9 June 2014.
On the eve of the elections for the European Parliament, the French government sent the CRS riot police and bulldozers to tear down an improvised complex of immigrant camps outside the northern city of Calais and scattered its inhabitants. Many hundreds of people, mostly refugees from countries racked by wars spurred on by the U.S. and Europe, had gathered to help each other stay alive as they waited for the chance to hop on a lorry and make it across the English channel in search of work.
The government's official pretext for the attack was that the immigrants posed a public health hazard. Some allegedly suffered from scabies, a skin disease easily prevented by clean water and sanitation facilities – which the government itself had deprived them of when it razed the Red Cross refugee centre there several years ago.
The police brutalized local people and others who came to the migrant's aid. A few days later, after the plurality won by the anti-immigrant FN in the French EU parliament elections, "We are all children of immigrants" was the main slogan of street protests by secondary school students in half a dozen French cities. Later several hundred people travelled to Calais in a show of support for the refugees.
A previous gathering place for migrants was Villemin Square in Paris, where Afghan migrants took shelter in 2009, before they were scattered by police, and some of them, with no other place to go, moved on to Calais. The French photographer Mathieu Pernot spent time with them then.
His photos show young men wrapped up in sleeping bags or sheets of plastic, their heads covered to shield their eyes from the early morning light: "Invisible, silent and anonymous, reduced to their simple forms, they sleep and hide themselves from the public gaze, withdrawing from a world which no longer wants to see them. Both present and absent, they remind us of the bodies found on a battlefields of a war we no longer see."
Pernot's work is marked by a determination to connect with his subjects over time so as to create an interplay between how they look, his artistic depiction of their exclusion and oppression, and their own interiority and outlook. In 2012, an Afghan migrant called Jawad filled up some notebooks Pernot had given him with this account of how he ended up in Paris. In today's world few countries have produced more refugees and migrants than Afghanistan, from the days of the Soviet occupation to the hell its people now endure in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
To be continued...