Vincent Joos
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A short history of immigration deterrence at the French–British border

On October 25, 2016, French anti-riot police evicted thousands of migrants who had settled in an abandoned landfill adjacent to the port of Calais. Hundreds of makeshift houses and tents of the so-called “Calais jungle” were bulldozed or burned while the police forced migrants to board buses that would take them to asylum centers scattered across the French countryside. In the meantime, British authorities started the construction of the “Great Wall,” a one-kilometer long and four-meter high anti-intrusion barrier alongside the highway that leads to the port of Calais. Domicides and infrastructures intended to segregate migrants from French citizens are not new to the region. This chapter argues that present racialized patterns of mobility and the infrastructure enabling the segregation of people upon citizenship regimes in the Calais region were established long ago, when the French state managed the first wave of non-European migration in the region during World War I. The chapter first explores how thousands of Chinese indentured workers who toiled for the French and British army in northern France between 1917 and 1920 were deterred from settling in this region. Police brutality, racial segregation, and criminalization of solidarity are some of the practices established to deter nonwhite people from settling in the Calais region. From this historical perspective, the chapter then explores the institutionalized racism that structures current anti-immigration policies (in France and in the UK) and the proliferation of deterrence infrastructure in the Calais region.

In July 2019, photographer Eric Leleu and I took a drive in the Calais region to document the graves of the migrants 1 who recently died trying to cross the English Channel. 2 Before arriving at Calais, we stopped in Ruminghem, a village where dozens of Chinese indentured laborers who came to France during World War I are buried in a well-kept cemetery. When we arrived at the edge of the wheat field where these laborers rest, we met two men who tend to the flower beds surrounding the cemetery. They work for the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission and take care of the many military cemeteries that dot the region. “These people came to help the English during World War I and lived here, in Calais, and Dunkirk,” said one of the workers. “They didn't fight but unloaded munitions, repaired roads or buried soldiers. Not far away from here, many Chinese men died in a train explosion, you can still see a barren area in what is now a field.” After our visit to this cemetery, Leleu and I had a conversation with a man who was standing in front of his house and asked him if he knew about the possible location of the Chinese labor camp that stood in the village. While unable to state where the camp used to be, he remembered the location of the train explosion. He pointed to a couple of fields where, supposedly, we could find the barren space. We walked in the tall wheat to no avail. Even though we couldn't find the physical spaces indicating the laborers’ life experiences, stories about them were still circulating and their presence continues to be felt.

During World War I, the French government brought approximately 220,000 workers from their colonies and concessions while the allied British government brought around 200,000 indentured workers to help with their war effort in France (Bailey, 2011; Dornel, 2014). These men lived in camps, mostly cut off from local populations, working outside the battlefields. Many of them would stay to help with the rebuilding effort after the war. This massive arrival of non-European and nonwhite laborers would transform France, as it triggered immigration movements in France and in the UK (Ma, 2012). However, this immigration was not the desired goal of the French or the British states who did everything in their power to deter indentured workers from settling in Europe. For instance, the “French government censored any news that mentioned Chinese-French romances” because these relations could lead to marriages, hence to the settlement of Chinese workers in France (Xu, 2011: 151). Chinese laborers, in particular, became the target of anti-immigrant measures in the immediate post-war 1918–20 period in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais administrative region, where tens of thousands of them lived and worked. This chapter briefly explores the processes and infrastructures meant to deter Chinese indentured workers from migrating to France or the UK, to show the colonial structure of and the continuities between the management of migrants during the first mass influx of non-Europeans between 1917 and 1920 and today's racialized regime of citizenship at the French–British border. I argue that the present anti-immigrant laws and the various practices and technologies of deterrence in the Calais region stem from and reactivate colonial violence against non-European migrant populations. Criminalizing immigration and solidarity, preventing migrants from establishing relations with the local populations through urban segregation, and the racialized administrative processing and management of large groups of non-Europeans are instruments of repression and deterrence that were forged during the French colonial period. As an anthropologist working in the Caribbean, I study how the French and the British empires built their wealth on the plundering of distant colonies where settlers used racial hierarchies, spatial segregation, and conflicts as a means to govern nonwhites and to work them to death. The postcolonial period, in France and in the UK, is marked by an institutional refusal to acknowledge the colonial past and by a series of laws meant to cut off the former empires from their colonial strongholds. With their differential citizenship regimes, which are privileging European immigrants while rejecting and othering former colonial subjects, France and the UK perpetuate a colonial order where physical violence, racism, surveillance, and incarceration are the hallmarks of current immigration politics. By briefly exploring the life of Chinese workers in the Calais region, I aim to analyze the spatial mechanics of immigration regimes and the resistance they engender in order to understand how racism and neocolonialism shape policies and practices that are supposedly non-discriminatory.

