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Author: Steve Pile
  • Video
  • 10 minutes

Convoy to Calais

Updated Thursday, 7 January 2021
How should we respond to humanitarian crises in other countries? Steve Pile explores the geographies that underlay the 2016 “Convoy to Calais” protest.

In the short film below, Steve went to central London to witness the Convoy to Calais protest on 18 June 2016. The protest was organised by over a dozen organisations, including the Stop the War Coalition, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, Unison, Humanitas and the Muslim Association of Britain. The plan for the protest was to gather a large number of vehicles, of all sizes, to take aid to the refugee camps in France. Steve asks why the organisers chose central London as the starting point for the protest and why the protest took this form.





Steve Pile (SP): We’ve come to central London today, because the Stop the War Coalition has organised a protest about the refugee situation in the Mediterranean. We’ve come to see the protest and to see whether they’ve managed to gather a huge protest as they want to do. We’re now in the heart of Whitehall, the centre of the government. And we can see behind me the Cenotaph and the war memorials. And we can see the cars beginning to pile up. The plan today is to assemble a large collection of different kinds of vehicles, a convoy to Calais, that will show solidarity with the refugees coming from Syria. Speeches are taking place just opposite 10 Downing Street.

Sam Fairbairn: That the French government has banned the convoy from entering France. But we’re going to defy that boundary. We are leaving Whitehall and we are going to Dover anyway.

Zita Holbourne: Refugees are being scapegoated, they’re being demonised. People that are fleeing from climate change, from poverty, from war, from persecution, deserve to be treated with humanity. Nobody risks their lives and the lives of their family crossing the Mediterranean to try and get to a safe haven and start their lives again unless what they’re fleeing is much worse than what they’re facing. People are living in an absolute hellhole in those camps in Calais, Dunkirk, and other places. And we must send a strong political message.

John Rees: And there are people here today from the Shetland Islands in the north through the south coast who are here to say refugees are welcome here.

SP: Behind me, there are speakers from different organisations. They’re talking about the solidarity that they feel with the refugees. But they’re complaining about geography. They’re complaining about the ways in which the borders have been shut off. They’re complaining about the ways in which our government has failed to help people from other countries. They’re complaining about how people are being restricted from moving across borders. This convoy is meant to be a demonstration that borders are porous, that people should be allowed to move across them. For me, this protest conjures up images of refugees dying in the boats, but even more poignantly, of the image of children dying on the beaches.

There is a geography to this protest. We’re here in the centre of London, because this is the seat of government. This is where the appeal is being made to Parliament, because we’re right close to Parliament Square. The speakers are directly opposite Downing Street. But there is another geography here. There is a geography of war. Behind me is the Cenotaph, and that reminds us that other people have died on beaches. Some part of this convoy is about evoking the Dunkirk spirit. This is a haunted protest, haunted by the deaths of refugees, but also haunted by that sense that the British help people when they’re in distress. They’re prepared to get into convoys, these small vehicles, and go and help people who are on the beaches.

This protest isn’t simply symbolic. It isn't about showing people’s anger, showing solidarity. It’s about doing things. It’s about making stuff happen. Convoy’s just leaving now, on its way to Calais. They came this morning not knowing whether there would be anybody here or what kind of protests there would be. But as you can see, hundreds of people and dozens and dozens of vehicles have turned up to show solidarity with the refugees, to make a demand on the governments to act in the face of a humanitarian crisis. And I think to evoke the Dunkirk spirit.

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