Of Migrants and Mariners: What’s Really Going On in Calais?

The Ferryworkers’ Strike

We wonder if the strike of 600 ferry workers in Calais would have been reported at all if it were not for the impact it has had on the UK economy and those of its citizens taking their cars to the continent for a holiday? From the perspectives of those quaint and loveable humanitarians – Daily Mail, Express etc. – the tragedy is that there are 8 mile plus queues of trucks looking to export goods on the M20. It is also a tragedy that people are having their holidays disrupted because of the problems relating to travelling across or beneath the Channel. It has been loudly announced that not only have these problems occurred regularly over the past few months but that they are costing around £750,000 per day of disruption, also that, of course, they are all the fault of striking French workers. But these are inconveniences (annoying if you are involved to be sure). The real tragedies are being experienced by the ferry workers who are losing their jobs, the asylum seekers who are desperate to get to Britain and the lorry drivers who are caught in the middle of this.

It’s true that the ferry workers are showing a degree of militancy which perhaps should be copied elsewhere. However they did not start this episode of class war. Before looking at the tactics of the strikers we should explain how this strike started. It started in May 2014 when the British Government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) deemed that Eurotunnel’s operation of both the Channel Tunnel and some ferries was a restraint of trade. Eurotunnel was forced to sell off two of the three ships it bought from the previous bankrupt French company SeaFrance. But the workers were part of a cooperative (SCOP SeaFrance) which also leased the ships Rodin and Berlioz under the new name MyFerryLink. They were not consulted about the new deal despite making a failed bid to buy or re-lease the ships themselves. MyFerryLink actually won a case in the British courts to overturn the CMA decision but Eurotunnel went ahead with the sale anyway. Their own profitability actually demanded it. Eurotunnel made it clear that they had not been offered enough by the cooperative before signing a binding contract to sell with the Danish company DFDS for an undisclosed sum. It soon became clear that the price of this sale would also involve the loss of about three quarters of the 600 jobs. When the cooperative found out that the ships had been sold to DFDS they were furious and their union Nord Maritime took the case to court. Unsurprisingly the French courts found against the cooperative at the beginning of June and this sparked the wildcat strike.

This has been no token action. After all, the alternative was to meekly accept the job losses. These workers are fighting for their livelihoods. Not only did they occupy the two ships but the Rodin also blockaded the harbour entrance at Calais. This started off the tailbacks which have been slow to decline ever since. And because the villain of the piece was Eurotunnel the strikers divided their forces, with several hundred picketing the port whilst a smaller number blocked the tunnel rail link with piles of burning tyres. Eurotunnel management have been loud in condemning everyone else from the striking workers (just getting drunk on the duty frees in the occupied ships according to their version) to both governments and demanding compensation. And it’s also the workers fault that hundreds of migrants have been trying to rush the ferry terminal or the queues of lorries which back up down the A16 motorway waiting to get the shuttle. Or is it? What the mainstream media didn’t say is that the police then decided to attack the pickets (there are videos of them pepper-spraying strikers) and whilst they were engaged in this the migrants camped in the area saw their chance and began to rush the lorries and the terminal in a desperate bid to get to the UK.

Tragedies of migration

We have written before about migrants being rescued at sea in the Mediterranean or losing their lives through sinkings[1]. So far this year the numbers dying at sea attempting to cross the Mediterranean stretches into the thousands. The numbers rescued from vessels barely afloat or simply set adrift goes far beyond that. Last year around 3000 died at sea attempting to reach Italy. This year around 153,000 migrants from outside the EU have been logged as making their way to the EU. This, of course, does not include those who have remained undetected as migrants.

Capitalism today has created a truly wonderful world. From Sudan to Syria, from Congo to Crimea, imperialist rivalry leads to the death, rape and displacement of millions of the poorest people on the planet. Some of the survivors then risk their lives and pay people traffickers small fortunes to try to get to the “rich” (for some) coun­tries. The traffickers take thousands of dollars from those seeking to move to the EU – what they regularly receive is being dumped in leaking vessels that can barely keep afloat and regularly do not. Sometimes it is just a case of being thrown onto a large inflatable dinghy and set adrift. Where the vessel is “seaworthy” their living conditions rarely include access to water, food, toilet or washing facilities. In many cases there have been deaths suffered on board – pregnant women, young children and the old.