Establishing the color lines

In the midst of World War I, in 1916, the French, British, and Chinese governments signed agreements stipulating that young Chinese men could be hired to help with the war effort, with the condition that these men would not fight on the front. As such, China remained neutral in the European conflict. France brought 37,000 Chinese workers who were dispatched to port-cities throughout the country, while the British brought 96,000 Chinese young men who mostly worked in northern France, especially in the Calais region (Bailey, 2011: 36). Most of these men were young peasants from the northern provinces of Hebei and Shandong. Recruited in their native regions, these men sometimes traveled up to three months in gruesome conditions to reach France. In order to avoid German submarine attacks, many of them were first secretly sent to Canada, a World War I ally and a prominent member of the British Commonwealth. They arrived in Vancouver and then went to Halifax or Montreal by train, “herded like so much cattle in cars, forbidden to leave the train and guarded like criminals” (Xu, 2011: 79). From there, the “coolies” – the official British category for indentured Chinese workers – went to France and lived in 17 camps scattered in the Pas-de-Calais region. Disease, lack of nutritious food, inadequate clothing, and generally miserable living conditions in camps killed many of these poorly paid indentured workers. Additionally, they performed dangerous jobs, such as digging trenches, carrying bodies outside the war frontlines and burying them. Most of the Chinese laborers who worked in the Calais region arrived at the beginning of 1917 and were first under the supervision of the British military. At the end of the war in 1918, most of them renewed their contracts and remained in France under the supervision of French civil authorities. From 1918 to 1920, members of the Chinese Labour Corps participated in the post-war effort under the supervision of French regional institutions, helping with the rebuilding of cities, villages, and infrastructures destroyed by the war. The French authorities, like the British, used segregation and deterrence measures to make sure that these workers, whom they described as criminals, would not settle in France. 3 Though the majority of these Chinese men returned to China in 1920, some of them immigrated to Europe, while many others remained in military cemeteries of the Calais region. Yassine Chaïb (2008: 33) estimates that approximately 20,000 Chinese workers died in France from 1917 to 1920. I do not intend to recall the long and complex history of the many indentured workers brought to Europe by colonial forces. Many excellent scholarly works have been published on the subject (Xu, 2012; Ma, 2012; Bailey, 2011). What I am interested in here is the establishment of durable racial hierarchies and the criminalization of nonwhite people in Calais during a mass influx of non-European people there.

In managing military and labor camps, as Tyler Stovall (1998) aptly puts it, the French and the British established a “color line behind the lines.” Since 1915, the French government had been recruiting workers from their colonies. These men worked in the fields or in factories, replacing the French men who were fighting on the front. From 1915 to 1918, the French government recruited around 80,000 Algerians, 35,000 Moroccans, 18,500 Tunisians, 49,000 Indochinese, and 37,000 Chinese men. Thousands of foreign workers from adjacent European countries would also participate in the war effort. In 1916, the government created le Service de la main-d’Œuvre coloniale et chinoise (Colonial and Chinese Labor Corps), a military institution attached to the Ministry of War (Dornel, 2020). This institution was divided into several sections, each of which represented a particular race. For instance, if a private company wanted to hire people from this pool of colonial and indentured workers, it could specify which race it desired. As Laurent Dornel (2020) shows, the colonial and Chinese workers were subjected to surveillance, such as postal control, and were forced to live in camps located at the periphery of the cities where they often worked. In these camps, men were separated by race to limit possible conflicts that could undermine their productivity or subvert the colonial order. Meanwhile, foreign white workers enjoyed much better work and living conditions. These workers were administered by a different institutional entity, the Service de la main-d’Œuvre étrangère (Foreign Laborers Corps). These European workers were relatively free and lived in France on their own terms. There was also the possibility for them to remain in France, while the colonial and Chinese workers had no choice but to return to their country of origin. Starting in 1920, Polish workers, for instance, were encouraged to settle in France after World War I and received advantages from municipal institutions in northern France, such as funding for cultural organizations and administrative help (Genty, 2009: 75). French authorities believed that Polish workers, most of whom were white and Catholic, would better adapt to France and would not pose a threat to its religious conventions. Meanwhile, the Chinese workers who were already in France and who wanted to stay faced many hurdles and often had no choice but to live clandestinely. In other words, through the management of foreign laborers, the French government created new hierarchies of humanity through racial segregation and systemic discrimination. These hierarchies, in turn, shaped the modern French immigration system.

The racial management of colonial and Chinese workers also established a fracture between nonwhite and French workers, as the latter feared being invaded and replaced by Asian workers. Leung Wing-Fai (2014) has shown that the racialist ideology of the “yellow peril” was potent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The “yellow peril” was one of the first iterations of the Great Replacement theory that has made a comeback in political debates recently in Europe and in the US. It fueled European racial debates by blending anxieties about sexual and racist fears with the belief that the “Orientals” would invade the West and replace Europeans. The many xenophobic statements of dock workers’ unions in Dunkirk, for instance, attest to these fears of being replaced by a nonwhite, cheaper labor force (Stovall, 1998: 761). As Stovall notes, “during World War I, concepts of racial difference based on skin color became a significant factor in French working-class life for the first time, establishing a discourse of conflict and intolerance that remains powerful today” (1998: 740). These racial hierarchies and social ruptures fashioned an immigration system that served to block nonwhite people from the path to French or UK citizenship.

The French and the British sought to prevent the long-term settlement of indentured workers in western Europe. In order to avoid conflicts with local populations and, more importantly, to avoid cross-cultural contacts that could lead to the permanent settlement of indentured workers, French institutions and the British Army forbade laborers to entertain social relations with Europeans outside of their camps and workplaces (Boniface, 2012). They lived under strict surveillance under a harsh regime of segregation. For example, in July 1918, a military ruling forbade the French population to have friendly relationships with nonwhite workers. A young woman from Boulogne, who had sent a postcard to a Chinese worker she had befriended, was sued by the municipal police tribunal, to be later acquitted (Archives du Pas-de-Calais, 2020). Criminalizing relations between local population and foreign workers sought to deter the latter from migrating and settling in France. The current prohibition against housing or helping migrants and the state prosecution of people who do so in the Calais region, in spirit, does not differ from this 1918 law.

