History tells us the ‘Great Wall of Calais’ is not fit for purpose

The Great Wall of Calais, the giant barrier that the UK is to build in order to keep the Jungle's refugees and migrants at bay will not achieve its aims argues academic Sean Lang in The Conversation.

History tells us the 'Great Wall of Calais' is not fit for purpose
Photo: AFP

Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University explains why the one-mile long, four metre high wall that Britain will build to prevent migrants from gaining access to UK-bound trucks will do more harm than good.

Incredibly, 27 years after the world celebrated the fall of the detested Berlin Wall, barriers are back in fashion. Donald Trump has promised to build a wall along the Mexican frontier to keep those pesky Mexicans out – though they will, he blithely assumes, happily pay for it– and now the UK’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced that Britain will pay for a wall to keep back the refugees of the Calais “Jungle”.

Defensive walls to keep undesirables out are nothing new – 2,000 years ago, the Great Wall of China was built to keep the “barbarian” Mongols at bay. It didn’t work – they worked their way round it and ended up ruling China. Hadrian’s famous wall marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, but the tribes who brought the Empire crashing down came instead from Germany. Oops.

(Hundreds of migrants spill onto the road 

Walls are about control – rulers use them to set boundaries beyond which law, protection and people may not go. They isolate and separate, turning former neighbours and friends into a dangerous and untrustworthy “Other”. So the Nazis built walls across the cities of eastern Europe to create Jewish ghettos, making normal community relations impossible and turning Jews from next-door neighbours or work colleagues into “the people on the other side of the wall”.

Of course, this approach can backfire: the Berlin Wall inadvertently turned West Berlin into a highly attractive but unattainable island of Western prosperity in the heart of the Communist bloc. It also provided both John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan with their most celebrated anti-Soviet soundbites, which certainly wasn’t what the East Germans had intended when they built it.

Even walls with a less deadly purpose can feel oppressive. One of the most hated features of pre-revolutionary Paris was the Wall of the Farmers-General, a customs barrier that surrounded the city and lined the pockets of France’s tax farmers, officials who were entitled to a substantial share of the taxes they collected. It symbolised the privilege enjoyed by the French aristocracy and, not surprisingly, was one of the first structures torn down by the Paris mob in the Revolution.

Intriguingly, in 19th century India, the British built a similar customs barrier, in the form of a vast and impenetrable hedge, ten to 14 feet high and six to 12 feet thick, stretching from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras – a distance of 2,300 miles – to stop evaders of their salt tax. It was completed in 1869 and took 14,000 labourers to build – and was patrolled by nearly the same number of troops. Ten years after it was built, the customs line was abolished and today there are hardly any traces left of the Great Hedge.

For such highly visible signs of control, governments are surprisingly reluctant to admit their walls' real purposes. Officially, the Berlin Wall was a defensive structure to protect the people of East Berlin from Western fascism, though its real purpose, as everyone knew, was to keep them in. Israel’s controversial concrete barrier  around the Palestinian-inhabited areas of the West Bank was erected to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks during the second Intifada but its critics accuse Israel of using it to contain and control the Palestinians themselves.

Wall in the mind

It is tempting to say that walls are doomed to fall. To the younger generation, the Berlin Wall is probably better known for falling than for going up and everyone knows how the walls of Jericho came “tumblin' down”. Certainly the mighty walls of Christian Constantinople  were unable to prevent the city’s conquest by the Turks in 1453. Hadrian’s Wall, which was originally much higher and more substantial than the remains we see today, may have been intended to overawe the Pictish tribes but it could not protect Roman Britain from collapse. History is littered with the remains of these brick or concrete assertions of control.

But the impact of walls should not be underestimated. The Berlin Wall helped to embed the idea in German minds that they were two peoples, not one. In the difficult times that followed reunification in 1990, Germans from both sides of the country sometimes complained that they wished the Wall could go back up again.

The sealed border between the two Koreas has acted as a wall so effectively that it is easy to forget that the Koreans were ever one people. By separating people, walls prevent that immediate human contact that can challenge stereotypes and develop understanding and compassion. If you want people to forget their common humanity, keep them divided by walls and prevent them from ever meeting.

In this way, the Calais wall may have an impact far beyond the security concerns that have led to its creation. Walls on their own won’t protect lorries from people determined to get to Britain, but they can keep both French and British people away from the migrants themselves and help entrench still further the idea of “us” and “them” that Nigel Farage whipped up in the EU referendum. Once that idea is implanted in people’s minds, it can prove a much stronger and more durable wall than any made of brick or concrete.

This article was first published on the website The Conversation.




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French police cause misery for migrants in Calais

French police are inflicting misery on migrants in the northern port of Calais, routinely tearing down their tents and forcing them to wander the streets as part of a deterrence policy, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on Thursday.

French police cause misery for migrants in Calais
A migrant camp is evacuated by police forces in Calais in February 2019. Photo: Philippe HUGUEN / AFP.

The 75-page report documents methods used by authorities to prevent the emergence of another major migrant settlement in Calais, five years after the demolition of the sprawling “Jungle” camp which housed up to 10,000 people at its peak.

Calais has for years been a rallying point for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa trying to sneak across the English Channel to Britain.

Faced with growing public anti-migrant sentiment, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has waged a campaign to prevent new camps emerging.

Police tactics include systematically tearing down migrants’ tents in the woods, on wasteland or under bridges, regularly confiscating their belongings and harassing NGOs trying to provide them with aid, according to New York-based HRW.

“The authorities carry out these abusive practices with the primary purposes of forcing people to move elsewhere, without resolving their
migration status or lack of housing, or of deterring new arrivals,” it said in the report entitled “Enforced Misery: The Degrading Treatment of Migrant Children and Adults in Northern France”.

‘Harass and abuse’

NGOs estimate the number of migrants currently living around Calais at between 1,500 and 2,000, including numerous families. Local authorities estimate that only 500 remain in the area.

Last week, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered the eviction of a camp housing 400 migrants near a hospital in Calais, which was presented as a danger to the hospital’s patients and staff.

On that occasion the migrants were taken to temporary shelters but often they are left to wander the streets.

“When the police arrive, we have five minutes to get out of the tent before they destroy everything,” a Kurdish woman from Iraq told HRW.

The interior ministry did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on the report.

The government argues that the camps are havens for people smugglers, who command extortionate fees to help migrants cross to Britain, either in a small boat crossing the Channel in the dead of night or stowed away on a truck crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.

NGOs argue that the tactics do nothing more than make migrants already difficult lives even more miserable.

The report quoted the Calais-based Human Rights Observers group as saying that in some cases cleaning crews cut migrants’ tents while people are still inside, in order to force them out.

“If the aim is to discourage migrants from gathering in northern France, these policies are a manifest failure and result in serious harm,” Benedicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch, said.

French authorities “need a new approach to help people, not repeatedly harass and abuse them,” she added.

A total of 15,400 people attempted to cross the Channel in the first eight months of this year, a increase of 50 percent over the figure for the whole of 2020, according to French coast guard statistics.

“Exiles aren’t travelling to northern France because they’ve heard they can camp in the woods or stay under a bridge…They come because that’s where the border is,” Charlotte Kwantes, national coordinator of the Utopia 56 charity was quoted in the report as saying.