It is difficult to see how the migrant crisis at Calais is capable of any kind of happy ending. The flow of desperate refugees from war-torn Africa and Asia shows no sign of abating, and they are joined by many who may be termed “economic migrants” – though that label does little justice to the grinding, sometimes life-threatening, poverty many are trying to escape from.
The death of one young Sudanese man, apparently crushed by a lorry, is a reminder of just how pitiful the plight of these would-be Britons is. He was the ninth migrant to die trying to get into the Channel Tunnel since June. He is unlikely to be the last. The bizarre case a few weeks ago of the stowaway who fell from a plane on to the roof of a shop in west London, having endured an 8,000-mile flight from Johannesburg in freezing temperatures, is also testament to migrants’ doggedness.
Nor is there any sign that the lure is diminishing. While the British grumble about the weather and antics and abuses in the House of Lords, the triviality of most people’s problems is thrown into sharp relief by migrants willing to die trying to come here. Britain, in their view, is a land of opportunity, where hard work and ambition are repaid, and where rights and freedoms are protected under the rule of law.
One solution, though inevitably only partial, is to help fund the French authorities’ efforts to police these sites, as David Cameron has said. If migrants use violence or intimidation, then they should be processed through the courts. Some may have to be deported because of their crimes. The majority, though, are not serious criminals, and acts of criminal damage would not, and should not, be enough to send them back to face possible torture or starvation.
Another option is to permit the entry of genuine refugees, who can prove they are victims of persecution, and also a proportion of economic migrants. Long-term the economy, culture and society benefit from an influx of plucky hard-working young people, though it may be unfashionable to say it.
Yet the only sustainable answer to this relatively sudden migrant crisis is a long-term one; rebuilding shattered societies and economies wrecked by conflict, Isis, the Taliban and countless other fanatics, dictators and our illegal wars. In a vast arc running from Tunisia and Libya across West Africa, the Sudans, Somalia, and Eritrea to Syria and Afghanistan, displacement has affected millions. Indeed, as we consider our own obligations to refugees, we should recall that it is the immediate neighbours of failing states that carry the bulk of the burden of adjustment, nations often ill-equipped to cater for huge numbers of families living in tents – places such as Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan and Kenya. Plainly, not enough is being done to sustain those countries’ efforts to contain the refugee crisis, and the more that is done there, the fewer who will place their lives at risk making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and the English Channel. The international community, and especially the European Union, needs to send much more assistance to the “front line” of the crisis.
Meanwhile, we are left with some disagreeable options to bring order to Calais. Talk of calling in the Army is dangerous and badly misjudged; any sane military leader would agree that trying to stop immigrants jumping into lorries is not a task the Army is either trained or willing to do. Public order is the job of the police; the problem seems to be that the French police are finding it all too difficult to cope. Given the global origins and scale of the problem, they can’t be judged too harshly for that.