Many Chinese workers managed to create spaces of freedom in and outside their camps. For instance, some of the men under the supervision of the French government managed to gamble, to go to bars and brothels, and sometimes had romantic relationships with young French women who, according to Xu, didn't care about the racial lines (2011: 148). Chinese laborers were never the passive victims of indenture and many of them organized strikes and demonstrations, which often led to violent conflicts with the French police forces (Bailey, 2011). They sometimes acted violently among themselves, with the administrations, and with local populations, using conflict as an expression of presence and agency in a society that largely rejected them (Regnard, 2012). These tensions were important. By opposing the segregation regime and reacting against institutional xenophobia, indentured workers claimed their own rights and autonomy. They interrogated the citizenship regimes of imperial states and created a political space for future immigrants who would confront technologies, processes, and infrastructures of deterrence. If assaults by French citizens on nonwhites were the dominant form of racial violence in France, Chinese workers fought back, as they did in January 1918 in Rouen when a French officer mistreated a Chinese dockworker. Seventy Chinese men took the defense of their co-worker and stormed the Rouen police station where the officer had taken refuge. The commander of this Chinese crew of workers noted that French workers and civilians “whose opinions of Chinese workers are well known” provoked his men (Stovall, 1998: 754). In other words, these Chinese workers stood up against institutional and banal racism and were, like many colonial workers, eager to fight back against race-based oppression. Even though relations between the French and the Chinese were forbidden, a few men settled in northern France and had families, hereby creating the first important settlement of Chinese people in France (Ma, 2012). Obtaining papers, let alone citizenship, was and remains a difficult task.

If the Chinese contributions to the war effort and to the post-conflict reconstruction have only been recently acknowledged by French authorities, many Chinese people who immigrated to France in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries individually and collectively, commemorated them. Individually, Chinese families living in France or even in China come to visit the cemeteries of the Calais region. Collectively, undocumented immigrants, in the recent past, have visited these cemeteries to pay tribute to these indentured workers and to link their present immigration struggles in France to those of the Chinese laborers. In a country where prejudices against people of Asian descent is common, the fate of segregated, otherized, and discriminated Chinese laborers still resonates (Aw, 2019). On July 14, 2000, for instance, a group of 60 Chinese sans-papiers activists (undocumented migrant-activists) and their allies visited the Nolette cemetery to draw attention to the administrative hardships and systemic racism the Chinese diaspora and themselves endured and still endure (Chaïb, 2008). They placed a wreath of flowers with a banner that read:

Aux travailleurs chinois de 1917–1920

morts pour la France,

Les travailleurs chinois de 1997–2000

rejetés par la France. 4

The message on the wreath powerfully captures the continuities between current Chinese immigrants and the Chinese laborers who toiled in France but who never got recognition and who, sometimes, struggled to immigrate to Europe. To say that Chinese workers today are rejected would be an understatement. In 2007, when French President Nicholas Sarkozy toughened immigration laws and implemented repatriation quotas, there was a 20% increase in expulsions of Chinese sans-papiers (Korman and Liew, 2009). Moreover, the French Chinese community is the target of police violence. In 2016, the killing by the French police of 56-year-old Liu Shaoyo in his home, while he was preparing dinner for his children, sparked huge demonstrations, led by France's ethnic Chinese protesting against continuing attacks on their community members (Aw, 2019). Moreover, Chinese people who try to immigrate to the UK continue to die at the border. 5 I do not claim that the laws and practices instituted during World War I are identical today. However, I argue that the management of nonwhite populations in France during World War I established a racialized system for the handling of migrants that still endures. The following sections describe some of the colonial legacies that shape immigration in Calais today. Segregation, incarceration, and surveillance, along with the othering and criminalizing of migrants and their allies are not new immigration practices. Along with the externalization and solidification of borders, these practices are the hallmarks of imperial states.

Calais: an English chokepoint?

Before analyzing the forms of criminalization and spatial exclusion of migrants perpetuated by state authorities, I want to describe briefly how and why Calais has become a fortress city over the past twenty years. Politicians on both sides of the Dover Strait touted the construction of the Channel Tunnel (hereafter Chunnel) as a symbol of free circulation in Europe. Calais was supposed to become a “major European crossroads” where people and goods would flow uninterrupted (see ECMT, 1993). However, soon after the opening of the Chunnel, it was clear that Calais was not a crossroads for everyone. When the Chunnel opened in 1994, it increased the legal flows of commodities and people between France and England. Every year, approximately 10 million people cross the 23.5-mile Chunnel, while 1.6 million trucks are carried through the tunnel's rail-transport shuttle. The ferry traffic is even more important: an estimated 4 million trucks and 14 million passengers cross the Strait of Dover by sea every year, making the English Channel the busiest maritime route in the world (Mambra, 2020). Since the opening of the Chunnel, Calais and its periphery have become a chokepoint, a site that “constrict[s] or ‘choke[s]’ the flow of resources, information, and bodies upon which contemporary life depends” (Carse et al., 2020). The port area of Calais, the train stations, and the Chunnel entrance are today high-security zones surrounded with razor wire and anti-intrusion walls. The French police heavily patrol the inner city, while the tourists of yesteryear do not go there anymore. Calais and its periphery are at once a place where forms of connectivity have increased in the past twenty years, and in the meantime, a place where movements of undesired human traffic have slowed. The Calais chokepoint constricts immigration but, in the meantime, renders it visible and powerful. Calais migrants disrupt the legal traffic of goods and people in the region, and thus thrust to the fore their political claims. If politicians and engineers thought of the Chunnel as a logistical infrastructure, the creation of the tunnel opened a new passageway for people who, very often, were and are fleeing conflicts in former regions of the British colonial empire such as Iraq, Sudan, or Somalia.

