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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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Americans are more likely to be attacked by far-right terrorists than Islamists

Trump says silent because “radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his voting base – and “white supremacist terrorists” are.

Remember how Donald Trump used to accuse the Democrats of political correctness on the subject of terrorism? “These are radical Islamic terrorists and she won’t even mention the word and nor will President Obama,” declaimed the then Republican presidential candidate in his second debate against Hillary Clinton in October 2016.

But what about Trump’s own political correctness? Over the course of his 14 months in office, the president has pointedly refused to use the term “white supremacist terrorist”. He has turned a blind eye to a wave of shootings, stabbings and bombings carried out not by radicalised Muslims but by radicalised white men. He has ignored the fact – documented in a range of studies – that Americans are much more likely to be the victims of a “white supremacist terrorist” than a “radical Islamic terrorist”. (According to the Investigative Fund, an independent journalism organisation, “far-right plots and attacks outnumber Islamist incidents by almost two to one.”)

And the reason for Trump’s PC position? It’s straightforward – if scary. “Radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his base. “White supremacist terrorists” are.

Don’t take my word for it. “Donald Trump is setting us free,” wrote a jubilant Andrew Anglin, founder of a neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, last summer. “It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups and extremists, agrees. “If 2016 was the year of white supremacists being electrified by the rise of Donald Trump, his inauguration in January sent them into a frenzy,” it noted. “They believed they finally had a sympathiser in the White House and an administration that would enact policies to match their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist ideas.” The SPLC pointed out that “hate crimes in the six largest US cities were up 20 per cent from 2016”.

According to the Extremist Crime Database, the far right carried out nine fatal attacks in the US in 2017. In February of that year, Adam Purinton shot two Indian men, one of whom was killed, at a restaurant in Kansas, reportedly yelling “get out of my country” and “terrorist” before opening fire.

In March 2017, James H Jackson, an avid reader of the Daily Stormer, fatally stabbed an elderly African-American man in New York, after travelling from Baltimore to kill as many black men as possible and “make a statement”, according to the authorities.

In May, Jeremy Joseph Christian, an admirer of both Trump and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was charged with stabbing two men to death on a train in Portland, Oregon, after they tried to prevent him from harassing two female passengers who appeared to be Muslim.

In August, James Fields Jr, a proud neo-Nazi, was charged with killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer after allegedly driving his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had gathered to protest against a white supremacist rally. (“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Trump would later remark .)

In December, a 17-year-old boy who had mowed a swastika into the grass of a community field was charged with murdering his girlfriend’s parents after they objected to their teenage daughter’s relationship with the youth because of his neo-Nazi views.

Yet hardly any of these fatal attacks by radicalised white men dominated the news headlines in the US in the same way that shootings or bombings by radicalised Muslims tend to. Aside from the killing of Heyer in Charlottesville, how many of these incidents had you even heard of? Researchers at Georgia State University found that terrorist attacks “by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449 per cent more coverage than other attacks”. Muslims were responsible for 12.4 per cent of the terror attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 yet received 41.4 per cent of the news coverage. Is it any wonder that when most Americans think of terrorists they picture brown, not white, skins?

“Terrorism is one of the only areas where white people do most of the work and get none of the credit,” joked the comedian Ken Cheng in a viral tweet. But this is no joking matter for the Trump administration. Upon coming to office last year, White House officials briefed Reuters that they wanted to “revamp and rename a US government programme designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism… and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists.”

By June, the administration had announced it would be revoking federal funding for Life After Hate, a non-profit dedicated to deradicalising right-wing extremists, and a project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was supposed to counter both violent Islamists and white supremacists.

Yet in May last year, an intelligence bulletin prepared by the FBI and the department for homeland security was obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, which warned that “white supremacists had already carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years”. It concluded that white supremacists “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year”.

And so they have. Just as George W Bush ignored intelligence about a growing threat from al-Qaeda in his first year in office, Trump spent 2017 ignoring warnings about the “persistent threat of lethal violence” from white supremacists.

“To solve a problem you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least, say the name,” declared Trump in his October 2016 debate with Clinton. Maybe, just for once, the president should take his own advice.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special