Repetition, repetition, repetition: Calais, migration and governments’ refusal to change

cobra meetingOver the course of the last week, I have taken part in TV and radio interviews regarding the situation in Calais.

As noted in my previous blog, which was written after I was interviewed by the BBC World Service and Radio 4 (28 July – you can listen here) about attempts by 2,000 people at Calais to force their way onto trains and vehicles due to travel to the UK, there is a danger of incorrectly perceiving (partly because the UK government is incorrectly portraying) the events at Calais as a ‘threat’ to the UK.

I was asked about it during TV broadcaster Arise News’ flagship show on Friday, as part of a wider interview about Calais,  and in an interview on BBC Radio Essex’s Drivetime on the same day.(available to listen here)

Effectively, it comes down to the following:

When the UK government refers to the situation at Calais as a ‘crisis’ as if it threatens the UK itself, it has very little to justify such an implication.

The existence of 5,000 people at Calais who hope to be allowed to live in the UK poses literally no threat to the United Kingdom. The 2,000 people who have attempted to force their way onto vehicles to enter the country illegally are equivalent to 0.00003 per cent of the UK population.

The possibility of those 2,000– or all 5,000 (slightly less than 0.00008 per cent of the UK population) – entering the UK simply does not (or would not) constitute a ‘crisis’.

That does not mean there is no crisis. In fact, there are two. At Calais, there is a humanitarian crisis which has developed because desperate people have now been living for six or more months in tiny one- or two-person tents, on the edge of the English Channel.

Medecins Sans Frontieres reports that standards of health are already dangerously low, and warns action must be taken to assist the people trapped in tents between two of the world’s richest nations.

The other crisis, of which the Calais situation is just one small manifestation, looms in states all over the world: because of conflict, oppressive regimes, terror, food shortages and/or lack of access to basic medicines, millions of people are in immediate life-threatening danger, and have been forced to flee their homelands.

These people deserve safe places to live, and the nations of their birth do not – or cannot – meet that fundamental, and reasonable human need.

We will return to this matter in a moment.

Because late last week the UK government’s emergency committee COBRA met to consider the Calais crisis, (it was because of this that I was invited to speak to Aspire News and BBC Radio Essex) but predictably and unfortunately seems to have considered only the issue of people attempting to board vehicles, rather than the growing humanitarian crisis among the 5,000 people in tents at Calais, or indeed the wider crisis caused by people risking death at sea or in desert crossings to escape almost certain death in their homelands.

(as noted in the previous blog, the six states from which the largest numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe originate are, in descending order, Syria; Eritrea; Afghanistan; Somalia; Iraq; and Sudan – nations blighted by conflict, terror, oppression, torture, shortage or all five).

On Friday morning (31 July) UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government was ‘ruling nothing out’ in its response. But he added that the major component of its strategy would be to send extra fencing and sniffer dogs (the French government will provide 120 extra police officers) ‘to prevent people illegally crossing the Channel’.

It is disappointing that the UK Prime Minister’s response to a humanitarian emergency – characterised by desperation serious enough to cause people to attempt to cling to the bottom of trucks and trains for at least 26 miles – is to order the UK to ‘release the hounds’.

And it is extremely unclear exactly why such a policy would have any particularly meaningful effect. First, there are already fences at Calais, which are supposed to prevent people entering the cross-Channel rail-head. One response from those desperate enough to try to illegally attach themselves to trains has been to dig a tunnel: the issue is clearly not that the fences are not tall enough.

Equally, there are already sniffer dogs and police officers. Presumably at some point the French and UK governments believed there were enough to prevent people crossing the Channel.

It is hard to understand – once that was proven to be incorrect – either exactly how many dogs and police officers will be enough, or why either the UK or French governments could believe that the manifest failure of a policy can be reversed by doing exactly the same thing, slightly more so.

It’s a serious failure by COBRA, by Cameron and by the French government. And it’s also extraordinarily frustrating.

Because there are two extraordinarily simple alternatives to repeating the same failed policy – and both would solve – at a stroke – not only the UK government’s false crisis, but also the genuine humanitarian crisis at Calais:

Either build decent, safe, weatherproof accommodation (including of course decent toilets, baths and showers, and paid for by the UK and French governments together) at Calais, in which people can live while having their asylum applications processed, or let the people who would constitute less than 0.00008 per cent of the UK population into the UK, and provide decent, accommodation for them here.

It’s clear that this would solve the genuine crisis at Calais – the damage to health and danger to life of 5,000 people.

But it would also solve the UK’s false crisis. Because clambering on top – or clinging to the bottom – of vehicles which are set to travel 26 miles through a tunnel under the sea is close to the definition of ‘a desperate act’.

And desperation drives desperate acts. Living in a tiny tent on the edge of the sea in a relatively cold, extremely windy, corner of North Eastern France for six months would be enough to make most of us desperate.

Doing so while each day believing and hoping that this might be the day you discover whether you are allowed to begin your life again, in safety, free from the terror you have recently experienced at home where you once believed you were safe, only to end the day having heard nothing, and facing at least one more night and day in a tiny tent, with no idea of your future, would be more than enough to push the rest of us over the line.

A decent place to live (perhaps with a telephone or internet access so once every few weeks the Home Office could confirm it had not forgotten about the application) eliminates those sources of desperation, and along with them the drive to once again put one’s life at risk.

