Just back from a week in the South of France, staying in Menton, a Riviera Town a few kilometres from the Italian border. On our first afternoon my partner John and I decided to see if we could walk into Italy. We could. Actually it was dead easy, although it seemed a bit intimidating walking past armed gendarmes standing a few feet away from equally tooled up carbanieri, but we strolled by unsolicited, neither side asking to see our passports, which we didn’t have with us.
A hundred yards or so past the border we saw a few banners and a collection of tents and realised we had stumbled across a migrant camp. Thus was explained the tooled up border guards. We could not just walk by, or take photos as if it was just another tourist attraction, so we entered the camp and made ourselves known. A young Italian man who spoke good English was brought to us and explained the situation, the migrants (that term we use on his insistence as he refused to call them refugees simply because they were being denied that status) had arrived in June, mainly Sudanese and Eritrean with some Syrians. After a perilous journey from their country of origin they had been denied entry to France and left to survive on the rocks that line the coast, simply sleeping in the clothes they wore. Our interpreter and others from an anarchist group had gone to support them and had returned regularly since, being joined by other volunteers of differing political persuasions.
Our first thought was how well the camp was run and organised. This was nothing like the scenes of Calais assaulting our senses daily, courtesy of our media. It was as clean as it could possibly be and well laid out and structured. Our interpreter explained that the camp was run as a collective with all decisions being made by meetings of both volunteers and migrants. No sense of a threatening atmosphere at all. Close by where we were having our conversation a couple of migrants kicked a ball about, they were the age of many of our students and perhaps even younger.
We explained that we were socialists and trade unionists from Britain and told him about the 100,000 demonstrating in London in support of refugees, something about which he knew nothing but promised to share the news with the camp. During all this we were almost overwhelmed with the sense of humanity within the camp and the fact that people were gladly giving up their time to help. Here were people, mainly young, doing something that made a real difference.
Not wanting to take up any more of their time we made our farewell. We had not gone out with much cash but gave them 20 Euros, which was so gratefully received it was unbelievable. Our interpreter gave us a clenched fist sign of solidarity and left with the words “hasta la vista siempre”. I have to admit I walked out of that camp emotionally shaken and both John and I were glad our eyes were covered by sunglasses.
On our last day we visited again, we had some holiday Euros left so made another donation. This time we spent more time, talking and listening. We were told that at its peak the camp had housed almost 2000 desperate people and that as well as food and water, shoes and blankets are the items of which they are most often in need.
Most impressive was to see 40 or so migrants in a lesson, learning French, all paying strict attention to a young woman whose only technical aid was a flipchart. The nursing students I teach are generally keen to learn, but the expressions on these students’ faces conveyed a concentration and enthusiasm I have not seen before. Unfortunately we could not capture this sight for you. We were allowed to take photos but strictly no faces as these people face repression if identified, both in their country of origin and any country they might reach.
Determined that our last visit would not be the end of it, this time we took contact details in order to raise their plight upon return. This is their FB page, please ‘like’ it and show support – Presidio-Permanente-No-Border-Ventimiglia.
John was a miner and on strike for a year in 1984/5 when the Thatcher government launched its assault upon the mining industry and the trade union movement. One of our young interpreters knew about the strike and had seen the film Pride. John remembers the tremendous solidarity shown to his union, which sustained them through that fateful year. In the name of humanity, if we can do just a little of that to aid people who literally have nothing, then we can show them some of that solidarity. One of the banners said simply that they could not go back because they have lost everything! Please take note of that anyone who thinks we should not help!
I would never have imagined, when planning the holiday that my belief in humankind would be reinforced by being humbled, and seeing, even in the most desperate circumstances, humanity and compassion expressed so vividly.
The irony is that whilst we could stroll between borders without challenge, human beings fleeing war, torture and starvation are left to rot in a no man’s land. A better world has to be possible.
Beverley Norris (Bradford UCU) and John Dunn (Unite Community)