We’re all familiar with the paranoia, particularly prevalent in Australia, that creates an impression of panic at our border; that asylum seekers who arrive at our shores are insincere, opportunistic ‘queue jumpers’. That they come ‘illegally’, exploiting our immigration system for their own advantage, in place of those ‘genuine’ refugees who supposedly obey the laws of resettlement by waiting patiently in camps. A quick glance over the comments thread beneath anything refugee-related confirms just how swamped by hateful and often Islamophobic vitriol a well-meaning, rights-based argument has become. It seems more important than ever to affirm that amid the worst refugee crisis in human history there is no ‘queue’ to speak of but a clear and achievable obligation amongst capable nations to offer displaced people protection.
In this context, Kate Evans’ Threads is timely and important. A beautifully drawn work of graphic journalism, it documents Evans’ visits to the ‘jungle’ – or improvised refugee camp in Calais – over a two-year period, culminating in the forced dismantling of the camp and relocation of asylum seekers to other parts of France last year. The camp and nearby forest is a natural meeting point for people in transit, given its proximity to the tunnel and sea routes that offer a passage on vehicles bound for the UK.
The book’s title alludes to the region’s historical importance as a centre for lacework, which Evans employs as a connecting theme, bringing together her impressions of the camp and those who wait within it. Evans documents her encounters with refugees, volunteers and the community formed among them. There are loose ends, lives that hang in uncertainty, and the suggestion that Calais is merely one node of a larger network, indicating nothing less than a global, human-made disaster. What emerges is a vivid psychogeography of the camp – a place of waiting, marked by hope and resilience but fraught with vulnerability.
Attention is given to small, everyday interactions: the distribution of clothing or the building of temporary shelters. There is the sharing of food, and after that, stories and images of homes and loved ones located elsewhere. There are improvised games of soccer and ‘invisible cricket’, played without any gear let alone a ball. There are art workshops held in an activity room, affording people the chance to express something of their lived experience. Such interactions might be repeated in any refugee centre anywhere in the world, though Evans’ sympathetic treatment of the subject stuck with me. These are people brought together by force of circumstance, yet able to connect over the things that give meaning and value to their lives.
Evans is instantly recognisable for her cartoonish-purple hair, sketchbook and pencil at the ready. She draws portraits of those she meets, registering their sometimes disappointed reaction to her attempts (a sweet reminder that the image we carry of ourselves doesn’t always line up with the way other people view us). Her drawing style is accessible and emotive. It renders her frustrated inability to prevent British police rough-handling a young asylum seeker who is caught at the border, and the callous indifference of the officers on duty. Evans is not uncritical of her own subject position as a white, middle-class, UK-resident whose freedoms overshadow those of anyone in the camp. She believes in the importance of humanitarian work but is not oblivious to its shortcomings and lack of power to effect structural change.
This is a strong feature of comics journalism: to not simply depict events as they unfold, but to actively engage with those events in a self-reflexive way. Whereas run-of-the-mill journalists adopt a stance of professional distance or objectivity, which can border on indifference, graphic journalists (particularly after the work of Joe Sacco and like so many good comic memoirists, from Robert Crumb to Allison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman) do not shy away from putting themselves in the frame or from showing the effect their presence has on those around them. This subjective aspect of the form makes it uniquely powerful.
The term ‘jungle’ was originally coined by the inhabitants of the Calais camp as an ironic in-joke about its squalid conditions, though it soon became a pejorative label for those who oppose the entry of refugees to the UK. Echoing the worst discursive tropes of the colonial era, it suggested a place of uncivilised lawlessness and barbarism. A strong presence of Evans’ work is the hostile interpolation of nationalist politicians and pundits, the violence of border police and anti-migrant vigilante groups who so effectively undermine support for refugees: ‘This cartoon could not be better propaganda for battlefield veteran Islamic militant males invading northern Europe,’ cries one keyboard warrior.
At times I wish Evans’ rebuttal of such nonsense had gone further. She makes a moral case for the responsibility of countries that contributed to the destruction of Iraq and its neighbours to accept refugees as a consequence of their actions. Yet I’ve always found that approach implicitly limiting, given its focus on ‘our’ presumed role in the situation, or lack thereof, rather than to advocate for the inalienable rights of people tout court. The argument inadvertently puts ‘us’ (rights-bearing citizens) up as the arbiters of who is or is not welcome to protection. While there’s a point to be made for the historical culpability of modern-day imperial powers, this is not unrelated to broader philosophical arguments about the rights of everyone to seek protection.
Evans proposes the economic good sense of an open borders policy, referring to Michael Clements’ much cited prediction that allowing the free movement of people would lead to the doubling of global GDP. Considering how often the left are accused of putting compassion over pragmatism, when we know Australia’s cruel policy of mandatory detention entails huge economic waste, this comes as a welcome argument. Here the response to anti-migrant discourse is also the strength of Evans’ graphic novel, insofar as populist anti-refugee sentiments come off looking pretty hollow next to the reality she depicts. The view of asylum seekers as an invading horde does not make sense when contrasted to the dilemmas of a single mother trying to feed and protect her children, or of a Syrian man who cannot be reunited with family members already residing in the UK, or of unaccompanied children distracting themselves with sport.
Threads is a passionate, powerful and beautifully drawn refutation of Fortress Europe’s increasingly closed borders. It documents the risks and traumas faced by displaced people, the interminable limbo, and the ability to forge a sense of community in spite of harsh deprivations. That the camp was administered mostly by volunteers is a hopeful reminder of the ordinary person’s capacity to enact change on a micro-level, which is to step up and provide support when the state abjures its responsibility to others.