It is often the case that the hopeful migrants are coming from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and other parts of Africa and the Middle East. They have many different motives but nearly all relate to the disasters capitalism and imperialism have created around the world, especially in Africa and the Middle East. A few wish to escape intense poverty, but the vast majority are refugees seeking asylum from civil war, attacks from terrorists or just plain criminal groupings (and here we can include incumbent governments and totalitarian regimes).


Calais has been a magnet for many migrants (overwhelmingly asylum seekers according to official figures) trying to get to the UK. This is already well-known. Many of them found shelter in the Red Cross Reception Centre at Sangatte until it was closed in November 2002. Since then squatters’ camps occupied by the migrants in and around Calais have sprung up. It is not simply one place or camp but a series of them. The original main camp known as the Jungle was attacked and largely destroyed a little while ago. This was a camp set up in the woods close to the Port of Calais following the closure of Sangatte. In 2009 French police used bulldozers and riot officers to destroy the camp. Further camps have been established including one in a landfill site. There are times when food, water and other help are provided to the camp and its various inhabitants – the main Jungle 2 regularly has at least 3,000 residents – given by a range of humanitarian organisations including the Red Cross. Others have taken over abandoned houses in various areas.

Local police regularly attack such camps and dwellings. It is often the case that people are detained. On one occasion police detained nearly 300 Afghans. The conditions for the people there are horrendous – there are no proper facilities and there are regular fights and other disturbances. In some cases there have been makeshift gangs in operation attempting to control aspects of so-called 'life' in the camps, the supply of food and water among other things. Recently there was a pitched battle between Sudanese and Eritrean migrants over control of a choice area around the Port terminal, which they believe is a key area for gaining access to transport into the UK.

Migration – A Consequence of Imperialism

Throughout the history of capitalism the working class has been a class of migrants. From our point of view we have moved to either find work or because pogroms and persecutions have driven us out of our original homes. And the capitalists have benefitted from this migration at every turn as they get a biddable workforce as a result. Now they play a double game publicly condemning these despised “economic migrants” who they say only come to claim benefits whilst quietly lobbying the Government to make sure that migrants can arrive to cheapen the cost of labour generally. It’s a double whammy. Public racism over the beauties of Britain to con workers here whilst ensuring private profit is not damaged. The Government and media have not been slow to rack up the nasty racist propaganda with references to the “hordes”, or as a “swarm” of insects waiting to pollute beautiful Britannia. It has much in common with Nazi propaganda used against the Jews in 1930s Germany even if the purpose is mainly to disguise the ineptitude of the Government response.

For many workers here the idea of enjoying the “benefits” of austerity makes the current attraction of the UK seem a bit of a mystery. In fact many European countries (Sweden, Germany etc) already take far more asylum seekers than the UK. However for some the UK is the target for more complex reasons than money. An individual asylum seeker is entitled to more per person from the French government in social security than from the British government. The attraction of the UK for many migrants relates partially to such things as differences in social policy such as benefits rules. It is easier for those with children than in France where there are no extra benefits payments for those with children. Some migrants do prefer to move towards Germany but often because of other migrant communities already established there – for example, there is a large Turkish minority in Germany. There is no doubt that the prospect of joining an existing community of a shared culture has always been an attraction for migrants. For many there is also the language factor as they already have some English but for most it is simply a case of the likelihood of finding work – the UK unemployment rate is a bit lower than in places such as France, Italy and Spain. For some the fact that the UK does not operate an identity card system provides a particular attraction so it is easier to avoid being hassled by police on a daily basis or to find a job in the black economy (now estimated to be worth 10% of GDP). Apparently too the UK (unlike France, offers asylum seekers accommodation whilst their claims are examined and you are approximately twice as likely to get leave to remain as an asylum seeker in the UK as in France (2 in 5 as against 1 in 5). For many who have risked everything crossing sand and sea to get to Europe the prospect of death on the final leg to the UK (9 have died since the beginning of June) seems a worthwhile gamble.

