Refugees and Police Violence in Calais

An anthropologist reflects on ethical responsibility and everyday violence.

Sitting on a bench in a beautiful town-center park in Calais, we speak to a number of Ethiopian refugees who tell us they are worried about further confrontation with the police. I am volunteering with a British NGO as part of my fieldwork, and, accompanied by one of the longer-term volunteers, we have been tasked with waiting at the main train station and walking around the local park to check on the refugees who gather there to make sure they have everything they need. This is a routine part of the day for the NGO workers who see their presence at the train station and park as playing a role in preventing police violence towards the refugees. However, minutes after we meet the group of young men, we see a vanful of French riot police (CRS) start to interrogate the refugees. The conversation becomes heated and aggressive until a group of No Border activists intervene. The police push the group of refugees into the small van and drive off. One of them is an Ethiopian Marathon runner fleeing due to political persecution. He carries a small-back pack and in it is a British Union Jack flag. He seeks comfort in sleeping on it each night. His desired destination a few miles across the channel—the longest marathon he will ever run. (Fieldnotes, May 2017)

On June 24, 2017, a group of French and British politicians and dignitaries gather to unveil two bronze coated statues standing side by side—one of Winston Churchill and one of Charles De Gaulle—to celebrate the long entente cordiale between France and Britain in spite of Brexit. Over one thousand British people received a free day trip to Calais in an attempt to show that it is still a desirable destination for British holiday-makers. But in the nearby park, refugees sleep rough without shelter, subject to daily police harassment, while they wait to try their luck to cross into the United Kingdom. Some of these refugees are young children. Some have been waiting for months, some for years.

In this way, Calais is a place of controversy, negotiation, hurt and fear, where one of the major crises of our time unfolds with brutal force. It is also a place of pretty beaches, colorful characters; home to the Northern French, who, as the French saying goes, carry the sun in their hearts. As in any field-site, there are many stories to be told in Calais, often from competing, opposing perspectives. Local Calaisians remain divided over some of the challenging dynamics in their hometown, some are fearful and angry; some volunteer with local charities. The same can be said for the many lorry-drivers and holiday-makers who pass through.

Graffiti in Calais, including Banksy portrait of Steve Jobs carrying a knapsack and Macintosh computer. Alberto Hugo Rojas/Flickr Public Domain.

A few days prior to the unveiling of the memorial, a Polish lorry driver was killed in an accident on a nearby motorway as anxious refugees attempted to slow down traffic in order to cross the channel. News of his death quickly circulated, particularly among the lorry driver community and local townspeople, generating even more wounded divisions on the topic of refugees.

Calais is overwhelming. It is indeed a place “in extremis,” a port town firmly wedged in the intersecting crises that characterize the Europe I live in and the world in 2017. As an anthropologist with experience working with Indigenous Australians forcibly removed from their families (Stolen Generations) (see Murphy 2011) and refugees on the island of Ireland (see Maguire and Murphy 2012), I am familiar with the entanglements of suffering and violence that disrupt and reform the life experiences of those caught in the stranglehold of forced mobility. Yet, standing in the fields and parks of Calais and nearby Dunkirk, as little children asked me for saline drops to cleanse tear gas from their eyes, I felt, forcefully, the violence that originates in our general lack of attentiveness to and solidarity with one another as human beings.

Calais has become, for this anthropologist, a symbol of the violence of everyday life—of the inequalities that prop up certain kinds of life at the expense of others. Violence in Calais symbolizes the hollowness of spirit and solidarity that has recast this world—as Paul Stoller (2017) recently argued—as one without harmony. This is not too dystopian a view in a time when the moral compass of many nation-states has come a cropper. Children are left without basic human rights in a field in the North of France and are subject to regular terrorizing by police. The question of how anthropology should respond is then an urgent one. Anthropologists who work in these contexts have much reflected on this question. But for it to truly mean something, it must be done at a more unifying level within the discipline—to echo AAA president Alisse Waterson’s (2017) recent call for unity and solidarity.

