The media have been covering migrants’ attempts to get from France to the UK through the Channel Tunnel in a rather confusing, conflicting way. This blog post aims to zone in on a few facts and figures, then set out the main UK political parties’ responses to the crisis, before concluding with my own musings.
In 1999, a refugee camp was opened by the French Red Cross in Sangatte near Calais, which immediately attracted thousands of would-be asylum seekers. Unfortunately it also attracted people traffickers, with many people in the camp opting to pay their way to illegally cross the border.
In 2002, French politician Nicolas Sarkozy (who at the time was Minister of the Interior) ordered the closure of the Sangatte camp. Since then, migrants have continued to arrive in Calais, building their own makeshift camps near the port. Occasionally, the illegal camps are cleared, and new ones spring up. This has been going on for the past 13 years, but numbers have recently increased and it is estimated that over 3,000 people are now based in these camps.
The current crisis
The increase in numbers of migrants based at Calais has directly led to an increase in attempts to cross the border. Home Office figures say that 39,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally were made last year. Between January and July this year, Eurotunnel says it has already blocked 37,000 attempts, and French police have said there are too many migrants for them to make arrests.
For the past four nights, unspecified numbers of migrants (some reports say hundreds; others, thousands) have attempted to enter the Channel Tunnel in any way they can: by gaining access to the backs of lorries, climbing on top of them, or walking along the Eurotunnel railway lines. This has caused disruption on both sides of the tunnel, with delays to train, road and sea travel. In Kent, ‘Operation Stack’ is in place, with sections of the M20 essentially turning into a long stretch of car park for freight lorries.
UK politicians’ responses
Prime Minister David Cameron chaired a meeting of the COBRA emergency committee earlier today, calling the situation “unacceptable”, and has pledged to supply additional sniffer dogs and fencing to Calais. On the Kent side, he is looking into the possibility of using Ministry of Defence land to ease traffic problems. It is by any measure a small-scale response and purely focused on issues of security and travel.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage has suggested that lorries should be diverted to other ports, such as Ramsgate, instead of queuing for Dover to Calais. He would take futher measures to ensure border security, saying: ‘If, in a crisis, to make sure we’ve actually got the manpower to check lorries coming in, to stop people illegally coming to Britain, if in those circumstances we can use the army or other forces, then why not?’
Labour’s position is that the UK government has failed to work with the French government for months, with leadership contender Yvette Cooper saying: ‘This Calais crisis needs practical action not intemperate rhetoric from the Prime Minister. The Government’s diplomatic action with France is clearly failing to solve the problems – we need urgent measures to prevent people losing their lives, ease the disruption and prevent the chaos in Calais and problems in Kent.’ Deputy leader Harriet Harman criticized David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarms’ in relation to the groups of migrants attempting to cross the border, reminding him these are ‘people, not insects’.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron added his objection to the term ‘swarms’ and seriously questioned the thinking behind the UK’s response, saying: ‘We are treating this as a security issue, but primarily it is a humanitarian one. We should be big enough to take a lead and accept our fair share of refugees, rather than expecting others to do it for us. There are genuine people who need our help, but equally there are people exploiting a desperate situation. The UK government must provide all the support it can to maintain a firm but fair approach at our borders. That means the UK needs to sign up to the EU asylum policy, but just moving in with force and building a bigger fence is not a solution.’
Deputy leader of the Green Party Shahrar Ali also criticized Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarms’, saying Cameron should retract his comment. He believes the Prime Minister should focus on the fact that there are lives at stake, rather than worrying about delays for holiday-makers, concluding: ‘A range of wider actions is needed, which recognise our contribution to historic and contemporary reasons for forced migration. A new, expensive high fence isn’t the answer.’
What should be done?
Higher fences and tighter security may stop it from being “our problem” in the sense that illegal entry to the UK via the Channel Tunnel will be less viable, but it is no real solution. We currently have no way of knowing exactly how many of the migrants are orginally from war-torn countries where they had to flee for their lives, but everyone knows this is true for a significant proportion. Instead of ignoring this fact we should establish it further.
The ideal solution would be to have a proper asylum centre established near the port of Calais, so that each person can go through a process of identification and application for asylum in either France or the UK. This would allow the genuine asylum seekers to legally build themselves a better life, and anyone falsely claiming asylum could be safely returned to their non-war-torn country of origin. The police could then focus on catching the people traffickers, rather than detaining the people who were being trafficked.
Of course, this is unlikely to happen, because having a proper processing centre would attract more migrants to Calais, and neither France or the UK want to encourage this. They would both rather it remained someone else’s problem.
I hope that David Cameron and Francois Hollande will start to work together properly and consider the wider picture. As leaders of two of the biggest countries within the EU, they bear a responsibility to look after people within its borders. No matter what the circumstances, migrants’ lives should be more newsworthy than citizens’ holidays.