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Interview with Alice (and Robin) from NoBorders about the Gatwick camp

Posted by KM on August 20, 2008

Original version of this article at Shift Magazine

Last September, some 300 people gathered a few miles from Gatwick airport for the No Borders camp. What was the idea behind the camp? What were its aims?

The camp was part of the campaign against a new detention centre, Brook House, that is being built at Gatwick Airport. It was also a conscious attempt to strengthen the UK No Borders network, to gather ideas for how to build up the fight against the system of migration controls with other groups working on this issue in the UK, Europe and beyond. There were loads of workshops, talks, films, networking and skill sharing at the camp. Another aim was ‘outreach’ and raising the profile of the campaign against the new detention centre and displaying our opposition to various parts of the immigration infrastructure in the Gatwick area, (reporting centre, detention centre, companies involved in removals flights etc.) As the original call out explained, “Gatwick is a border in the middle of Britain. People arrive there everyday. People are forcibly deported from there everyday. It is a place where people are imprisoned for unlimited lengths of time without trial, where people are forced to hide underground and be invisible, where people are treated as criminals for the ‘crime’ of crossing the border… We demand the end of the border regime for everyone, including ourselves, to enable us to live another way, without fear, racism and nationalism.” The UK context has arguably become much harsher under recent legislation and a cranking up of the No Borders network was certainly needed.

How was the camp organised and why did it come so quickly after the Climate Camp at Heathrow airport?

There have been discussions about a UK No Border camp for many years. This camp was continuing the tradition of the No Borders camps across the world since the late 1990s, and like the camps that took place last year in the Ukraine in August and on the US/Mexican border in November. The original idea, in March 2007, was to have a smaller action camp to disrupt the building of the new detention centre but the idea developed and publicity was taken to the G8 in Germany, early June. This meant that the camp grew in size and became much more ambitious. We have all certainly learned lessons from this experience.

Although there were monthly, open meetings, the majority of logistical organising, networking and fund-raising was done by a (too) small group of existing No Borders activists based mainly in London, Brighton but also from around the UK. The short time frame over a busy period meant that it was difficult to get more people involved. In our debrief, we discussed that perhaps from some places there was pressure to pull off something of similar scale to the climate camp, but this was not by any means an explicit aim of the camp. The main reason that the camp was planned for the late summer was not to clash with other camps/events but also we felt it was essential for the campaign against the new detention centre that it was this summer, building work has already begun! In fact the detention centre is due for completion in 2008.

A conscious decision was made to rent, rather than squat, the land on which the camp was held. Also, instead of mass direct action, the main event was an authorised demonstration to Tinsley House detention centre. Were there (dis)advantages to working within the law?

Squatting was certainly always there as a fall back option, to my knowledge there was certainly no conscious decision made not to squat. Saying that, there was a strong argument to make the camp a place where people with insecure legal status could come without putting themselves at risk. It’s hard to say exactly how asylum seekers and migrants are treated by the criminal justice system, but its certainly unpredictable and often small offences can risk detention and deportation. Of course with squatting, defending the site could well end up being the action in itself and we were not sure about how many people we would be. Ultimately though, we found a really good location and sound farmer for an amount of money that we could afford so we went for that. Due to police pressure, we then lost this site, 48 hours before set up was due to start! We were pretty close to not having a camp at all when we lost the land. This is one big disadvantage of working with rented land, ultimately the police harassed the family on this farm to allow them full access, they denied it, the police continued to harass them and eventually they pulled out of the contract. This has happened before, at the G8 camp in Stirling for example, and this shows that the police are prepared to try hard to stop these events happening.

Because at the last minute the location of the camp was forced to change we were much further from intended targets and so smaller affinity group actions were much harder to do, although there were some, (including an occupation of Virgin Airlines offices and a blockade of Group 4.) This was a real shame as all along the idea had been to have both legal demos and provision for direct action, but it was way out of our control. After the decision was made to get a temporary events notice to make the camp a legal and safe space, from that point on there was a need for negotiation with the authorities. In the end there was no license because our actual location fell in a different council and it was too late.

One thing that was advantageous of having a main, pre-organised legal demo, was that the time actually at the camp, (only 4 days long rather than 8 days at the climate camp,) was not spent deciding what to do and people could easily come just for the day. There was a clear programme of events and of course, autonomy, (although maybe not enough time), for groups wanting to organise direct action alongside that. It did seem strange to be organising a legal demo and it was for sure an uneasy political choice for many. But in reality the aim of the demo was to march through Crawley town centre on a busy Saturday afternoon, show our opposition to the new detention centre and to get to Tinsley House to show our solidarity and communicate with the detainees inside. Our negotiation of a route and a legal demo meant that we did this successfully. Not all the events were negotiated in this way, at Lunar House in East Croydon we gathered outside to give out food and information to the people queuing and the police tried to stop us by using kettles to contain small groups.

