The Beginning – preparation
I first heard about the ‘Convoy to Calais’ when a leaflet was thrust into my hand at a demonstration in April; it immediately excited me. Here was a chance to go beyond demonstration, to action. A chance to show the Refugees and Migrants in the camps in Calais that there are many of us that care, about them and their desperate situation. The Convoy was organised by a variety of groups including The People’s Assembly, Stop the War, Stand up to Racism, the Muslim Association of Britain, War on Want, and unions such as UNISON, Unite and the FBU. The Convoy was about making a political statement on the plight of Refugees and Migrants across Europe, as well as delivering aid.
In early May our UNISON Oxfordshire Health Branch passed a motion in support pledging £600.
We set about organising, and created our own Facebook page, Oxford Convoy to Calais, and twitter account, to garner local interest and conversation. We contacted groups likely to be interested and supportive; these included Stand Up To Racism, local Muslim organisations, student groups and the Trades Union Council. This also enabled us to explain our mission and engage the local population in discussion on the plight of Refugees and Migrants, countering the messages from the various EU Referendum campaigns, the majority of which have a negative view of immigration. The main group consisted of Yasmine Rahemtulla, Ian McKendrick, Norman Wood, Aijaz Javed, John Geoffrey Walker, Sufi Aliyyah Shah, Julie Simmons, Kate Douglas and I, organised by Pat Carmody.
We advertised the aid that was required and set up Drop off points in and around Oxford. I was very pleased that nursing colleagues of mine, working at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, were enthusiastic and eager to set up collection points in their workplaces. These were set up on Neuro Intensive Care (Cat Lamb), the Neurosciences Ward (Kat Cane), Neuro Radiology (Taija Nenonen), The Surgical Emergency Unit (Ana Feiteira) and the Emergency Department.
Over the next 6 weeks, food and clothing was regularly collected from these, and other drop off points. Ruskin College, in Headington, gave us facility to bring everything donated to be sorted through and packed. A just giving page and cash donations raised a further £968.
On the 29th May local organisers met at The Common People Festival at South Parks. It was the first time I’d had an opportunity to meet everyone involved, and it was lovely to be able to put faces to names that I’d had on e-mail. We distributed almost 2000 leaflets and actually ran out. The leaflets explained the reason for the Convoy, how to join and donate. Our engagement with festival goers was very positive. Paul and Barry Chuckle passed us and took a leaflet; I joked ‘to me, to you, to Calais’ (sorry).
The weather was warm and sunny, as was our reception.
In the last week, volunteers did last collections from the drop off points and individual donations were often exceptional. 3 of us filled our vehicles from a shop in Iffley with Salt, Sugar, Tuna fish, rice and lentils donated by a local Doctor. There were several days of fevered activity ensuring the items were sorted and packed, co-ordinated by Pat. We had so much, that it was decided to hire a van and take the aid to London, where the National Organisers were loading a 38 tonne articulated lorry with all that had been collected.
Some bad news came on Thursday afternoon, when we were informed by the Convoy organisers that the French authorities were not going to allow us to embark our ferry, or deliver aid. We were told that due to the State of Emergency in France there were ‘security concerns’, and consequently were to be denied entry. It was decided we would continue, and get as far as we could, whilst applying pressure through personal contacts and petition.
On Friday Pat and I drove the van with aid, arriving in London’s King’s Cross early afternoon, to discover that the lorry taking aid was already full. An attempt was swiftly made to find another driver and vehicle, but without success. So an enthusiastic group of young people (including Danielle Tiplady, Anthony Johnson and Tom Lock Griffiths) and ourselves, spent the next 2 hours unloading our donations into a storage unit, to be taken to Calais at a future date.
This motley band met at the Thornhill Park and Ride at 0615h on Saturday 18th June, setting off in our own convoy. Our cars were bedecked in Convoy to Calais posters. I had also printed off a quote from Jo Cox MP, who had been murdered by a right-wing racist 2 days previously. It felt the right thing to do, taking her words with me.
My passengers were John, who is an old school photographer, using black and white film only and developing his photographs in a darkroom at home. He is a kind and quiet man whose involvement was through a group called Bread and Roses for Refugees, based in Thame; Cathy is a writer of Russian Revolutionary History, and another kind soul. I made some wonderful new friends on this day.
Our small convoy got split up on the journey to Whitehall to meet the main Convoy, but all arrived safely at about 0820h. It was strange to see Whitehall empty as we were directed to park in ordered formation.
We got out, stretched our legs and walked around, greeting old friends and discussing the day’s schedule. We were given flags, which we attached to our vehicle windows, reading ‘Refugees Welcome’. It felt good to be a part of, and identified with this massive company.