The composition of attempted migrants into the UK and other EU countries has also changed over the years. Some years ago it was the case that the majority of those making the journey were largely Afghan, with large numbers of Iraqis also travelling. Now it is very much the case that East Africans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese as well as those from war torn areas of the Middle East are coming. For the Sudanese it is the problems in Darfur as well as the general problems in what is now South Sudan which have caused a lot of people to attempt to flee – from the fighting that has taken place, internal problems with the regime as well as general conditions of poverty. For those coming from Syria and Iraq, in particular the northern areas the reasons for getting out do not need to be stated. The tragedies in Assad’s Syria and the fallout from the Iraq debacle (now with the rise of IS) are well known.

It’s no accident that the migration patterns described above shift with new episodes of imperialist war. As the West keeps plundering these areas or supporting their various surrogates in the region the massacres and the mayhem increase across the world. Even where the West is not directly involved the “collateral damage” of the world economic crisis is increasing tension for scarce resources between people who have lived close together for centuries. The solution would be for the West to stop inflicting war on these areas so that they can become habitable again but that will never happen. The bestial imperialist appetites of world capitalism for control of resources and new areas for investment are central to how the world works. As long as an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism exists the situation will only get worse for millions of human beings across the globe.


[1] See leftcom.org

Sunday, August 2, 2015


As you well know, crisis-ridden capitalism doesn't just affect places elsewhere, there are tons of problems in the UK too. Do you consider that there should be no limits whatsoever set by any UK government on the numbers of migrants allowed to enter the UK irrespective of the views and conditions of workers already in the UK ? I continue to think that even if the entire population of the world was proletarian (or, of course, post-world-revolution, nonclass), and all had green skin and all spoke a world language, even then there would need to be some sort of agreed limits on density of population within localities, regions, territories. Frankly, no matter how dire the problems and causes of them, just dumping them all here is not on. What's more, just coming the 'imperialism is to blame' argument won't do. Certainly imperialism plundered, but it also introduced technological advance, so that railways and machinery were installed. Britain itself was largely overrun and occupied by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, but then went on to initiate the industrial revolution. Africa has vast animal, vegetable and mineral resources, but so far those have not been used effectively there in that vast continent by Africans for Afrcans, where some have been more interested in tribal warfare rather than internationalist workers' councils.

T34, I know you are not a racist but I can't help thinking that your approach to this is very "Daily Mail" and seems to assume that in a future world where the principle of "from each according to their ability to each according to their needs" nothing would change. The people who are so desperate to come here, according to their own testimony, would prefer to stay where they come from except there is no longer a "home" for them in the first place. Also the people in the Jungle at Calais constitute 5000 at most. They are not a horde or a swarm and many other European countries have offered asylum to many more than the UK. They are young and have education and skills that would be useful to a country where the average age of the population is getting older. The article points out that in world which is not devastated by imperialist war the problem of refugees (which is the real problem) would not exist. You don't seem to realise that the problem of Africa is that it is looted by imperialism (the Congo being the classic example) and even the remaining tribal conflict arises because of the artifical boundaries created by European imperialism - the refugee crisis is the consquence.

Editor, well thanks for printing my comment, because it is encouraging to tentatively assume that your readers be allowed to examine some arguments at variance to your own, although you ban blogging from sites with which you disagree, which might limit the extent of overall awareness. You continue to cling to the hope that some day this planet will be run on the basis of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs, despite the rapid growth in population mostly untrained in the necessary abilities to run a planned world economy at a sufficiently advanced level. Even at present, for production, vast numbers of people are surplus to requirements. I assume that you reject the Maoist line of the 'third world' attacking the 'first world', so no doubt the ICT has some more explaining to do. Whether we like it or not, mass survival is competitive.

Like Cleishbotham I too continue to cling to the hope that one day things on this planet will be much better for everybody on it. That "vast numbers of people are surplus to requirements" sounds like Stalin or Hitler talking, but of course it's true and you are right T34. But isn't it a terrible thing to have to own up too? However your insight needs completing as follows. "Vast numbers of people are surplus to CAPITALISM'S requirements." This is the awful truth and the final indictment of capitalism. That human beings can be surplus to its requirements. Of course what capitalism really requires today is a massive war to destroy everything and possibly provide the capitalist system an opportunity to start all over again. I say "possibly" because capitalism's next war - essential to capitalism's unchallengeable requirements, as you might agree T34 - might find us all surplus and dead!