In 1999, the influx of refugees in Calais was so strong that the French government asked the French NGO Doctors without Borders to open a temporary camp to offer minimal shelter and services. Up until it was closed in 2002, the Sangatte camp received around 100,000 refugees from the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East, many of whom continued to cross the French–English border illegally. The British government forced the closing of this camp with the argument: providing humanitarian help to refugees will create a “magnet” effect and will attract migrants from the world over (Tempest, 2002). Activists and migrants harshly criticized the state-sponsored humanitarian camp, but of course for different reasons. The associations running these types of camps are pressured by French authorities to help with the monitoring and identification of migrants, which blends humanitarian missions with control practices (Van Isacker, 2019). Since the closing of Sangatte, the French government has repeatedly opened camps on the periphery of Calais, cutting off migrants from the solidarity networks of this city. As activists of Calais Migrant Solidarity put it when describing the opening of such camps, “what we are witnessing is the creation of a racial ghetto under the guise of liberal humanitarian concern” (CMS, 2015). It was after the closure of the 2002 Sangatte camp that a forceful institutional assemblage between France and the UK would transform Calais into a city where people would be stopped for identity checks based on their phenotype, and where nonwhite migrants who dared to walk in the city center could be tracked and brutalized by the French police forces on a daily basis (Hicks and Mallet, 2019).

In 2003, while Tony Blair fully engaged his country in the war against Iraq, the French and British signed the Touquet treaty. This treaty, in effect, displaced the English border in Calais. Eight years after the implementation of the Schengen area that dissolved some borders of inland Europe, the French and the British again solidified the border in Calais. In effect, the Schengen agreements allowed for the free circulation of some European citizens, but it made it harder for migrants to circulate in Europe, as the agreements allow police forces to verify the immigration statuses of anyone they stop. Identity checks, in France, continue to generate resentment from nonwhite populations since such controls are mainly made through racial profiling. In other words, if the borders seem to dissolve for some people, mobility within continental Europe was severely constricted upon racial lines. The dream of free circulation in Europe ended with the Touquet treaty as borders on the French–British side of Europe solidified anew. Not only did the British establish immigration checkpoints in Dunkirk and Calais, they were also involved in many aspects of border control in the region.

In December 2016, the French construction company Vinci, one of the largest corporations in Europe, finished the construction of the Great Wall of Calais, a 4-kilometer anti-intrusion barrier built with slippery concrete and topped with razor wire. The Great Wall runs along the port entrance and is meant to deter migrants from entering the loading zones. This anti-intrusion barrier is the most visible element of a flurry of infrastructure constructions funded by British taxpayers’ money. These include the creation of a moat around the entrance of the Chunnel, the edification of fences topped with razor wire in the port area, and the installation of surveillance cameras in and around the port. Between 2010 and 2018, the British government spent more than 400 million euros to reinforce security workforces and infrastructure in Calais (Sheldrick, 2018). The British government contributes, in France, to the growth of security corporations, and, in the meantime, to the privatization of border management in Europe. The British rely heavily on private security corporations to filter the entrance of the port and tunnel. British taxpayers’ money fund corporations that are doing the job of border agents and are building up a landscape of watchtowers and flooded zones – infrastructures to be considered as agents in the politics of deterrence. For instance, Eamus Cork Solutions, a French corporation, received 90 million euros from the British government for detention and escort services (Populin, 2018). In other words, young uneducated French security guards slowly replace policemen and border agents, knowing that corporate agents regularly bypass state regulations while facing very little backlash (Mermet, 2010). As detailed below, since the implementation of Brexit, these processes of border privatization and of border externalization have drastically increased.


As the earlier surveillance and control of indentured Chinese workers indicates, and as described above, the British authorities have had a heavy hand in the control of non-European populations on French territory. By investing in security infrastructures and technologies in Calais, the British transformed this city into a fortress. The camp infrastructures such as moats, anti-intrusion walls, and watchtowers dot the Calais coastline, rendering it impenetrable by migrants. These infrastructures and technologies not only deter migrants from entering the city center but also allow for the tracking of relationships between migrants and their allies. In brief, the proliferation of surveillance technology and the permanent harassment of migrants and activists by French and British authorities create terrible life conditions for non-Europeans by forcing them to sleep in dangerous areas, in the hope that extreme and cruel measures will deter migrants from coming or staying at the border. What we see in these processes briefly outlined here is that immigration is managed through spatial and material practices. Incarcerations, segregation, and surveillance displace and render invisible large groups of migrants.

Trying to render immigration invisible, and contacts between allies and migrants impossible, the French–-British institutional assemblage that manages immigration in the Calais region today weaponizes the landscape to deter immigration. During the fieldwork I did in the city of Calais in the summer of 2019, I almost never saw migrants or refugees walking in the city center. Downtown Calais, with its many closed businesses, looks like a ghost town patroled by the French police, private security guards, and British border patrol officers. Refugees are being pushed away from the entry gates to England, namely the English tunnel and the port of Calais. They have no choice but to sleep in temporary tent encampments along the coast. Because of the harsh winter weather of this area, many people have died in these makeshift camps. In November 2019, a 25-year-old Nigerian man died in his tent from smoke inhalation, as he tried to light a fire in a tin to warm up and cook food (Chrisafis, 2019). His death occurred after the city of Calais passed a decree forbidding migrants to come to the city center. For migrants, being visible in Calais is a means of asserting one's presence and of claiming belonging. It is a way of entering in confrontation with French state authorities whose inaction and passivity are also powerful deterrence tools. Hence, removing them from areas where they are highly visible is a spatial, state-sponsored strategy meant to impede claims of belonging and citizenship.

