Calais migrant crisis: Defending borders and saving lives is a military matter

Why make such a fuss about people leaving through the front door to fight for Isis when the back door is ajar?

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The Independent Online

There can hardly be a crueller contrast than the one on display at the Calais end of the Channel Tunnel. On the one hand, the queues of cars laden with British families on their way to or from a continental holiday, all sunhats, tanning cream, and smiles. On the other, groups of mostly young men scaling metal fences, clambering aboard lorries and jumping onto trains in the desperate hope of reaching the land of their dreams.

When the tunnel first opened, the greatest threat anticipated was the occasional rabid bat. What is currently going on, with nightly incursions into restricted areas at Calais and the regular arrival in the UK of at least a few stowaways – if not exactly David Cameron’s “swarm” – constitutes not just a threat, but an actual violation of the UK’s border security, and one that shows no sign of diminishing.

On the contrary, the number of people prepared to risk their lives to get through the tunnel is considerably higher this year than last, as is the number of troubled places the would-be migrants come from. Yet there seems to be an enormous reluctance, on both sides of the Channel, to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, or take any action that would be commensurate. And the central reason can well be understood.

There is no solution that would remotely satisfy everyone, or even meet the requirements of both diplomacy and the law. The imperatives of security and morality cut across each other. Any state has a right, even a duty, to protect its borders. Those whose lives are in danger have a right to asylum. Only a fraction of those in the Calais “jungle” will probably qualify, but all have the right to ask. As things stand, there is no legal way for them to get to the UK in order to make their case.

Seen from London and Paris, the current stalemate might even, in a strange way, seem the least bad option. If the “jungle” were closer to Paris, it would probably have met the fate of the Roma shanty-towns that were bulldozed on the orders of Nicolas Sarkozy. If the clogged motorway approaches to Folkestone were replicated on London’s North Circular, there would doubtless be a greater sense of urgency. But it has suited both governments to treat the nightly skirmishing outside Calais as a little local difficulty, rather than embark on a cross-Channel war of words.


All that said, however, UK border security is being violated on a daily, or rather nightly, basis, and this is not something that can be ignored by any sovereign state worth the name. Even if you assume that some serious talking is going on between London and Paris in private, the public insistence by both sides that everything is really under control – even as they add a few hundred yards of metal fence here and a few dozen more gendarmes there – seems like so much whistling in the dark. The television pictures and the interviews with the would-be migrants tell another story.

Impatience with inaction helps to explain why there is a sudden clamour for the UK to resort to extreme action and send in the Army. The response to the suggestion has veered from mildly condescending to dismissive. But, if you strip off the xenophobic and malevolent overtones, I agree with them.

Defending the borders is a matter of national security, and national security is what an army is for. It’s also for restoring order, averting threats to life and health, and dealing with humanitarian emergencies. These are all functions where, in recent years, the British military has generally done a pretty good job. These same skills could now be usefully deployed much closer to home.

Why make such a fuss about the (few) young men and women leaving through the front door each month to fight for Isis when the back door is ajar? Why cite the security of the nation as a reason for sending the Air Force to launch air strikes on Iraq and Syria, when you are not in full control of a part of your own border and several thousand people are in mortal danger?

These principles are why the Government should already be stationing troops alongside the British border officers at Calais and offering troops to patrol the area around the Tunnel jointly with the French. They should also be coordinating with the Department for International Development and its French equivalent to organise a decent refugee camp. These are routine jobs for the British military and DfID in far-flung parts, where restoring full control is rightly seen as a job for hard security, not soft policing.

You can call it what you will; use the jargon, if it helps. The UN supports the Right to Protect, permitting military intervention to save those in danger; and the UK has enthusiastically supported humanitarian intervention. If it could be coordinated with the French, whose troops also excel at such tasks, this deployment of the military could restore order around Calais, provide decent conditions for refugees, and speed up screening and – yes – repatriation.

There is another reason for bringing in the military, too. I can quite imagine myself, in the queue at Calais, asking a stray hooded individual to “please let go of the car door handle”. I can quite imagine, too, how risible and irrelevant such a plea would sound to someone who has fought off brigands, bribed border guards and watched their little brother die as they trudged across half of Africa. At least some of those risking life and limb to reach Britain will have learnt two overriding lessons from their experiences: that civilian authorities are corrupt and that survival is a trial of wit and strength.

Military uniforms and weapons often look excessive to those of us who have the luxury of living in safe countries. But disciplined troops and the respect they command may be what it will take to tackle the Calais “jungle”.