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Blockades, attacks, and tear gas: what’s going on in Calais?

Unrest escalates as the “The Jungle” is set to close.

Walking into the Calais camp – now known by inhabitants and the rest of the world as “The Jungle” – for the first time last Thursday, I couldn’t quite believe the scene unfolding before me.

Traffic had stalled on the motorway towering over the camp and, seizing on a rare opportunity so close to the tunnel, hundreds of refugees charged at the white barbed wire fence in broad daylight, breaking through and storming the lorries bound for the UK. The riot police – stationed there, forever on standby – tear-gassed the crowd into submission, eventually restoring order, with refugees and volunteers alike left shielding their burning eyes. 

Life in the camp at that moment couldn’t seem more desperate. Until you speak to the residents and realise how many put themselves through this hell every night. Winter is fast approaching and they’re well aware of the political backdrop.

The French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s promise to dismantle the camp is met with a mix of cynicism and fear. Tension is in the air, even more so than usual I’m told, and there’s a palpable sense that time is running out.

Ramzi, a young boy from Libya who dreams of becoming a pilot, and one day lighting the boxing ring up like his hero Muhammad Ali, tells me how he walks for five hours every night “without fail” out of the camp, in the vain hope of smuggling onto a train or lorry heading for the coast.

“Just 35 minutes it takes,” he tells me. “I only have to get lucky once.”

Other people’s success stories keep hope alive here. “Yesterday 12 of my friends made it” Ramzi tells me. “One day that’s going to be me”. Regardless of the slim odds and worsening living conditions – with dwindling donations and food queues lengthening – everyone I meet shares stories just like Ramzi’s, and talks hopefully of the life that awaits them in Britain. For them it’s not a question of if they’ll make it, but when.

As I say goodbye to Ramzi, he describes a horrific event he claims he witnessed in the camp: “I saw three men beat a Sudanese man to death last week; with their bare knuckles.” It was the casual way he slipped it into conversation – as if extreme violence were just an afterthought, and is now part of his reality – which I will find hard to shake off.

Such reports of violence and lawlessness are rare, but sadly just one affects the way the world interprets the estimated 7,000-8,000 mostly peaceful people living here.

At the “Three Idiots” restaurant on the camp’s main pathway – sarcastically titled “Theresa May Street”– I share a meal of lentils and chickpeas with Richard, a former Nato driver from Afghanistan tortured by the Taliban and forced to flee, just because of who paid his wages.

He dreams of reuniting with his family and living a dignified life again. “In the UK you have hot showers and good opportunities for business,” he says. “Here we wait two hours for showers that don’t last five minutes.”

Most here speak warmly of Britain. Many speak English, see Britain as a country that tolerates their cultures, and where the luckiest of their family and friends live safely and freely.

A common misconception is that everyone in the camp is poor, when in many war-torn countries it’s a middle-class privilege to afford the journey across two continents to get here. I meet trained plumbers, carpenters and doctors maintaining the site’s infrastructure and its residents’ health. Farhad, a high-end dress maker, chased out of Iran for protesting against his government’s human rights record, shows me his fabulous collection over tea. He spent everything he had on a fake passport, which took him to Ireland before he was discovered. “I don’t want to come to just take, take, take” he says while waggling a finger. “I have something to give back,” he adds, as he looks down proudly at his hands.

Attitudes to refugees and migrants – on both sides of the channel – appear to be hardening.

In advance of this week’s blockade of the motorway route into Calais, residents were urged not to leave the camp. This was to avoid lorry drivers subjected to escalating violence and disgruntled local farmers protesting against the camp’s existence, demanding a firm date to be set for its clearance.

The problem with the Calais situation is that the interests of everyone involved are far too conflicted for a clear-cut solution. The riot police are just following orders. Lorry drivers have the right to feel safe as they do their jobs. Governments stay elected by prioritising national anxiety over the universal good. And yes, refugees attempt to break our border laws every night. But when dignity and freedom are at stake, I don’t know who – in their predicament – wouldn’t be doing the same.

Names have been changed to protect sources’ identities.

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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