Earlier last week (28 – well, technically 29 July at 1am) I was interviewed by the BBC World Service on the subject of migration. You can listen to it here: http://tinyurl.com/papbn2h
I was asked because the issue of people fleeing war, terror, oppression and other threats to life – a central part of my forthcoming book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis (released imminently) has become increasingly discussed in the UK over recent weeks and months.
It was a pleasure to take part.
I have admired the BBC for almost all of my life, have always felt the World Service was at or close to the apex of its achievements as a broadcaster, and more recently it – along with Al Jazeera – has served as a window on the world wherever I have been.
And no-one can pretend the desperation of people reaching levels at which they give up everything they know to risk their lives for security is not something we should be discussing.
But the interview, for all that, also contained two standout questions, both of which point to the same slightly concerning matters: the belief that there is a ‘crisis’, and the desire for a ‘short-to-medium-term solution’ to it.
It came about because of ongoing problems at Calais. These problems have really been occurring for several months, but have been in the news in the UK for the last couple of weeks in the wake of two large-scale attempts by people to board trains and other vehicles to cross the Channel.
Calais is not an especially wonderful place to be if you are hoping to be allowed to enter the UK as a refugee from war, terror or oppression.
Since January, the number of people there has grown from 600 to around 5,000, while the UK and France have been working together – largely at the behest of the UK government – to ‘discourage’ people from travelling to Calais by providing too little shelter for people, and keeping that which does exist at extraordinary low standard (readers of this blog – and indeed any of you with an interest in migration and/or UK government practice – will note the familiarity of this approach, which was at the heart of its claim that pulling people from the Mediterranean ‘encouraged’ people to migrate to the EU).
It is this approach – along with the UK government’s habit of incarcerating people who are applying for asylum, and ‘fast-tracking’ torture victims to return them to the places where they were tortured – which has resulted in the United Kingdom being one of only two states (Australia is the other) in the developed world to be monitored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because of serious concerns over the mistreatment of human beings.
The first question was the suggestion of the setting up of a ‘free state’ – a new ‘nation’ specifically for migrants.
I have to admit, this sent me spinning a little.
As I was responding, my mind was running through a list of questions:
Where would such a state be set up? How big would it be? How many people would be able to live there (there are more than 50 million registered refugees worldwide, but the number of people displaced by war, terror, oppression, food shortage and other factors is possibly as much as three times as high)? How long would they be able to stay there? How would it be governed? What would its economy be based on? How can I avoid saying the idea is ridiculous on the BBC World Service? Will sarcasm come across to the Service’s audience?
In the end, I was polite rather than scathing, attempting to steer the point away from what is, by any sensible judgement, a wild, poorly-considered proposal.
But soon after, the host Dominic Laurie asked ‘what is the short- to medium-term solution?’
Now. I felt I had already steered the conversation towards what I feel is the only possible immediate course of action which also shows any shred of humanity (we will come to that in a moment), but in the course of the exchange, this was left as if unheard.
But for our immediate purpose, I wanted to highlight the link between the two (a suggested ‘solution’ and a call for a short-term ‘solution’, both to address a perceived ‘crisis’) and attempt not just to deal with the question, but with the assumptions and concerns underpinning it.
This is not, by the way, an attempt to criticise people for seeing a ‘crisis’ or for being so desperate to ‘solve’ it that they come up with transparently unworkable and undesirable proposals.
Indeed, just over 24 hours after my interview, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron gave an extremely clear indication of why and how people’s fears over the issue have developed.
Speaking in Vietnam on 30 July, he said: ‘We have to deal with the problem at source and that is stopping so many people from travelling across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. That means trying to stabilise the countries from which they come, it also means breaking the link between travelling and getting the right to stay in Europe.
‘This is very testing, I accept that, because you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live.’
Now, we have been here before. Several times. But it is worth repeating a few points here. First of all, people are not crossing the Mediterranean because there are ‘jobs’ in the UK.
In order of highest to lowest, the six states from which the largest number of people are escaping to arrive in Europe across the Mediterranean are: Syria; Eritrea; Afghanistan; Somalia; Iraq; and Sudan. These people are not coming to Europe because they would like a job at Subway. They are escaping their homelands because of war, terror, torture, oppression and hunger.
Secondly, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in the opening sentence of a public address, has stated his intention to prevent people attempting to improve their lives. Just to be clear, those people are currently facing imprisonment, torture or death. It is difficult to think of a time any leader of the UK has stooped so low, except…
… for his description of people as a ‘swarm’. Many many people (with whom I agree) have already publicly stated their horror at this dehumanisation of people who have gone to desperate lengths to attempt to save their own lives, and I will simply add this:
Katy Hopkins described people attempting to cross the Mediterranean as ‘cockroaches’ (at that point, I advised people to attempt to ignore her, on the grounds that she clearly didn’t have a clue what she was talking about). Mr Cameron’s own description perhaps proves that if nothing else, an Eton education enables one to dehumanise people in a more refined way.