From 1996 to 2015, migrants built large encampments around the port area or squatted in buildings in downtown Calais or Calais-Plage. While, after 2014, squatting in buildings became difficult because of the relentless efforts to criminalize this practice by Calais’ right-wing mayor, Natacha Bouchart, many tent encampments – the “jungles” – have reappeared in the region. “Jungle,” or jangle in Farsi, means wooded area. It is a word many migrants use to describe temporary camps. As Yasmin Ibrahim and Anita Howarth (2017) have argued, French and British descriptions of “jungles” transformed the meaning of the word by adding to it racist connotations. Describing camps as unruly places peopled by “savages” is a strong reminder of the colonial trope of the jungle, and creates a separation between “civilized” city dwellers and people forced to live in camps.

In 2015 there was a large influx of refugees from war-torn regions that formerly belonged to the British empire, namely Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. More than one million people arrived in western Europe during this period, and many converged in Calais with the hope of crossing the Dover Strait. From 2008 to 2015, makeshift camps were small and scattered along the coast. However, because of the arrival of so many people in Calais, large migrant camps reappeared in the region. The largest one, called “La Lande,” grew in the area adjacent to the port, when French authorities pressured the NGOs and organizations helping migrants to ask people to move next to the newly opened Jules Ferry Day Center. This state-sponsored center run by the large association La Vie Active is meant to shelter women and children during the day and is a place where people can find basic help. In other words, the French state encouraged the creation of “La Lande.” Since the Jules Ferry Center is not in downtown Calais, French authorities deemed it an adequate place to concentrate and control migrants. According to the collective Calais Migrant Solidarity, the Jules Ferry Center is more than a state-sponsored humanitarian space. It is also “a place of control, repression and segregation and stands for the racist and neo-colonialist immigration policy of UK and France” (CMS, 2015). Named after Jules Ferry, the center continues its humanitarian mission while it expands the control of migrants’ mobility. It is worth noting that Jules Ferry was a nineteenth-century politician who advocated for the colonial expansion of France. In a speech on the colonial empire before the Chamber of Deputies on March 28, 1884, Ferry stated that colonization “is a right for the superior races, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.” Ferry supervised the colonization of Tunisia, Madagascar and Indochina. If he is remembered for being the education minister who created the public school system in France, the fact that he was a racist and staunch proponent of colonialism did not escape activists and migrants who see the naming of this center as indicative of the current racialized immigration system (CMS, 2015). In 2015, more than 10,000 migrants had gathered around the Jules Ferry Center and lived in “La Lande.” The tent camp that grew around the Jules Ferry Center became the focal point of the so-called migrant crisis in Calais.

As it did in 2008, the French state sent policemen and hired private contractors to destroy “La Lande” on October 25, 2016. This destruction marked a turn in the management of the migrants’ encampment in the Calais region. This is not a surprise. Since the beginning of Brexit in June 2016, the anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK has become ever more inflammatory. This escalation is reflected in the signing of new treaties that reinforced the British presence in Calais. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Theresa May signed the Sandhurst Treaty, which allowed the British to process migrants who hope to enter the UK in Calais port. Moreover, the treaty stipulated that approximately 50 million euros would be disbursed to reinforce border controls. To this effect, in the summer of 2018, the British government opened the UK–France Coordination and Information Centre in Calais (Vickers, 2020: 84). British Home Office border officials, National Crime Agency officers and British immigration enforcement personnel staff this coordination center.

The Coordination and Information Center supports and implements a new zero tolerance strategy, which has triggered more suffering for migrants. The UK Home Office statement went on to detail what the work of the center would entail; as it explains, “the centre will see Border Force working closely alongside Police Aux Frontières as part of a 24/7 operation to assist with preventing illegal attempts to cross the shared border, exchange real-time intelligence between UK and French agencies to combat cross-border criminality, work on the prevention of threats to public order on cross-border infrastructure, and provide analysis of cross-Channel traffic flows” (Pyne-Jones, 2018). The center is not only a surveillance tool but also a repressive institution that supposedly prevents threats to public order on French territory. After almost twenty years of strong-arming French politicians, the British Conservatives are efficiently transforming the French immigration system by fostering the privatization of borders and by criminalizing unauthorized immigration. French politicians, when campaigning for election, claim that the Touquet Treaty goes too far and that the UK should receive and process refugees in its own country. For instance, in 2016, while campaigning for the presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy called for the annulation of the Touquet Treaty. However, Sarkozy signed this treaty in 2003 and his government eagerly implemented the hardline immigration measures the UK government called for – the moat and razor wire fences that surround the Chunnel entrance are the materialization of such politics. During the Hollande and Macron presidencies, UK Prime Minister Theresa May successfully convinced her French counterparts to revise the Touquet treaty. Again, then President Hollande threatened to relax border controls if Brexit went through. However, after the Brexit referendum in 2016, Hollande maintained the Touquet Treaty and reiterated the need for the British to be present in Calais. In 2017, presidential candidate Macron claimed that the Touquet treaty placed a heavy burden on France. Once elected, he and May revised the treaty, enabling the British to clamp down harder on immigration in Calais. As May declared in 2018, “we will reinforce the security infrastructure with extra CCTV, fencing and infrared technology at Calais and other border points” (McCauley and Booth, 2018). In other words, since 2003, French governments have increasingly conceded border control to the British.

The Coordination and Information Centre is the latest materialization of the French–British tough line on immigration. The Center targets both migrants and their allies. Through its impressive surveillance apparatus, it helps French authorities to locate makeshift camps and to carry out the systematic destruction of migrants’ temporary shelters (Townsend, 2019). Since 2018, evictions have skyrocketed. Migrants are today forced to change the location of their encampments daily and most of them cannot catch more than a couple of hours of sleep at night, which affects their mental and physical health. As UK reporter Mark Townsend (2018) notes, hundreds of unaccompanied children are forced to walk and hide as well, since the UK ended its program to transfer vulnerable children from France to Britain. Marie-Charlotte Fabié, director of the NGO Safe Passage France, notes that even the family reunification program in the UK is not working anymore. Too many legal burdens, such as proving family ties, have led to what amounts to a closure of this program (Langlet, 2020).

