False Positives: ignoring the lessons of Calais

Early in June, I wrote a piece on this site entitled ‘Drawbridges’.

In it, I compared the increasing trend of governments to respond to international crises by attempting to shut themselves off from the world around them, to the Mediaeval practice of building castles, digging moats and pulling up drawbridges.

This was intended as a convenient metaphor, but as I have noted several times, the actual behaviour of nations in the last couple of months have, depressingly, transformed the figurative into the literal.

In Hungary, the government has built a wall along its state’s border with Serbia, designed to keep out people desperate to escape war and terror. In Tunisia, they have gone even closer to the ‘drawbridge’ concept – digging an actual moat along their border with Libya (though as noted, it is likely to be extremely ineffective, as it does not even stretch the entire length of that border).

On Friday (21st August – I write on Saturday 22nd), yet another example of the drawbridge approach unfolded on the Macedonian border with Greece.

Macedonia had, on Thursday 20th, declared a state of emergency in its southernmost regions in response to thousands of people attempting to enter from Greece.

The following day, its police fired teargas on those people.

Once again, it is depressingly close to the Mediaeval approach – the equivalent of pulling up the drawbridge and using a defensive position as the launching point for an attack on people attempting to enter the ‘fortress’.

It is easy – and indeed correct – to criticise Macedonia, Hungary and Tunisia for their actions. But closer to home, the behaviour of the UK government is not so different.

At Calais, 5,000 people (the number is now estimated to have decreased to 3,000) hoping to be allowed to find refuge in the UK, had spent up to six months living in one-person tents perched on the edge of the English Channel with no word on whether they would ever be allowed to enter (or even if their applications were being processed).

Up to 2,000 of them had become so desperate that they were attempting to break into the railhead and cling to the underside of vehicles for 30 miles.

The UK and France combined to respond to this situation by sending more police officers, building higher fences around the railhead, and sending more dogs to prevent people entering the UK.

That is, the United Kingdom government’s response to 5,000 people at Calais has been to build higher fences, send police officers and unleash dogs on them.

So if we rightly criticise Hungary or Macedonia (in the latter case, some 44,000 people are reported to have travelled through the state in the last two months, almost nine times as many people as were at Calais – Macedonia’s population is almost 31 times smaller than the UK’s), we should remember that our own government’s response – wall-building and attack – has been identical to theirs.*

(*we might also note that the Channel serves as our ‘moat’, and may be the only reason we have not also emulated the Tunisian project).

Arguably, it has been worse. Because the 5,000 people at Calais represent less than 0.00008 per cent of the UK’s population. And yet as repeatedly noted on this website, the UK government insists on behaving as if the situation at Calais is a ‘threat’ to the UK, a ‘crisis’ which must be addressed.

As I have also noted, there ARE two crises related to the people waiting in desperation at Calais: the fact that those people have nowhere decent to live, no access to medicine, and no guaranteed source of food or clean water; and the fact that millions of people across the world are forced, by war, terror, torture, oppression, lack of food and lack of access to basic medicine, to flee everything they know.

But the UK government’s insistence on pretending the ‘crisis’ at Calais is that people pose a threat to the UK, is diverting people’s attention from the real crises – the ones which because they actually exist, urgently need our attention and can be addressed and reduced – to one which does not, and therefore cannot ever be ‘solved’.

And in its insistence on promoting this false ‘crisis’, the UK government may also have to bear some responsibility for the teargas attack on the Macedonian border.

Because, as I have mentioned several times in relation to Calais, desperate people will take desperate action.

And if the UK is allowed to claim that 5,000 people in tents poses a ‘threat’ to a country of 62 million people, then Macedonia might be within its rights to judge more than 44,000 people on their feet as a threat to a state of 2.07 million people.

Of course, it is not. Macedonia has acted out of all proportion to the situation it faces.

But from describing desperate people as a ‘swarm’ and scaremongering over non-existent ‘millions’ of African people entering the EU, to setting dogs on human beings in trouble, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend any view which does not regard the UK government as a wildly irresponsible and destabilising influence in a grave international crisis.

