days of discomfort experienced by a bunch of privileged Westerners, temporarily stranded on the journey to England by the Calais ‘bottleneck’, occurred in precisely the same town that has been the host of a very different, and largely untold, story of the discomfort (and more) for a group of people also stranded on their journey to England by exactly the same barrier?
Except they have often been stranded for years rather than days and their barrier has added 4m high double fences topped with razor wire to contend with, plus a massive security operation armed with EU laws, CO2 and infra red detectors, sniffer dogs, Eurodac, Schengen, etc. All policed by hundreds of borders guards, CRS and PAF cops; subjected to routine tear-gassing whilst one sleeps in the ‘Jungles’, the sort of shanty town structures that would never pass muster in even the worst fevala; to casual officially-sanctioned brutality, arrest and overnight detention; evictions, theft and destruction of ones personal property; not to mention the exploitation by the trafficking gangs who control the truck-stops and lay-bys and who are more than willing to main or even kill anyone who crosses them (one of the inevitable problems of criminalising a whole class of people is that one renders them open to exploitation by the only people they can turn to themselves for any form of ‘help’, criminals).
And then there is the sort of maiming and killing, that which occurs because of the extremes that these marginalized and desperate people are driven to in order to get to where they want to be, injuries and death in the backs or under the wheels of lorries and on the train tracks in the Channel Tunnel, just the sort of thing that happened to a 16 years old Afghan named Ramahdin just day before the volcano erupted. On April 11 he was hiding under a lorry that was boarding a ferry at Loon-Plage just up the coast from Calais but was found crushed to death. His repatriated body was then caught up in the air traffic chaos at a German airport en route back to Afghanistan.
Yes, these people, refugees from their own countries, are driven to do desperate and dangerous things. Driven by fear of persecution, by desperation and poverty. They have been displaced by Western-led wars fought in their homelands, by Western-inspired post-colonial structural debt-induced poverty; by environmental degradation created by multinational mining company operations or IMF-financed dam building and by civil wars in which both sides have been armed by the same Western arms companies. They have been lured westwards by the global hegemony of the Hollywood lifestyle, Rolex watches and Versace jeans (the modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule, except in reverse, luring people into a form of slavery), to realise Dick Whittington’s dream in a land where the streets are supposed to be paved with gold.
Where are the stories of their epic journeys, which sometimes take years; tales of the circuitous routes that they have had to take to try and get where they wanted to be, to a new safer ‘home’. Where is the outrage at the exorbitant prices they had to pay (often with their own lives) to get there, only to find themselves stuck in limbo, unable to ultimately get where they most want to be because they were born in the wrong place and have the wrong passport/visa/skin colour? And this untold story is not just happening in Calais. It is the same, if not worse, in Ceuta, Melilla, Libya, Turkey, the Canaries, Malta, Yemen, Indonesia, Malaysia, Slovenia, the Ukraine, Mexico, etc. The list is almost endless.
But hey! Let’s look on the bright side. At least the people ‘stranded’ by Eyjafjallajokull’s dust clouds, when they finally did get to take the journey across the Channel to England, whether it was by ferry or Eurostar, didn’t travel terrified by the fear that their long, torturous journey may all have been in vain, that they might be caught by Border guards once they reached the ‘green and promised land’ and be deported back to some detention centre hell-hole in mainland Europe, or even worse, back to a war zone or somewhere where they face the fear of torture or death.
Unfortunately, it seems that some travel stories are far less newsworthy and will not be preserved in anyone’s album of treasured holiday snapshots.
* Hints of “bloody foreigners, you just can’t trust them”?