Although I took part, I would question whether what happened at the climate camp was a mass direct action. Despite the many many hours spent looking for consensus on the plan, there were many people who felt the whole thing was manipulated and sabotaged. The action on the Sunday at BAA was essentially a blockade at a building which was not open for business. Whether this was fundamentally more effective/ empowering than the demo in Crawley is a question for each individual involved to answer. But the point is that each case needs to be thought about on its own merits about what it is trying to achieve and be planned accordingly. To really get a mass of people I think that at least partly open, pre-planned events can really help. I think also that we should learn about how much energy and time can be spent on reaching consensus with very large, diverse groups which then can sometimes result in decisions which very few people are happy with.

Many of the people at the camp had also been at the Climate Camp. Was there an overlap of effort?

There was certainly a great deal of co-operation between the people organising the infrastructure. The No Borders camp was able to borrow and store structures and a lot of necessary bits and pieces from individuals, groups, neighbourhoods and ‘central’ climate camp tat. This made the No Borders camp able to happen and was a great example of how effort from one thing can carry on to the next. There are plans afoot to make this process more easy – formalised in some way in the future. In all other ways, networking and the campaigns involved, overlap wasn’t really an issue. But I was definitely glad to see that quite a few people did cross over, and that the two issues are seen as interrelated. For example XL airways were targeted during the climate camp for their involvement in deportation flights to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This airline then made a public statement that they were stopping their involvement in deportation flights just before the No Borders camp.

Some commentators have remarked that the Climate Camp stood for ‘austerity’, while the no borders camp stood for ‘freedom of mobility’. Aren’t these irreconcilable politics? Was this an issue at the camp?

Was it an issue? Not one that was discussed that I was aware of. For me it’s an interesting comment, because there is very little that seems to link the two issues together in the public eye. Social justice arguments related to climate change are often down played or ignored whereas I see migration and climate change as totally connected. I was involved in both events, and saw no clash between them but of course I can only speak for myself. For me, climate camp was about many things, I don’t think it is possible to reduce these things to one position. Climate change is perhaps the starkest symptom of the economic system which promotes endless economic growth over all else. Finding ways of living with more autonomy from a fossil fuel- oppressive- climate changing system is one of those, learning skills for self reliance is another. Challenging the idea that the well-off have some inalienable right to fly away to Paris for shopping trips is also important. This year’s camp was also about highlighting BAA’s Heathrow expansion plans and making the argument that this is madness in light of climate change. Perhaps most importantly to me, it was also about opposing the idea that the people whose homes, schools and communities would be destroyed by the expansion of Heathrow, and all the others who will feel the less direct impacts, are the unfortunate victims of necessary progress. The people in Sipson village are one of thousands of communities around the world who are threatened by the pressure for expansion and profit. The climate camp was also about standing in solidarity with those people, but also with the many millions of people whose lives are directly or indirectly affected by the environmental and social ravages of an oil-addicted consumer culture. So yes, climate camp is about challenging unjust and unsustainable consumption, which isn’t the same as being for austerity which has negative connotations. Spiralling debt, work related stress and mental illness, obesity, depleted sense of community are all symptoms of this illness and localised community responses to climate change can also have many other benefits.

Open borders and the freedom of movement for all is also an anti-capitalist position. From slavery through to modern day neo-liberal free trade agreements, the position of wealth and privilege in the global north is, to a large extent, the result of the exploitation of land, people and resources of the two thirds world. The immigration system and fortress europe is designed to preserve this division. Flows of people are managed and controlled in the national interest, and for economic benefit. To speak out against migration controls also challenges the huge injustice which exploits people and resources around the world for the benefit of few. Freedom of movement is the preserve of the relatively rich. People who question the principle of freedom of movement, should consider their huge privilege if they have an EU passport.

In summary, both camps call for social change, a desire for a redistribution of wealth which is both a call for reigning in of western decadence and an opening up of that same wealth to those affected historically and also right now. The climate camp offers a radical critique of responses to climate chaos offered by governments. Many of the options offered by the state such as carbon rationing, would de-facto lead us blindfold into a police state. No Borders has at its core this same resistance to encroachment on our liberties and sees that government systems of control are often trialled on asylum seekers, but they can and will affect us all.

The Climate Camp aimed to build a movement against the causes of climate change. Can you see an emerging no borders movement?

On the one hand yes, the number of active No Border groups in the UK has certainly grown since the camp and there are projects and actions going on, which link these groups into a network. There are big questions which we will be discussing at an up-coming national gathering, about how any No Borders network could be strengthened and made more effective. As well as challenging the construction of new immigration prisons and deportations to possible death and torture, a No Borders movement would have to build widespread agreement that such things are morally unacceptable. Each case that is highlighted by anti-deportation campaigns, every action against a forced removal is part of building towards that point. There may well be a growing movement against the companies that carry out deportation flights for example or the detention estate, run by private companies for profit. Educating ourselves about the immigration system, the harsh reality of ‘illegal’ economic migrants, challenging racist officials and laws and acting in solidarity with all the struggles against these things I see as part of an emerging No Borders movement.