The new zero tolerance policies indicate that the growth in immigration control is accompanied by a criminalization of immigration. Not only do France and the UK make it increasingly difficult to immigrate or to claim asylum, they also frame illicit immigration as a crime. As Juliet Stumpf (2006) has shown, immigration and criminal laws increasingly merge to create what she names “crimmigration.” In other words, migrants who are breaking immigration laws are now prosecuted under the criminal law and receive custodial sentences. In France, President Macron has been following a hard-line policy when it comes to immigration. In 2018, his government passed a law that doubled to 90 days the time in which migrants can be detained while their case is being processed. More importantly, illegally crossing borders is now a criminal offense that can lead up to one year in prison and to fines (BBC, 2018). Likewise, in the UK, the government, between 1999 and 2016, created 89 new immigration offence categories, which are mainly targeting a perceived abuse of the immigration system (Bhatia, 2019).

The Dublin regulations that force migrants to apply for asylum in the first European country where they have been formally registered is also a powerful and cruel deterrence tool. Because of the risk of being “dublined,” people who are trying to migrate in Europe today have no choice but to hide indefinitely. Louison Mungu Mawu, a 47-year-old agronomist who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after being detained and tortured by the regime of former president Joseph Kabila, states that the Dublin regulations create great psychological distress for migrants who are forced to live in “an open-air jail” that Europe became for asylum seekers (Pascual, 2020). Being “dublined” or incarcerated are techniques of exclusion that echo the racialized hierarchies of humanity created during the colonial age. As sociologist Monish Bhatia bluntly puts it, “crimmigration is essentially a racial project – an ever expanding system of control that polices and targets immigrants criminalized as ‘illegals,’ ‘bogus’ and ‘risky’. It is a set of hostile practices designed to manage/filter out racialized ‘others’ due to their perceived lack of belonging to the (imagined) national community, and involves denigration, punishment and banishment” (2020: 38). The proliferating criminal laws meant to regulate immigration pose a grave danger to certain category of migrants. The French police notoriously use racial profiling when performing identity checks, which puts nonwhite migrants at a greater risk of being incarcerated (HRW, 2020). A hundred years after the end of World War I, the French and the British continue to treat nonwhite people as undesirable bodies. The practice of segregation and racial profiling in Calais show how both states continue to use spatial practices forged during World War I. From 1917 to 1920, while more than 400,000 nonwhite laborers worked on French soil, the French authorities established patterns of mobility echoed in the Dublin regulations and the process of crimmigration. It is during this period that Europeans started to enjoy relatively free circulation in France and the possibility of settling there. In the meantime, nonwhite people lived at the periphery of the cities where they worked, were subjected to extreme surveillance, and were prohibited from circulating freely in the country or to establish social relations with French people.

Spatializing anti-immigration

As Travis Van Isacker has shown, since 2016, the French police, helped by their British counterparts, have practiced systematic domicide, defined here as the willful destruction of one's shelter. Immigration retention centers are no longer the key tool for materializing the racial and ethnic segregation between local populations and non-Europeans. The practice of domicide precisely aims at destroying the solidarity networks refugees and locals have established – by occupying space in the city center of Calais, refugees were claiming basic human rights, they were asserting themselves as political subjects, and they developed solidarities across citizenship categories (Van Isacker, 2019). Domicide is no longer limited to Calais. It is now a key instrument of deterrence along the French northern coast. The French police continue to destroy large camps, such as the Calais hospital camp where more than 800 migrants lived until its forced closing in September 2020. However, while these large-scale destructions make the headlines of newspapers, the daily destruction of tents and migrants’ belongings remains invisible to the public. Associations like Calais Migrants Solidarity, L’Auberge des Migrants and Amnesty International keep a thorough record of migrants’ deaths and of police brutality. These organizations denounce the practice of domicide as a harmful and cruel technique of immigration management, but to no avail. Documenting police abuse in Calais is a risky activity. For instance, British human rights defender Tom Ciotkowski was assaulted by three French policemen in Calais while he was documenting police abuse against migrants in this city in 2018 (Amnesty International, 2020b). It is not an isolated case. In a thorough and scathing report, association L’Auberge de Migrants states that, from November 1, 2017 to July 1, 2018, the French police had “646 incidents pertaining to the intimidation of volunteers. These intimidations range from systematic identity checks to parking fines and also includes threats, insults and physical violence” (Vigny, 2018). Not surprisingly, police violence against migrants is a daily and systematic occurrence. In October 2017, 92% of migrants living in Calais stated that they had been victims of police brutality (Pope and Welander, 2019).

Because of recurring police brutality and because of systematic domicide, many migrants are condemned to walk along the northern French coast or to risk their lives by crossing Dover Strait by any means. In brief, migrants who are trying to cross the English Channel today face three options: they can go to a French immigration detention center if they accept applying for asylum in France (which will be refused most of the time); they can refuse to ask for asylum in France and go to prison while they are waiting to be deported; or they can hide and try to escape the French and British police forces until they find an opportunity to cross the strait. Many “choose” the third option and attempt to cross the strait on frail boats or by swimming. On a weekly basis, corpses wash up on the shores of the French and Belgian coast. In the summer of 2020, illegal crossings of the strait went up, rising from 1,400 crossings in the summer of 2019 to 5,500 in the summer of 2020 (McLennan, 2020). The British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, pledged to send the Royal Navy to prevent illegal crossing, which drew the ire of right-wing Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart and of the French government. However, Patel threatened to withhold funds meant to secure the border. In a stunning reversal, in August 2020, the French government asked for an extra 33 million euros for its police to intercept people on land (Allen and Hope, 2020). The French government also allowed the presence of UK naval warships in the Strait (Tyerman and Van Isacker, 2020). Beyond crimmigration, the present French and British governments want to militarize their current war with migrants.

