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Calais crisis

Samira Shackle, London
July 30, 2015

As the refugee drama continues to unfold outside the Channel Tunnel, the UK is sticking to its consistently hardline stance on refugees and migrants. But is this helpful, asks Samira Shackle in London?

Image: Reuters/P. Rossignol

Prime Minister David Cameron's promise to step up the number of deportations of migrants, whom he described as a "swarm of people" from North Africa, has triggered outrage and poured further fuel on the crisis. Opposition figures and NGOs have described it as "awful, dehumanizing language from a world leader." On top of that he has pledged 7 million pounds in extra funding to improve fencing as a further deterrent.

This week has seen a surge in migrants attempting to enter the Channel tunnel, generally by trying to access platforms so they can hide in trains or trucks. On Tuesday night, 1,500 attempts were made; on Monday, 2,000. Clearly, this is perilous. Nine migrants have died near the Channel Tunnel terminal in the last month. Two other Sudanese migrants are in hospital after being hit by high-speed trains on Monday.

The English Channel, between Dover and Calais, is just 20 miles wide - the narrowest point between the European mainland and the UK - and as such holds great symbolic value. A huge number of commercial passengers pass through this route, so migrants crossing the border illegally at Calais are highly visible. "It's a serious problem. There are thousands of people making attempts to go through the tunnel," says Marley Morris, researcher on migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research. "But the numbers in Calais trying to cross to Britain are small in comparison to the wider numbers of migrants and refugees trying to get to Europe overall."

people breaking through fence
The UK has pledged tougher immigration measuresImage: Reuters/P. Rossignol

However, this still poses a problem for the British government, which has taken a consistently hard line on immigration. In response to Wednesday's news, the Home Secretary Theresa May called for an "urgent" security upgrade.

Acting tough, doing nothing

"Every time there's media attention, the home secretary is desperate to look like she's doing something tough - more fences, more security zones. I don't think anybody, including her, believes this will solve the problem," says Zoe Gardner, communications officer at AsylumAid. "We've seen the desperation motivating these journeys. People are willing to risk their lives. Some people have suggested sending in the military. It's absurd and heading in a scary direction - militarized borders. This is not a problem that's going away and it needs long-term solutions."

Migrants and refugees have gathered at Calais, hoping to gain entry to Britain, for years, often being held in dire conditions. "The presence of migrants in Calais has been a constant theme for the last 15 years or longer," says Don Flynn, director of the Migrants' Rights Network. "The real issue here is 15 years of wasted years of policy. The French and British governments have completely failed to come up with policies that address the issue. They focus on tough policing which contains the issue, and then periodically they move into crisis mode."

The current situation at the Channel Tunnel, with passengers facing severe delays, is not entirely due to the migration crisis. French ferry workers are striking over an employment dispute, which has contributed to roadblocks and delays. "That's what is causing the chaos and backlog of lorries," says Flynn. "The migrant situation has grown out of that."

Part of a bigger problem

Stuck in the jungle: the refugees of Calais

While migrants at Calais are there because they are seeking entry to the UK, they form a small part of a wider picture of migration to Europe. As such, most agree that the problem must be tackled by countries working together. "The French authorities need to provide proper provision for people at Calais - they shouldn't be left in 'the jungle,' as it's become known," says Phillip Blond, director of the think tank Respublica. "I would remove the camp at Calais and process people properly. I don't think one country can solve this problem on its own. On a political level, I don't think Cameron will be harmed by this crisis because he has promised money to alleviate the problem and the electorate recognize he is doing as much as he can in what is an international problem."

The UK takes in significantly fewer refugees in official resettlement programmes than other European countries like Germany, Sweden, and France, meaning that there are fewer legal channels by which to gain entry. "One of the government's top policies is to bring down net migration. There's public concern about migration but we are talking very small numbers compared to the total," says Morris. "This is a humanitarian crisis. People are dying as they cross over. It's an exceptional circumstance. There is room for the government to do more, and I think there would be political space for them to do so."

backlog of trucks photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
The migrant crisis has exacerbated the backlog of lorriesImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Stansall

Britain has also refused to take part in an EU plan to alleviate the burden of migration on countries such as Greece and Italy. "The rest of the EU won't be the UK's buffer zone - we're implicated here," says Gardner. "It has escalated to a climate where there's a lot of fear about refugees. The fact is that we're a country that can protect people who are fleeing. There's a failure to take pride in that ability to offer protection."

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