But what exactly do we mean by a movement? There is no such thing as a blueprint for a movement but I understand it to be an informal group action for social change which aims to influence the wider political agenda with its message.

The Climate Camp aimed to include as many people as possible, brought together to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions through education, sustainable living and direct action. An enormous amount of energy was spent bringing a non-hierarchical model of organising to a wide group of people, recognising that we need radical action on a mass scale. The result of this long planning process was two flawed, but fantastic, week-long events. This process was made possible because ultimately there was already a general feeling that “something must be done about climate change” within the mainstream consciousness that could be tapped into and developed. Although many people involved with the camp place this message within a much wider critique, in itself, doing something about climate change is far from a radical message. Indeed everyone including American presidential candidates to fossil fuel companies such as Beyond Petroleum finally seem to agree.

After two years of climate camps, a direct action movement is being drawn together and strengthened against the fossil fuel empire, one of the root causes of climate change. Since the high profile, audacious events, some climate campers have become spokespeople for more radical arguments within the broad, public climate change debate which involves NGOs, politicians and the mainstream media. The Climate Camp was, in short, less about the message conveyed and more about how to get there. It also successfully brought arguments about economic growth lying at the root cause of climate change in to the public spectrum.

I wonder if this approach to movement building is possible, appropriate or even desirable for No Borders. The No Borders network has existed since 1999 and is a loose association of autonomous groups and individuals who work within a political spectrum of direct actions, anti-deportation campaigns and demonstrations which challenge migration controls. The No Borders position is certainly far from having popular currency. It is explicitly anti-state and pro-freedom of movement for all people. It argues that immigration controls are inherently racist and so acts out of solidarity with economic migrants as well as asylum seekers and refugees. In a global economy, where goods are transported and monies flow irrespective of borders, nation states are a way of controlling access to wealth and privilege and dividing the haves and the have-nots both between and inside countries.

This political position is currently on the very fringes of debate about migration, which is dominated by right wing, anti-immigrant scape-goating and human rights based reform. A huge amount of important work is done by groups to support those suffering immigration detention and destitution and supporters will hold someone’s hand all the way to the plane. However, many of these groups do not or can not challenge the immigration system as a whole and are unlikely to ever become part of any No Borders movement. Although there will be some cross-over there are different underlying aims, (reform of vs. abolition of immigration controls). No Borders has a vital role therefore in articulating the anti-capitalist/anti-state position within this debate and taking direct action to prevent things when we can. We are, however, a very long way from making the fight against borders part of the mainstream in this country although there are emerging links between struggles of undocumented workers, detainees and those struggling against immigration controls around the world.

It seems we are perhaps, finally a little nearer to seeing radical action on climate change, (if only the eco-radicals of the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s had been listened to!) But it is important to remember that both are essentially part of the same struggle to destroy our current economic, capitalist system and are equally far away from achieving this aim! Both emerging movements will encounter similar resistance by those who will fight to maintain their power and privilege and this remains the most challenging struggle of all.

The no borders camp got little media interest in the mainstream press. Do you still think it was a success?

It all depends on how you measure success; I sometimes thought it was a miracle that we pulled off the camp at all! I also enjoyed not having a paparazzi or fit team camera pointed at us the entire duration of the camp. We were there for many reasons, getting mainstream media interest was not a high priority for many of us though there were some very positive reports in the local media. It was a success for us as a local group, it was an exciting beginning to a rejuvenated No Border network. There were some very powerful, informative and useful workshops; one I went to about the impact of migration on the autonomous, indigenous communities in Oaxaca for example. There were some really important exchanges between people, both at the camp and outside, when we were at Lunar House reporting centre in Croydon and talking to people inside Tinsley House for example. I had never been on such a big demo at a detention centre and I don’t think Crawley had ever seen anything like it. There were also invaluable opportunities for lessons to be shared with No Border activists and other people struggling in other places around the world.

In retrospect I think everyone involved would have done things differently. But, whether the camp was a success or not will only become clear as we see how the actions, campaigns and network develop over the coming months and years. Any camp needs to be measured on so many different levels, its atmosphere, its logistical organisation, its political impact etc. I for one have had enough of camping for a while and think that I will put energy in to other things, but it was a great experience. The campaign against the new detention centre continues, see www.noborders.org.uk for updates.

Alice is involved with a No Borders group in Brighton. She is also part of Trapese, a popular education collective who recently published, Do It Yourself: A handbook for changing our world. See www.handbookforchange.org

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