Two major problems with the ‘drawbridge’ approach to international relations are that it completely ignores the needs of desperate people, and that it turns people in on themselves, closing off opportunities for human development by depriving people of the outside influences which enable them to create new responses to the world around them (stretching the metaphor to close to breaking point, when Pericles ordered his Athenians to retreat behind their city’s walls, the result was the city’s devastation by plague: one simply cannot solve a problem by closing one’s doors)

But a government may argue that success (albeit in this case a transparently nonsensical success, as the ‘crisis’ in question does not exist) might justify and outweigh such negatives.

The problem is that there is very little evidence that the approach even succeeds.

On Sunday 16th August, Eurotunnel announced that the number of people attempting to break into the railhead at Calais had dropped from its peak of 2,000 per night, to fewer than 200 per night.

Speculation has suggested that the increased fencing (which cost £7m) and the deployment of extra police officers and dogs achieved this reduction.

The problem is, very little evidence has been produced to show that this is the case. There has been no release of CCTV footage, for example, showing people turning away from the higher fence. Nor have statistics been issued showing a greater number of people are being stopped (and attacked) by dogs at the entrances to the tunnels under those fences.

This is not to say the fences and dogs have had no effect. But focussing entirely on them ignores the other – quite remarkable – response to the crisis faced by those at Calais.

Across the UK, on reading and hearing about the plight of people caught ‘between’ two of the world’s richest states, organisations and individuals have responded by donating money, food, medicine and water – the things which save lives – and in many cases visiting Calais to meet the people there.

The impact of this exceptional and generous response is in danger of being ignored. And it must not.

Because as mentioned before, desperate people will commit desperate acts.

The people stuck at Calais were desperate not only because they were being forced to live in appalling conditions and without access to many basic essentials, but also because they felt they were being ignored – that not only were they forced to live like this, but that they would continue to be forced to, potentially for ever.

This is why I have been calling for decent accommodation to be provided for the people at Calais, (along with access to e-mail so they can be kept regularly up to date with the progress of their applications): because people deserve decent places to live, and because the best way to persuade desperate people not to behave desperately is to reduce their desperation.

And it was the response of the people of the UK – rather than the raising of fences and unleashing of hounds – which addressed this basic point.

That should not be overlooked because at Calais, the likelihood is that people are now pausing, reassured that they have at least been noticed, and waiting to see what happens next. This is not an issue we can, or should, return to attempting to ignore.

Later in the week, on Thursday, UK Home Secretary Theresa May announced that she and her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve had agreed that yet more police and dogs would be sent to Calais, along with Eurotunnel-employed security guards, CCTV, floodlighting, more fencing and infrared detection technology, which she claimed would: ‘continue… to improve the situation.’

UK Immigration Minister James Brokenshire, meanwhile, had been sent to meet officials in Belgium and the Netherlands, to discuss ways of preventing desperate people finding alternative routes to the UK.

Few people linked the announcements to yet another example of what the people May, Cazeneuve and Brokenshire are attempting to stop, are running from in the first place.

On Sunday, 16th August, 112 people were killed in four airstrikes carried out within minutes of one another on the al-Hal, al-Houboub and al-Ghanam street markets in Douma, Syria.

These attacks were not carried out by IS, but by the Syrian government, which later criticised the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura for (accurately) describing the strikes as ‘devastating’ and ‘unacceptable’.

The markets are at least two kilometres from the nearest ‘front-line’ (Douma has been held by the Free Syrian Army since 2012) or military base. And the bombs were dropped at around midday, one of the markets’ busiest times.

Most of this piece has focussed on the (lack of) pragmatic worth of the Mediaeval approach to international affairs.

But underlying everything we discuss or consider related to the issue of desperate people attempting to find safe places to stay must be that the world is experiencing an international crisis on a scale seldom seen before.

Millions of people are fleeing their homes, in the desperate hope that they can stay alive long enough to find somewhere decent to live.

They are risking their lives to do so, because in their home country – be it Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea or a depressingly long list of other states – they face war, terror, torture, and almost certain grim, early death.

The 112 people killed in Douma on Sunday 16 August were not soldiers, or terrorists. They were ordinary people attempting to get on with their lives.

They were not killed by IS or another terrorist group. They were slaughtered by their own government, using weapons their taxes had helped to pay for.

