carr fortress europe

Matthew Carr’s Fortress Europe is a powerful indictment of the inhumanity of the EU’s policies towards refugees, argues Tom Griffiths


Matthew Carr, Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration (Hurst 2015), xi, 313pp.

Razor Wire. When you arrive in Calais, the first thing that strikes you leaving the Eurotunnel is the fences. All topped by vicious looking razor wire. Fence after fence. Short fences and tall heaped up on each other, sometimes less than a meter apart. They spark all sorts of imaginings. What made the authorities want to erect yet another razor wire fence, right there?

You quickly realise you’re looking at a battlefield. With all the fluid and abstract logic that implies. A battlefield dotted with the mechanisms of a war being waged against the free movement of so-called aliens. A landscape through which the free movement of goods and commodities is conspicuous. Double-decker trains stacked with luxury cars rumble by unchecked. Oblivious to the barriers designed for obstructing and slicing into bodies.

The main refugee camp in Calais feels like a shantytown. There are a few tents, but mostly the refugees have built sturdy looking structures, made from assorted and scavenged wood and tarpaulin. There is the constant crack and echo, like distant rifle fire, of hammers banging nails into new buildings. This is a fluid space. So fluid that once a week the local agencies receive an updated satellite image of the camp. Otherwise keeping track of its ever-shifting topography would be impossible. Yet, it has become a permanent space. It may be a living and breathing space, different from one week to the next, but it has put down roots. And so have the so-called aliens. Communities, with shops and washhouses, restaurants, and a large tarpaulin Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The refugees are mostly Syrian, next largest in number are Afghans, then a smattering of Sudanese, Ethiopians and Palestinians. These people, so easily de-humanized by the racist rhetoric of the mainstream political establishment in the UK and across Europe, have made incredible journeys. Courageous, dangerous and often illegal journeys through a Europe that more and more reveals itself to be a hard and violent place if you don’t have the right papers. Or you’re a Muslim. Being a Muslim definitely doesn’t help.

Fortress Europe

Matthew Carr’s Fortress Europe, Inside the War Against Immigration (now in its second edition) is a polemical but brilliantly researched book, rich in compassion and humanity. Carr paints a picture of an ‘often lethal confrontation between some of the richest countries on earth and a stateless population from some of the world’s poorest’ (p.3). The rich states employ super high-tech, militarized hardware, such as satellite surveillance, naval patrol boats, detention centres, pitiless policing methods, and state of the art security systems, against people fleeing death and poverty in their own countries, equipped only with what they carry on their backs.

It is a book about borders. It is about those ‘hard borders’ as Carr calls them, which he has visited extensively and writes about with the conviction and indignation of someone who has seen things with his own eyes. Camps in Morocco and of course Calais. Check points and detention centres in Eastern Europe and more. It is also a book about the political forces that create, maintain and enforce these borders. It is a politics of fear, of thinly veiled, and often outright, racism. It is a politics of manoeuvring and hypocrisy. While EU countries have granted their own citizens unlimited freedom of movement, those from without are scapegoated and outlawed. Carr talks us through how the outwardly noble intentions of the Schengen agreement, would become ‘an instrument of fortification’ (p.29).

In his final postscript, ‘Towards Barbarism’, he outlines how the EU has become more, not less hostile, toward the ‘undocumented’ thousands who have entered at great peril, into this now heavily militarized ‘gated continent’. When Carr began his research in 2008 the economic crisis that is the defining truth of our moment had only just begun to have an effect in this shadowy, ‘off grid’ world. The intervening years have seen the situation worsen drastically. Now Carr warns us of a far right growing in strength, alongside a mainstream political narrative that is creeping ever rightward at the same time.

When Carr was finishing his first draft of FortressEurope, Golden Dawn were marginal in Greek politics at best, but at the time of his postscript, they have become a formidable force with power to influence policy, including the round-up of undocumented immigrants into detention centres. And in 2015, returning to Calais, he finds a situation many magnitudes worse than before. At the time of his first visit in 2010 he claims there can’t have been more than 1500 refugees there, now there are at least five thousand and the French police force are far more intransigent and quick to deploy the violent and often openly racist CRS (special riot police) with tear gas and truncheons.

When I visited Calais, as part of the People’s Assembly’s delegation at the end of May 2016, you could see quite clearly the recently bulldozed area at the eastern end of the so-called ‘jungle’ camp. The French authorities and the dutiful European press had created the impression that the camp was gone, or at least mostly gone … or perhaps somehow disappeared into the shadows. Of course, this suits Hollande’s government and Cameron’s increasingly racist one. Problem solved, out of sight, out of mind. The truth is quite different.

There are now at least seven thousand migrants living in very basic and difficult conditions across camps in Calais and Dunkirk. Because of the false impression that the camps have been dismantled or moved on, aid and volunteers have dwindled dramatically. The refugees have come a long way and now find themselves checked at the last moment by the hard borders surrounding the UK, policed by their EU allies.

The UK is one of the richest countries on earth and could easily find the resources to help these people. People, though tired and stressed, who are quick to smile and among the most tenacious you’ll ever meet. Things will not change while the UK remains tied to the racist EU project and the neoliberal austerity politics that dominate it. Another Europe must be sought, other than this barbaric continent, described so forcefully in Matthew Carr’s book. But we will need to fight for it outside the EU.

You can help put pressure on the British Government by joining the Protest and Solidarity ‘Convoy to Calais’ on Saturday June the 18th, organised by The People’s Assembly, Stop the War, Stand Up to Racism and many others. We will be delivering a large amount of aid to the depots servicing the camps and will bring a message of compassion and solidarity to our brothers and sisters in Calais. More details can be found here.

See you on the road.