Practices of spatial exclusions such as systematic domicide or the military surveillance of the Dover Strait indicate that citizenship is far more than a legal category underlining national belonging. Citizenship is also and primarily a spatialized and racialized regime of exclusion. As Van Isacker (2019) puts it, spatial exclusions need to be thought of in the frame of citizenship “as state exclusionary technology of migration governance and mobility control.” The spatial techniques of exclusion remain crude and cruel. In 2020, Home Secretary Patel and her staff studied the possibility of sending asylum seekers to detention camps in Ascension Island, a British territory located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. If technologies of surveillance have changed, the colonial nature of immigration management has not. Because sending migrants to an isolated island would be a financial and logistical nightmare, the British Home Secretary instead opted for the reopening of the immigration removal center in Lincolnshire. This camp is run by the British prison service, is located in a remote area of the UK, and offers jail-like conditions for migrants.

Focusing on immigration practices in Calais should not hide another colonial spatial practice: the externalization of European borders. Calais stands at the epicenter of the so-called immigration crisis in France. Repeatedly, French politicians described it as the consequence of the European Union's inaction at the southern European borders. As described here, the British government, through the Touquet treaty, extended its border operations in France. At the European Union (EU) level, the recent process of border externalization reengages relations between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The EU's border agency Frontex's budget has gone up by 5.233% since 2005 (Buxton and Akkerman, 2019). In 2018, for instance, Frontex spent 320 million euros to solidify and militarize borders in eastern Europe while reinforcing migration control within the Middle East and the African continent.

The EU has signed border control agreements with 35 non-European countries and does not hesitate to work with authoritarian regimes when it comes to decreasing the flows of migrants coming from continental Africa and the Middle East – especially in regions that Calais migrants stem from. Turkey, for instance, collaborates with Frontex and violently prevents Syrian refugees and Kurdish internal migrants from leaving the country. Many Kurdish and Syrian migrants nonetheless manage to get out of Turkey and to walk to Calais. Likewise, the relations between the EU and Sudan follow this pattern. If the EU maintains international sanctions against the Al-Bashir regime in Sudan, it works with Sudanese governmental agencies to train border police officers who operate in Sudan. The new Sudanese border agents primarily belong to the Rapid Support Forces, an organization that “committed a wide range of horrific abuses, including torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes” (HRW, 2019). Buxton and Akkerman aptly note that European border colonialism actually fosters emigration from Africa. “Support for authoritarian rulers, the companies causing climate change, unjust trade relations, corporate impunity, reckless military interventions and the arms trade” are allowing the EU to hold its colonial grip in Africa and the Middle East while transforming entire regions into uninhabitable lands. Most of the people who come to Calais were born in regions formerly colonized by the British. As Mekki Ali, a Sudanese refugee and voluntary refugee worker, declared, the British government should let Sudanese in “because Sudanese were colonized by Britain” (The Telegraph, 2015). The colonial legacies of the current immigration regime at the French–British border does not escape the migrants who are trying to rebuild their lives in the UK, where communities of former subjects of the British empire live and often thrive. The British colonized, or tried to colonize, vast regions in Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth. Today, the French and British armies and through Frontex, the EU, are heavily involved in the conflicts that make these regions unlivable. Now that European crimmigration practices roil African countries that managed newly created internal borders, migrants face cruel treatment beyond the immigration chokepoints of Europe.

By taking a deliberately postcolonial approach to immigration in Calais, I argue that the current management of the French–British border and the externalization of borders through the anchoring of Frontex in Africa show tangible imperial legacies. Moving large numbers of people across oceans, segregating nonwhite people from local populations, criminalizing solidarity and immigration, and using incarcerations and physical violence as means of deterring migrants from settling in the UK are practices inherited from empire states. These practices are not new, and the neutral language of anti-immigrant surveillance and repression cannot hide the racist legacies that sustain the European immigration regime today. On European soil, these racist practices were deployed against the indentured workers who worked for the Allies during World War I. The first mass arrival of nonwhites on French territory, and especially in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais department, fostered the creation of new immigration systems where race and ethnicity opened or closed paths to French and British citizenship. Writing a short history of indenture and immigration in France during World War I allowed me to show that hardline immigration measures are anchored in racialized systems of exclusion. Calais is today a “campscape,” a city where the space of the camp overlaps with urban space (Martin, 2015). The “Jungle” of La Lande and other camps that have risen and disappeared since 1994 attest to the encroachment of refugee camp infrastructure in the Calais region. However, another type of camp reminiscent of the labor camps of World War I is transforming the city of Calais today. The watchtowers surrounding the port and Chunnel areas, the anti-intrusion wall, the razor wire fences surrounding industrial sites and parking lots, and the proliferation of surveillance cameras in all corners of the city and of its periphery have transformed Calais into an open-air prison for migrants. The campscape that the city of Calais has become enables the reproduction of the harsh camp life of indentured workers and points to the racist treatment of migrants who overwhelmingly come from former British colonies and/or from regions where the British army continue to attack. As Harsha Walia writes “large-scale displacements and the precarious conditions into which migrants are cast are not coincidental but rather foundational to the structuring of border imperialism” (Walia and Smith, 2013: 41). A postcolonial reading renders visible the colonial nature of the camp and of the forms of segregation used to prevent social and national belonging for people whose regions have been ravaged by the French and British empires.