(Of course, allowing people into the UK removes the risk of people awaiting the outcome of asylum applications entering the UK illegally, by allowing them to enter legally).

I’ve been asked – both by the BBC and by people who watched the Aspire News interview – whether this proposal might not risk encouraging many more people to come to Calais.

I understand that in an atmosphere of heightened tension – in part stoked by the UK government’s portrayal of a threat to the state from 5,000 people at Calais, and in part by the repeated claims by both the government and UKIP that the UK is the main destination most people aspire to gain refuge in when they leave their own state – that this is a serious concern.

But in my experience – and the figures appear to back this up – it is simply not the case.

While working at Choucha Refugee Camp, Tunisia, I met, worked with, and learned about the lives of refugees from states across South Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

I asked them where they hoped to be allowed to live. The UK was, on average, most people’s fifth choice (some put it as high as third on their list, some as low as seventh: none named it as their first choice, and very few failed to mention it at all). It was always listed behind Germany and Sweden, usually also behind France and sometimes also behind Norway and the USA.

(The reason mentioned more often than any other – around seven times as often – was the Premier League. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were the other major ‘draws’. Jobs – which are available everywhere – and ‘benefits’, which are available almost everywhere, were not mentioned once. By anyone)

And the current situation at Calais seems to show the UK is not regarded any more highly as a destination than any other EU state. There are 5,000 people at Calais – an increase from 600 in January this year. But in the same period (1 January to 30 June 2015), 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to enter the EU and escape war, terror, oppression and death in their homelands.

That is, fewer than one in every 27 people to have made the crossing have arrived at Calais. And there are 28 EU member states.

This number of people at Calais is disarmingly close to what one would expect if every EU state was roughly as attractive to potential refugees as every other (even more so if one considers that Hungary is in the process of building a wall to prevent people from entering) and extraordinarily different from what one might expect if life in the UK was the driving factor inspiring people to leave their homes.

And once we dispense with the demonstrably false idea that the UK – rather than the threat of death – is what causes people to flee everything they have ever known, and we understand that it is equally demonstrably untrue that ‘most’ refugees wish to enter the UK, we can consider the situation clearly and objectively.

First of all, we can consider that the lack of decent accommodation has so far certainly not prevented people from arriving at Calais.

This may seem an unusual point, but if the lack of decent places to stay has not prevented people from arriving, we may ask whether accommodation is a factor of any kind in people’s decision to reach Calais.

Secondly, exactly how many people in the world can we believe really expect that the UK and France – two of the richest states in the world – cannot, between them, provide temporary accommodation for desperate people fleeing death?

That is, every single shred of common sense would suggest that two states who pride themselves on their civilisation and each have more money than the poorest 128 nations in the world put together, would be able to offer someone somewhere to stay for a few months while their application for asylum was considered.

If people already expect that, then building the accommodation will make no difference whatsoever.

Finally, if the UK is only an averagely-aspired-to temporary stopping-point for refugees (the vast majority of whom would rather be at home and plan to return to their homelands as soon as such a thing is possible and safe), can anyone seriously entertain the proposition that people will travel to the furthest EU member-state from their home, and from their entry-point to the EU, on the basis that they might be able to have a roof for an extremely limited period of time?

Once again, it seems extraordinarily unlikely – so much so that it is surely worth the risk, when the rewards of building some housing are the end of a humanitarian crisis affecting thousands of people, and the end of attempts by desperate people to risk their lives to illegally enter the UK (not to mention reduced costs for police wages, higher fences, and even dog food).

There is a final point, however, which must be considered extremely seriously.

In the course of this post, I have stated both that millions of people have been forced from their homelands as a result of matters beyond their control – war, terror, oppression, torture, food shortage, lack of access to medicine – and that the UK and France (as the fifth and sixth richest countries on Earth, respectively), each – alone – have more money than the 128 least wealthy nations combined.

And I will add that not just millions, but billions of people on this planet are – through a simple accident of birth – condemned to grim, brutal, often short, lives, which may well end in horrendous circumstances.

These are human beings, and like any person anywhere in the world, they will do whatever can be done to improve their chances of staying alive, and enjoying a comfortable – or at the very least safe – existence.

This must be considered because just as the far larger global refugee crisis looms behind the genuine Calais crisis, the long-term solution to that crisis towers above the short-term, local proposals outlined above.

As long as extreme poverty exists – and as long as extreme global inequality in wealth continues – people will be desperate enough to risk their lives to leave the places they call(ed) home.

As I noted in my last post, the long-term solution to the global refugee crisis – to people risking their lives to escape certain death – is not popular at present. But the only possibility if we are serious about ending the greatest human crisis of our age is to entirely restructure the global economic system. To ensure that no-one is forced to flee the place they know and love.

Some of you may note that certain points in this post are similar to some I made in my previous essay on this topic.

The problem is that despite two government ‘interventions’ in five days, including a full meeting of the UK’s emergency committee, we ended last week exactly as we started it:

Thousands of people still live in tiny tents; millions of people still face terror in their home countries; the UK and French governments are still ignoring the simplest solution, and prefer instead to attempt to deal with the situation at Calais with fences, dogs and armed police, even though those things have been tried – and manifestly failed – already.

In the face of seemingly endlessly-repeating crises, and repeated attempts to apply to them the same policy which has already failed to solve them, some repetition in response is unavoidable.

But genuine solutions to the crises do exist.

For the health and sanity of people all over the world, it is to be hoped they will be applied sooner rather than later.

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