Mass survival is horribly and nauseatingly competitive under capital and, like it or not, we would all stand a much better chance of survival if we got rid of it, and lived productively for each other not for profit.

Thank you, Charlie, for your response. How long have we got ?! In feudal times some folk probably thought that it would be a good idea if we just got rid of feudalism... I doubt if capitalism will just go away for any reason, apart from vast war. What might slow it down in its set warlike tracks would be to keep reminding its owners that if they intend to keep making profits, then there's no advantage to them in destroying vast areas of sources of the raw materials that it needs for its overproduction, let alone its customers. I recently happened to meet a young person on the street promoting Greenpeace. I suggested that it would be helpful to curb the functions of capitalism and asked her if she had considered that. I gave my copy of RP and Auroras to her. I am trying to thin out masses of all sorts of political paperwork which has accumulated and so emight even read some of the books which each seemed interesting and maybe even necessary to read in order to raise my consciousness, but need some mellow jazz to try to stay sane. "You're joking!" did I hear you say ?! Then there's laundry and housework... prior to revolution, which doesn't seem likely..and for which I would be totally useless. Cheers.

It has since occurred to me that there seems to be a political parallel between what a GP said about a hernia, which might cheer you up. Harking back to my comment that feudalism and capitalism didn't and won't "just go away", he said that it needs to be operated on, but the surgeon advised that a skin problem above it needs to be cleared up first, to avoid infecting when inserting a mesh. Any intepretations I leave to you !

There is a Yiddish joke : 'Your health comes first. You can always hang youself later'. (I'm not Jewish and can't speak Yiddish, but knew two authors who did in London.).

I must come back on the explanations provided by Cleishbotham and Charlie as to why migration into Europe is occurring. Explanations of motives for a set of actions are not necessarily justifications for them, when the actions, however understandably and strongly motivated, impinge upon the largely opposing motives and circumstances of the unwilling recipients of the results of the actions. Imperialism no doubt is a major cause of what is going on, but that doesn't oblige workers across the UK and some of Europe to have to make amends for that now, by being, yes, invaded, by the victims of imperialism. Since Marx and Engels in their 1848 book asserted that workers have no country, many avid students of their ideas have taken that to mean whatever they fancy, including urging all comers to be made welcome if they are workers, by and for and of an imagined internationalist proletariat. However, in fact, all over the world, workers very much do associate themselves with the localities in which they were born and generally grew up, and that will continue to be so as long as humanity exists, no matter how widely they travel. If I wanted to live with Africans, Arabs, Asians, I'd best go to Africa, Arabia, Asia, but I don't, so won't. Since I started paying income tax 61 years ago, no one has asked me if I'd agree for some of it to be spent on Africans, Arabs and Asians. Since then, there has been such a massive influx of foreigners and chaos of capitalist economics that for anyone to tell me, for one, that yet unknown thousands more should be allowed and welcomed in is just not on. The growth of population makes people feel affinity with Sartre's view that 'hell is other people'.

Sartre may have been a great commie bourgeois-Stalinist style, but he was right is saying that hell is other people, which I guess is why it's quoted so often. But it's because of capitalism that other people become hellish. Because of all the competition for everything, the shortages of everything, the misery of the everyday struggle for existence, and the existential hell of life under capital's dictatorship. Sartre might have got even nearer the truth if he'd just said "hell is capitalism for ever."

Thank you, Charlie. You might like to compare Sartre's view with one of Dmitry Pisarev's, in saying that 'the more developed a nation is, the more complete is the independence of the individual, and the safer the individual from encroachments by another'. Born in 1840, he died in 1868, writing plenty and generally known as a Russian nihilist, but I reckon he deserves more recognition than that, at least for his defence of materialist science. In his day, terroritorial space was less congested overall than it is today of course, but poverty and its causes concerned him greatly.