Calais has become, for this anthropologist, a symbol of the violence of everyday life—of the inequalities that prop up certain kinds of life at the expense of others.
I have long struggled with how we, as anthropologists, can produce scholarly work that “acts on the world” (Jackson 2002)in meaningful and practical ways for the people we work with. I was not alone in this struggle in Calais. Grant call after grant call seeks scholars to research “refugees” and the ongoing crisis. “Refugee” and associated topics such as security, extremism, borders are the mot du jour in research funding activities in the neoliberal University. As someone who works in a British university under the pressures of the research excellence framework (REF), I am involved in many such applications. This means an influx of many different kinds of scholars at different levels into places like Calais, which is both beneficial and problematic—in fact, one activist described it to me as a kind of “cultural mining.” As a result, many of us become direct witnesses to the widespread culture of violence directed towards refugees, migrants, and volunteers.

Police routinely pull down make shift shelters that appear, with sleeping bags and belongings destroyed in the process. The chaotic dismantling of the now infamous Calais jungle—a refugee camp on the edge of the port town (situated next to the site of a former chemical factory)—saw individuals and families scattered around the Nord Pas De Calais region. Administering aid to the still large number of refugees in the region has become increasingly challenging for the many NGOs and charities in the area. Access to basic shelter and water has become impossible for many refugees.



Witnessing violence

 Little children run towards me, a brown-eyed girl with dark curls dancing on her forehead, begs me for some pyjamas. Overwhelmed, I tell her that all we have today are T-shirts. I imagine her mother following her bed-time routine—PJs, story, hugs and kisses—ordinary and mundane but yet extraordinary in this place marred by its very inhumanity. (Fieldnotes, Calais 2017)

Recent NGO reports have documented the high levels of police violence that refugees in the North of France experience almost daily: the Human Rights Watch report (2017) ‘Like Living in Hell’: Police Abuses against Child and Adult Migrants in Calais,” and the Refugee Rights Data project report (2016) “The Long Wait: Filling the data gaps relating to refugees and displaced people in the Calais camp.” Refugees and NGO volunteers explain how refugees are pepper sprayed or tear gassed while they are sleeping at night. Violence is indiscriminate—women and children are targeted, as are NGO volunteers. Violence, it might even be said, is the raison d’être of how refugees in France are policed.

Graffiti on Calais beach. Alberto Hugo Rojas/Flickr Public Domain.

Although I am not conducting an ethnography of police violence or police subjectivity in France—this has been well documented by Didier Fassin (2013)—the question of how anthropologists should respond is a critical one. In the context of a direct witnessing of such violence, we can intervene but with many risks. In the context of writing about refugees’ experiences (which are multifarious), we need to do more than just negotiate or pathologize the ontologies of such violent agents—we need to take appropriate action. How that action is constituted is unfortunately a larger dilemma. Perhaps this is where some of the fissures on questions of activism and advocacy appear within the discipline.  

On the final day of my fieldwork in Calais, I helped a British medical doctor fill large jerry-cans of water that he and his wife were going to distribute among some of the refugees. He told me how “Calais had just gotten under his skin” and he came from the UK on as many weekends as he could to volunteer. As I waved goodbye to him and his wife with a car load of water, he called out of the window, “Can you imagine that this is the North of France in 2017?” I couldn’t and I still can’t. This space of waiting is inventively perverse. It is a place of real and invisible fences, miles and miles of them, undulating with the surrounding hills. It is also a place of artful possibilities, where new futures and realities are imagined, hoped for, clung on to with fervor. For some, beyond the undeviating fences are clumps of golden rod-hope of a new beginning. Only a thin channel of water shuts them off from this imagined reality, at least that is what many people have come to believe.

Like much of the work we undertake, work with refugees assumes an urgency of ethical responsibility (see Murphy and Hogan 2017). This is why we need to continually reflect on what the anxious shifting registers of such ethical responsibilities bring to this kind of work and ultimately, what it will allow us to put back into the world.  

At the very least, anthropological work on refugees should disrupt the international order of things with respect to such mobilities; it should make a real difference to the reality of refugee experiences as they seek to reinvent their worlds.

Fiona Murphy is an anthropologist in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice in Queen’s University Belfast. She works on Indigenous politics in Australia and Migration issues on the island of Ireland, France, and Turkey. She is co-author of Integration in Ireland: The Everyday Lives of African Migrants.

Cite as: Murphy, Fiona. 2017. “Refugees and Police Violence in Calais.” Anthropology News website, December 11, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.722

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.