Undocumented People Undocumented Stories

This is the second of a two part article by Rebecca Nada-Rajah, our correspondent who has just completed  a 4 month, 7000 km cycle journey to Iran.

Undocumented People

It is 5:45 AM. A mobile phone alarm goes off in Calais and a group of No Borders activists rise methodically. As dawn breaks, they sleepily take their positions throughout ‘Africa House’, a decrepit warehouse squatted by undocumented migrants.

An hour passes.

Soon, two vans marked CRS pull up next to the entrance.

At the gate, activists spring to life and blow plastic whistles.

“Police! Police!”
Six officers disembark the vans and stand in a line. One removes a can of tear gas and begins to spray.
The line of activists crumble and the CRS shove their way through. But it is too late- the CRS have missed their prey. The migrants have already woken, grabbed their possessions and dispersed across the courtyard onto the unstable rooftops, where the police will not go. The CRS pile back into their vans to try their luck elsewhere.
The day progresses into an infantile cat- and- mouse chase through the streets of the sleepy French town. The CRS (French riot police) and PAF (French border police) hunt the migrants as they attempt to receive meals from their local food distribution centres.

At any given time, there are between 200 and 2000 ‘sans-papiers’ in Calais, a rich tapestry of stories and lives lived. They are Sudanese, Kurdish, and Pashtun; Somali, Palestinian and Zimbabwean.

Because asylum in Britain can only be claimed from UK soil, undocumented claimants must make dangerous, covert journeys into the country, often under lorries, hidden in containers or small boats. Calais serves as a holding point for migrants preparing to make the journey across the channel, and UK Border Security puts pressure on the local French police to disperse migrants from the area.

The ‘sans- papiers’ are routinely beaten, tear- gassed, detained and evicted, their shelters destroyed, sleeping bags and cooking materials confiscated.
“We prefer to monitor sporting events,” one CRS officer confides.

Viewed from a bicycle traversing vast expanses of land, borders come to seem arbitrary. Speckled across landscapes like service stations, stray dogs and butterflies float freely across  while people and seeds are intensely scrutinized. The Palestinian author Rajah Shehadeh writes of the absurdity of the Israel- Palestine Wall from the point of view of a naturalist observing the local ecology.  “Borders can only work if you internalize them,” Shehadeh observes. “Obviously they stop you so you have no choice, but you have to internalize them for them to mean anything- [we must] begin to see the land as one”[1].

The presence of refugees and migrants seems to offend the deepest sensibilities of those with ‘desirable’ passports. On some level they are a jarring reminder of the fragility of an illusion central to global capitalism- that the spoils of wealth are less a product of ingenuity and perseverance than wars, cheap labour and extraction.

Corporations are quick to capitalize on this sense of unease- the contract for building the southern frontier wall between Mexico and America was won by a company that boasted a top-wire so sharp that it would dismember the fingers and toes of anyone attempting to climb. Motorola, once boycotted internationally for supplying  South African riot police with demonstration-suppressing radio technology during apartheid, now develop “virtual fences” for surrounding  Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Walls all across the earth protect ‘legal’ humans from the ‘illegal’ ones, ‘desirables’ from ‘undesirables’- dividing forests, farms and olive groves- imposing themselves on the undulating landscapes of an indifferent earth.

In de-politicized neoliberal economies, the exclusion of people from land is drained of its ideological significance. Concerns of undocumented peoples are placated with reference to abstract notions of ‘human rights’, “rather than a fundamentally political economic issue of access to resources and autonomy over their use.” [2]
Undocumented Stories

“Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other… For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate- “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.”

-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

It is Mayday in Trbvolje, Slovenia. In a village fıre station buried deep in the mountains under the stars, a spirited community party is underway. Fueled by homemade schnapps, the party is both a celebration of fertility and a commemoration of partisans murdered ın WWII. Festivities will last three days.