Even if trapped in the Calais campscape and subjected to crimmigration, the migrants in Calais and their many allies defy the laws or subvert them to create spaces of freedom and autonomy across citizenship statuses. Like their Chinese counterparts in the 1910s, migrants are pushing back against the technologies and practices of deterrence, and are affirming their presence and political subjectivity by squatting in buildings in downtown Calais or by establishing tent encampments in visible areas. Migrants and activists have their own systems of surveillance, which include the systematic documenting of brutality, or the filming of such brutality. Because activists filmed three French policemen beating up activist Tom Ciotkowski, those responsible will soon be prosecuted (Amnesty International, 2020b). The high-profile acquittal of Cédric Herrou, a French farmer who helped asylum seekers and who was charged for “facilitation of irregular entry,” proves that the pushback against the criminalization of solidarity is efficient (Amnesty International, 2020a). However, as direct physical violence against migrants crescendoes, many are condemned to languish in the campscape that the Calais region has become, or to die while trying to cross the Channel.

Migrants’ and activists’ resistance in Calais has never receded, but the violent deterrence practices that one can witness on a daily basis at the French–British border is not a local but a transnational issue, which demands major institutional shifts. As Carolina Sanchez Boe and Darren Byler (2020) put it, combatting surveillance regimes consolidated by the confluence of state power and big tech “require not only an empowered public but also people within governments and companies to regulate and resist harmful forms of surveillance”. Reifying borders while surveilling and controlling people's mobilities comes at an enormous financial and human cost. Nationalist leaders who promote hardline anti-immigrant measures and deadly deterrence politics must be held accountable, as much as the corporations that generate profits from the militarization of borders and criminalization of immigration. The struggles of migrant activists and their allies in Calais point to more human means and ends when it comes to dealing with immigration. International organization Calais Migrant Solidarity (CMS) activists know that the freedom of migrants is closely linked to the freedom of Europeans, simply by the fact that big tech surveillance infrastructure meant to track immigrants can also be used against anyone. Standing in solidarity with migrants is a political act, a direct confrontation with a French state that prohibits and criminalizes acts of solidarity. Standing in solidarity means to refuse to do the work of charity organizations co-opted by the French state to bring a veneer of humanitarianism to their anti-immigrant policies and to track migrants in the Calais region. As the activists of CMS write, “the problems in Calais will not be covered by a million blankets. The violence and misery here are a direct result of the border. As long as the French and British states keep on using razorwire fences, cops, batons, tear gas, media hatred, and other weapons to try and stop people crossing, there will be suffering. The only way to address this problem is to rise up against the border” (CMS, 2016). Standing in solidarity with migrants, instead of offering them charity, means to combat crimmigration and to create social relations across citizenship regimes, as was the case between many Chinese laborers and French people during World War I. The fact that the French state continues to criminalize such relations shows that equal relationships which are indifferent to skin color, ethnicity, or immigration status open cracks in the border. Migrants are not the passive victims of crimmigration. All of them have successfully crossed many dangerous borders before coming to Calais. Their journeys are a form of resistance to increased border security, not only in Calais but also elsewhere in Europe. Their unnecessary suffering testifies to the need for free circulation in a borderless Europe.

Figure 8.1 Ruminghem Chinese cemetery where indentured workers are buried, July 2019. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.2 Ruminghem Chinese cemetery, July 2019. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.3 Calais, France, 2017. Razor wire fences along the Calais highways. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.4 Fréthun, France, October 2017. Two hundred meters away from the English Channel entrance. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.5 Calais, France, June 2017. The Great Wall of Calais: a four-meter high and one-mile long anti-intrusion barrier surrounding the Calais port. The British government funded the construction of this wall. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.6 Calais, France, June 2017. A Banksy graffiti representing Steve Jobs as a refugee. Located at the exit of the former “Jungle” of Calais. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.7 Grande-Synthe, France, July 2017. Salaam, a British nongovernmental organization, offers meals to migrants. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.8 Calais, France, January 2018. Blankets left behind by migrants in an industrial site adjacent to the port. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.9 Grande-Synthe, France, July 2017. Waiting for the night to come on the shores of Lake Puythouck. Photo: Eric Leleu.

Figure 8.10 Calais, France, January 2018. K., twenty-five years old, walked from Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan and wants to reach England. Photo: Eric Leleu.


1 In this chapter, I am using “migrants” as a very broad term that encompasses people with different situations, such as asylum seekers, refugees, or so-called economic migrants. Crawley et al. provide an excellent analysis of arbitrary immigration categorizations (2017).
2 Leleu and I have been carrying out long-term fieldwork in Calais since 2018. Our goal is to document the physical changes brought about by the hardening of anti-immigrant policies and Brexit in the Calais region.
3 As Patrice Marcilloux notes (2012), a series of measures taken by local officials show the extent of the xenophobia targeting Chinese workers. For instance, in September 1919, citing the criminal nature of Chinese workers, the prefect Robert Leullier asked the Minister of Freed Regions (Ministre des Régions Libérées), for the removal of all Chinese people in the department of Pas-de-Calais. Many mayors followed this and asked for the departure of Chinese workers. Left-wing elected official Émile Basly denounced the “bad deeds that are customary for Chinese populations [that] terrorize people in northern France.” Many other officials asked for more limitations of Chinese mobility in northern France, criminalizing their presence on the basis of xenophobic categorizations.
4 “To the Chinese workers of 1917–1920 who died for France. From the Chinese workers of 1997–2000, who are rejected from France.”
5 On two recent occasions, Chinese citizens tried to cross the border by hiding in frigorific trucks. In 2008, 40 people of Chinese descent suffocated in one of these trucks and were found dead, and in 2018, 58 Chinese people died in the same fashion.


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