Speeches were held to reinforce the reasons for the Convoy – including John Rees from Stop the War Coalition, Michelline Safi Ndongo, a London Labour councillor, who had been a refugee herself, and Diane Abbott MP, who gave a message from Jeremy Corbyn wishing the Convoy well.
Feeling positive, and determined to get ourselves and the aid to Calais we set off at 0930h, to meet at the last services before Dover; to reassemble the Convoy prior to entering the port. Over 200 vehicles, including a group of motorcycles (Deen Riders), left Whitehall.
Stopping at the services at midday was a good opportunity to talk to fellow comrades and to get something to eat, but this was interrupted when Kent Police were discovered to be unlawfully taking vehicle details to pass on to the French Police; so that we could be identified and stopped. The Met Police Liaison Officers accompanying the Convoy were informed and the Kent Police withdrew, but this behaviour was a sign of what was to come.
Driving into Dover, in Convoy was a great feeling, especially to see Kent Antifascist Network activists, and other local supporters, standing on the side of the road and on the roundabout at the entry to the Port waving and shouting support.
There was a plan that as each vehicle was refused entry they would drive round and rejoin the back of the queue, until we were allowed onto the ferry. However, on arrival our vehicles were separated from those that were not in the Convoy and we were made to drive into an area separated by large bollards. This we did with good humour, again parking our vehicles and getting out to discover what the next step would be…
There were vehicles of all shapes and sizes; many had come a long way, including Newcastle and Manchester, most with aid, and anxious to get it to where it was needed. I was told that a couple of vehicles had been allowed past the French immigration checkpoint, but that they had been photographed, fingerprinted and denied entry.
The Convoy organisers from the People’s Assembly, Stop the War and Stand up to Racism spent a long time trying to negotiate our passage to Calais, but the French Authorities would not move on the issue, repeatedly citing that we were a ‘security risk’; that there was a potential for violence and ‘migrant intrusion’. We did get news that the large lorry of aid had got to Calais, having been sent via the Euro tunnel; big cheers and chanting began. People moved forward to the barriers at the front of the vehicle queue. We were angry and frustrated. All the time and effort that had gone into planning, collecting and packing aid; the promises to deliver. The collusion between French and British Police should not have surprised me, but I was still taken aback that we could be denied free movement and our ferry tickets be ignored.
I’d had a plan to let those in the camps in France know there are many of us who want to help them; i wanted to play with the children – I had taken a football, some tennis balls, 2 frisbees and bottles of bubbles in my car. How could this make us a security risk?
We chanted and shouted – ‘We’ve got aid, let us through! Refugees are humans too’ ‘Say it loud, say it clear, Refugees are welcome here!’ and ‘Freedom of movement is a right, not just for the rich and white!’ Everyone pushed forward to the Police aux frontieres booths, and then across to block all ferry traffic.
The atmosphere was impassioned but peaceful. we stayed there for about an hour, until Sam Fairbairn, from the People’s Assembly, informed us that we had done enough, that we had made a statement which would be heard, and we should leave at a time of our choosing, not that of the Police; that we should take our protest to the French Embassy in London, depositing some of the aid not delivered on their steps. Some thought we should stay and continue the protest, but the mood had changed; that we should take our grievance and ourselves back to London.
Getting back in my car I was deflated. I was still angry that we appeared to have failed. On the return journey I discussed this with John and Cathy, and Later with Kate and Pat. We decided to meet again soon, along with the rest of our Oxford colleagues, to determine when best to make a successful return trip to the camps in Calais.
Getting to the French Embassy was difficult and honestly scary. Due to roadworks, Hyde Park Corner was chaos, the like I have only ever seen in Italy and India, with vehicles coming at us from every direction. However, get through we did, unharmed to find a protest already begun. I took a couple of toys from the car and laid them on the steps, alongside those placed by others. The area we were given to demonstrate was tight and crowded, though our number was smaller. Initially the Police had placed everyone across from the Embassy, behind a cordon, but this didn’t last, as more of us arrived that area was unable to contain us. We sang and shouted for another hour, until people drifted away, and we took ourselves home.
I have concluded that this was a good day. It is true that I did not get to Calais and was not able to show those in the camps solidarity. I did not yet get the aid we collected in Oxford to those who desperately need it, but I am determined that we will. We did manage to get our message across, and the Convoy was reported by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, as well as newsprint media like the Guardian and Independent. The internet if full of videos posted and shared, highlighting why we went and the message we took. In Refugee week this is a success.
As a footnote, there was some fantastic news of other successes. A van from War on Want got through by joining the regular ferry queue, sending photos from the Care4Calais depot, and a group from Shetland, on realising there would be issues in Dover, sailed from Hull to Zeebrugge, driving the 60 mile along the coast to Calais without issue.
Oh, and another bonus. I think I’ve made friends for life…