Uros, a local farmer, leans over the table and tells of his community’s struggles against Lafarge, the French multinational cement corporation. Lafarge took over a local cement works factory in Trbvolje in 2004 and immediately began to co-incinerate waste. The co-incineration process has wreaked havoc on local ecosystems and has covered farmland within a 2km radius in a thin layer of grey dust. Local hunters have had their kills tested to find heavy metal concentrations so high that animals are deemed inedible.

Lafarge’s presence in  Trbvolje reflects the wider global trend of willfully concentrating hazardous industry  away from areas of wealth. This partiality is made explicit in a report by Cerrell Associates for the California Waste Management Board, openly recommending  that the state and high- emission industry concentrate the presence of hazardous industry in lower socio-economic areas-  as to lower the likelihood of political opposition.

Lafarge’s arrival began with ‘community consultations’ involving tea and biscuits. Residents were notified of the re-zoning and assured of Lafarge’s best intentions for the area. With the realization that their complaints were not being taken seriously, residents began to catch on to collusion between local government authorities and company executives. After 2 years of writing letters and filing complaints, locals recognised the futility of their ‘paper war’ and came together to form a local protest group. Together they have organized roadblocks and occupied roundabouts, galvanizing the local community and gaining wider momentum across Slovenia. Dismay at the decimation of land that has been within families for generations cannot be appeased by tea and biscuits.

‘We complained about the smell. The Ministry for the Environment tells us that smell pollution is not illegal. So for 8 months we collect rotting eggs at the farm. We will leave them near the Ministry for the Environment. The wind will do the work.’
Uros smiles, eyes sparkling.
‘Hey- It is not illegal’.

We tell Uros tales of Scottish anti-coal activists occupying their local forests, of families in French communities dismantling their local McDonalds’, of grandmothers in Turkey resisting hydroelectric dam projects pelting company surveyors with eggs and chasing them off of their land with pick axes.

He perks up. “So we are not alone.”

The story of ongoing battle in Trbvolje is all-too familiar.
Change a few names and some details and it could be the story of community resistance to hydroelectric projects along the Black Sea in Turkey, or local opposition to new coal development in Mainshill, Scotland or in Merthyr Tydfıl in Wales.
But despite involving long- standing localized conflicts, multiple arrests and even deaths, these stories remain curiously underreported.

Traveling via bicycle across Europe to Palestine, cyclists of P.E.D.A.L. constantly encounter stories of resistance. The dissonance between the abundance of stories of resistance on the ground and their absence in the mainstream media becomes jarring.
Scottish playwright David Greig speaks of the ‘management of the imagination by the interests of capital’ .”  He observes: “The institutions of global capital manage the imagination in the first through media institutions… Hollywood cinema, television and the newspapers of the great media empires like Fox and CNN. These forms create the narrative superstructure around which our imagination grows. In this way we learn to think along certain paths, to believe certain truths, all of which, in the end serve to further the interests of capital and  the continuance of economic growth.”[3]

Tales from the ground are dangerous. Stories of resistance can come together and violently puncture this ‘superstructure’.

What if small-holder farmers opposing seed patenting legislation in Austria and America knew of the Iraqi farmers resisting the ‘agricultural re-structuring’ of Order 81 disallowing them from saving seed?

What if Turkish grandmothers resisting hydrodams in the valleys along the Black Sea knew of Irish families opposing the decimation of their land by gas pipelines in Rossport, Ireland?

What if they knew their struggle was not against a single company, corporation or local authority but  a part of a wider, global battle protecting people’s access to land against interests of power?

The second freedom flotilla set sail for Gaza 24 June 2011.
P.E.D.A.L. Cyclists arrived in Palestine  22 July 2011.

Visit the website here.

[1] Seeing the Land as One. Raja Shehadeh Interviewed :http://electronicintifada.net/content/seeing-land-one-raja-shehadeh-interviewed/9006

[2] Payne, Adam. Rivers of Power Forests of Beauty. Columbia Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies, 2009.

[3] Greig, David. in Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.


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