Looming behind every single statement, policy and response hurriedly prepared in the face of events in northern Europe is a simple, horrifying and enormous truth: millions of people are, right now, living in genuine fear of death.

They need, and deserve, our help. And the only effective way to help them is not to pull up the drawbridges of the world’s wealthiest nations, but to address the international crisis of which they are at the centre.

I hope to discuss how this can be done in a later post.


Last week, I talked about the brutal repression by IS of an uprising against it in Sirte, Libya (a town at the heart of my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis).

The terror group had seized Sirte in May this year after forcing the Fajr militia (the illegal militia which supports the illegitimate and powerless Tripoli-based GNC Libyan government; the illegitimate Tobruk-based HoR government is ‘backed’ by the illegal Dignity militia. Such is life in modern Libya) from its airport.

It was ejected from its other Libyan stronghold, Derna, earlier this summer, when Al-Qaeda-affiliated militias united with that Eastern Libyan town’s residents against it, and the Sirte uprising followed several difficult months in which it had failed to force Sirte residents to swear allegiance to it.

The rebellion was sparked by IS’ killing of a Muslim cleric, Khaled bin Rajeb, and was crushed mercilessly. Forty people were killed.  

In the wake of the attack, on Tuesday and Wednesday 18-19 August, Mohammed al-Dairi, the Foreign Minister of the illegitimate HoR government, called on the Arab League to send his government (and by implication, the illegal Dignity militia) weapons with which to combat IS (Libya has been under a UN arms embargo since 2011, last renewed in March this year), and for member states to enter Libya to battle IS themselves.

As I mentioned last week, I lived in Sirte. It was my base within Libya, and my home. I have friends within the city, I would be delighted if IS can be removed from it, and welcome any attempt to make this happen.

But the HoR’s proposal is not quite as black and white as it may first appear.

Because when – as noted above – Fajr forces were battling IS on the West side of Sirte, they were not joined by the HoR-‘supporting’ Dignity militia.

In fact, Dignity chose that moment to call in airstrikes, performed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, on Tripoli, the Fajr stronghold. In effect, Dignity and IS were united in opposition to Fajr.

Nor has Dignity ever opposed IS in East Libya, where the HoR holds sway, and Dignity is strongest.

This is not to suggest – even for a second – that Dignity ‘supports’ IS or is aligned with its aims or ideas. It most certainly does not, and is not.

But Dignity has never, at any moment, or in any place fought IS.

And while Fajr has worked in Western Libya to agree ceasefires with former opponents – notably the Zintan militia, a former Dignity affiliate group – and is attempting to persuade them to join it against IS (though no such thing has yet happened), Dignity and the HoR remain, at their heart, groups which describe all their opponents as ‘Islamist extremists’ and ‘terrorists’.

That is, any weapons they are given by the Arab League may be used by Dignity against IS – though there is absolutely nothing to suggest they actually would be – but would almost certainly, based on past experience, then be used to attack Fajr, the GNC and the city of Tripoli.

This is not, however, a call for weapons to be given instead to Fajr, which is an equally-illegal, vicious armed group which I hope will one day be forced to answer for its own crimes.

I have been critical of the international community’s attitude towards Libya in recent years. I am resigned to the fact that it will give me many more reasons to be in the near future. But in response to al-Dairi’s request, a joint statement from the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy was entirely correct: ‘We reiterate that there is no military solution to the political conflict in Libya, and remain concerned that the economic and humanitarian situation is worsening every day.’

There is a good reason why the arms embargo on Libya remains in place (though it is almost certainly being regularly broken by Egypt and the UAE, which help to supply Dignity, Qatar – and potentially others – which supports Fajr, and Saudi Arabia, which supports IS). Because not one of the armed groups currently fighting in Libya is legitimate, legal, or responsible.

And because whoever is handed weapons will use them not to defend Libya, but to take control of it – not to safeguard human life, but to force their own image of Libya onto its people, through violence, threats and mayhem.

IS must be removed from Sirte, and from Libya.

But handing guns to Dignity is almost certainly not the way to do it, and will almost certainly deliver yet more suffering to the people of Libya.

The League meets again on Thursday, 27 August.

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