El Manba is a political group based in Marseille[i] which since the summer of 2015 has supported the struggle of people on the move[ii] from Italy to France. It is formed by individuals and groups with different political views who have decided to put their energy together to join the struggle of people who were stopped at the border between France and Italy and were claiming freedom of movement and free settlement in Europe.
In summer 2015 France closed the border with Italy: it implemented racialized checks on the documents of those who wanted to cross the border. The police presence was massive, controls were systematic and people who were travelling without papers from the border to Nice were arrested and sent back to Italy. People on the move decided to protest against these events, and began by occupying the cliffs near the sea in Ventimiglia. They claimed freedom of movement and settlement in Europe and asked for their rights to be respected: they were determined not be ignored and asked for a European political recognition of their situation.
European governments never responded, but a lot of people arrived from Italy and also from others countries to join their struggle. The no-border camp[iii] was created on June 11, 2015 and it was a self-organized place in which migrants could find legal support, free accommodation and food, as well as language classes. The camp was shut down on September 30, 2015 by police.
Some of those who had participated decided to create other spaces of international solidarity, free transit and welcome in their hometowns: El Manba in Marseille is one of them. El Manba was created as an occupied space at the end of the summer of 2015 and then shut down at the beginning of April 2016.
Activities continue despite the fact that police repression does not allow another occupation in the city. Sudanese migrants gave Manba this name because in Sudanese it means “the source” of all solutions. Every week an open meeting takes place and various groups organize around different issues such as legal support for asylum seekers passing through Marseille and for those who want to stay and claim asylum. Accommodation is also organized. Others social activities are set up: such as cultural events, bike repair workshops, dinners, sport, French classes, a music group, second hand clothing sale and exchange, open discussions on various topics.
Marseille plays the role of a « city of transit » because it is well connected with Italy and it is half way between the Italian border and the north of France which is the destination of many people who are coming from Italy. The majority of migrants who arrive in Marseille are only passing through. Yet, there are some who decide to stay and claim asylum.
There are also people who return to the south of France from the north, such as Calais and Paris. Amongst them we can distinguish three groups: those who come back to Marseille because they have changed their mind and want to settle down here, people who were forced to move to a detention center for migrants[iv] and people who were persuaded to move to temporary hosting centers[v].
Expelled from Calais
In October 2015 the French government decided to reduce the number of migrants who were living in Calais. It started the first massive operations of collective arrest and deportation of migrants from Calais to several detention centers across France. The intention was to scare and disperse the migrants: a routine of daily arrest in groups of 50 people took place, who were moved by bus all over France. This lasted until December 2015. The operation was a complete failure because almost all the people who were imprisoned in this way stayed there until a judge decided on their release from detention, and then promptly set off for Calais again.
In the meantime, the government decided to try a different way to move people from Calais. Temporary centers were created and a vast campaign was begun, by which the Immigration and Integration French Office[vi] personnel were mobilized to convince migrants to move to temporary centers with the promise of being regularized. According to the Dublin Regulation[vii] immigrants must be identified, giving their fingerprints, in the first European country of arrival and they must claim asylum in this first country. In Calais, people were promised that if they moved to these temporary centers they could claim asylum in France, but instead many of them were in fact forcibly returned to Italy or to other countries where they were identified upon arrival.
Like a lot of other people, Mohamed is a migrant who accepted the move from Calais to a temporary center. His problem was that he had already been ‘identified’ in Italy. He believed the promise of French officials, who assured him that he could claim asylum in France despite his fingerprints in Italy. But until now he has not been allowed to do this.
He did not accept return to Italy and was imprisoned. Facing trial, he risked several years of prison or being deported back to Sudan, the country he had flown from to seek international protection in Europe. Upon his arrival in Italy he did not find this welcome, and was instead physically forced to leave his fingerprints. This is standard practice for Italian police following European instructions. On July 18, he was released but his problems have not finished yet. In fact, he is now facing appeal. A solidarity campaign has been organized for Mohamed and others who, like him, were moved from Calais to the temporary center of Istres, close to Marseille.
The collective rejects these forms of dispersal of migrants across French territory, the application of the Dublin Regulations which cause numerous expulsions to the countries of the south of Europe, in which the practice of pushing back is often again applied to take out these “undesirables”. This practice of dispersal and moving people from one place to another by aleatory criteria through the use of force is extremely dangerous because by law Europe is legitimating and normalizing a treatment that results in disrespect for basic human rights. It is humiliating, violent and serves no purpose.
Copy cat Italy
Unfortunately, during past months, Italy has started using the same procedures as in Calais. To reduce the presence of migrants in the city, in April 2016, the minister of interior Alfano gave instructions to the police in Ventimiglia to start arresting and deporting groups of people. They were moved by groups of 50 by bus and plane from Liguria to the detention centers of the south of Italy and in Sardinia. On August 4, 2016, the Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Italy and Sudan[viii]. This set up collaboration between the two countries on migration issues. The first outcome of this agreement took place on August 24, when 48 Sudanese were arrested in Ventimiglia and deported to Khartoum. Sudan is governed by Omar al-Bashir who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for directing a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians in Darfur. The Italian government seems unafraid about the future of people who were forced to return to the country from which they had taken flight.
The migrants’ situation has deteriorated a lot and conditions have worsenedd during the last year not only at the French-Italian border, but everywhere in Europe. The policies of border externalization and the increase in police repression and violence associated with this, alongside the ordinary exception of “état d’urgence[ix]” slow down and make more dangerous the journeys of people on the move.
Claiming freedom of movement and settlement for all migrants without exception and without discriminating between refugees and economic migrants is fundamental to building a society in which everybody can decide on her or his own future. We join this struggle because it concerns all of us. Their freedom is our freedom.
To these policies which become day by day more inhuman and unacceptable, we can only reply with international solidarity and creativity denouncing these horrors committed by states, but also taking the chance to publicise and promote the actions of a lot of people who have acted so differently – to support, to help and to be with people on the move.
[ii] I prefer use the term ‘people on the move’ to not participate to the distinction between refugees and economic migrants.
[iv] CRA Centre de Rétention Administrative.
[v] CAO Centre d’Accueil et d’Orientation.
[vi] OFII Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration.
[vii] The Dublin III Regulation is a European Union law that determines the state responsible for examining an application for asylum seekers within the European Union.
[viii]The Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and Sudan is part of the process of the externalization of European borders. European governments are working to stop migrants in African countries before they try to cross the Mediterranean. To move the control, the detention and the expulsion of migrants to African states such as Niger, Sudan and Gambia, Europe strives to give money for development to the countries that accept their laws in term of migration. These are the plans that set up the summit between European and African States in La Vallette, in November 2015.
[ix] The State of Emergency are grants special powers to the executive branch in cases of exceptional circumstances. Such a ‘State’ was declared in France following the November 2015 Paris attacks and it has lasted until now.