Bearing in mind that the source of the fears over this ‘crisis’ may in fact be the government of our own country, we should perhaps look at what that ‘crisis’ is.
Because at Calais right now, there are close to 5,000 people. In January, there were 600. Even if we were to set aside the reasons why some of them are going to increasingly desperate lengths to enter the UK (most have already risked their lives on at least one occasion, and because of Anglo/French agreements many have spent months ‘living’ in small tents), this is a large increase.
But from January to the end of June this year, 137,000 people entered Europe via the Mediterranean. What this means is that of all of the people to have arrived in Europe, fewer than one in every 27 has travelled to Calais. And the EU has 28 member states.
This is important because there is a migrant crisis taking part right now. It is a crisis in which people are dying while attempting to escape war and terror in their homelands, where life is so bad for people that they are willing to board craft they themselves have named ‘death boats’ to escape.
But that is not the shape of the debate here in the UK.
Here in the UK, the ‘crisis’ being debated is not even the fact that thousands of people are living without shelter on the banks of the Channel. The ‘crisis’, here, is about people – Mr Cameron’s ‘swarm’ – attempting to enter the UK.
And to be absolutely honest this is not a ‘crisis’. It is not a tale of people waking up in Syria, thinking ‘life’s OK here, but I really want to go to England, where I hear there are jobs’ and rushing to the UK.
It’s about virtually the exact proportion of people who have entered Europe one would expect to attempt to come to the UK, attempting to come to the UK.
And the numbers involved are miniscule. Though 5,000 sounds like a large number, it is in fact less than 0.00008 per cent of the current UK population. The phrase ‘drop in the ocean’ could scarcely be better used.
This is not – despite the inconvenience caused to UK tourists by travel disruption – a ‘crisis’ for the UK. We can certainly speak of, and attempt to solve, the crises which cause people to flee their homes, and the crisis of how we, as human beings, can assist them to stay alive and thrive.
(Even here we must remember that the world’s six states who have taken in the most refugees are – from largest to smallest – Turkey; Pakistan; Lebanon; Iran; Ethiopia; and Jordan. Not one is a European state, nor are any members of the G-8, though Turkey is a part of the G20 and assigned ‘developing economy’ status in the group.
The numbers are also interesting: for example, Turkey has taken more than two million Syrian refugees; Lebanon more than one million, and Jordan close to 700,000. The UK has taken 258. In Lebanon, more than one in every five people is a Syrian refugee. Twenty-three per cent of its population are refugees.)
And so the answer is much more difficult than it may appear, and also in one sense much simpler.
It is more difficult because we have to be clear: the UK simply is not facing a ‘migrant crisis’. The total number of people hoping to enter the UK from Calais is smaller than 0.00008 per cent of the UK’s current population. And the number of people estimated to have been involved in recent attempts to force themselves onto vehicles travelling into the UK is less than half of that.
There is no way any sane individual could possibly consider that a ‘crisis’.
It is more difficult because there is a real crisis. It is caused by the desperation of people to escape their homelands in order to save their lives.
And that cannot be solved with a ‘short- (or medium-) term solution’. It requires the systematic restructure of global economics so that people no longer face starvation, death by preventable disease, oppression or death in wars caused by shortage or by lust for the possessions or wealth of others simply because of where they happen to be born.
There is literally no other approach which will significantly reduce the number of people attempting to escape those things. If we do not want people to run in terror from their homes, we must stop the things which cause them to do so.
But it is also more simple, because as already noted, the UK is not facing a ‘migrant crisis’.
There are 5,000 people, living in outrageous conditions, who wish to be allowed to enter the UK as refugees (it is sensible to note that the people at Calais who have died in the events of the last few weeks have been from Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan: not states to which we should be ‘returning’ people) and their situation is a crisis.
And the simple solution is this: either we and France provide decent places for those people to live, or we allow those people to enter the UK and have their applications processed there.
Either of these responses will, at a stroke, end the inconvenience of UK tourists, prevent deaths, provide human beings with decent living conditions and ensure a legal, measured response to the attempts by desperate people to find a safe place to live.
It is relatively cheap, sensible, effective, quick and solves the actual crisis surrounding the people at Calais, as well as the inconvenience of those attempting to travel to or from holiday destinations.
The problem is, no-one seems to want to consider it.
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