Everyone is right. Everyone is wrong. Everything has been tried. Nothing works for long. Calais is a never-ending tragedy. After 20 years of “treaties” and “solutions”, the cross-Channel migrant crisis is worse than ever.
The number of migrants in Calais – at least 4,000 – has swollen six or seven-fold in the past year. Many of them are veterans of perilous Mediterranean crossings. To reach Libya or Turkey, they endured overland treks through Africa or Asia or the Middle East. They are more hardened, more devil-may-care, more desperate than their patient predecessors.
Hence the aggressive tactics seen in recent weeks. Hence the disturbing surge in the number of migrant deaths this summer – nine in the past month, including a young Sudanese man crushed accidentally by a lorry at the Channel Tunnel freight terminal yesterday morning.
Some of the apocalyptic accounts of this week’s events are misleading. There was no mass assault by 2,200 migrants on the Channel Tunnel freight terminal at Coquelles on Monday night. There were repeated breaches of the security fence by groups of 50 migrants at a time.
All the same, migrant attacks on the tunnel freight terminal are at their highest level for many years. The terminal, four miles south of Calais, has been ignored by the migrants in recent times. They preferred to haunt the slip-roads to the ferry port and accost queuing lorries. A security fence, paid for by UK taxpayers, has sealed off these slip-roads in the past couple of weeks. The migrants have been obliged to make the trek to the Chunnel freight terminal instead. New fences are due to be built at Coquelles. The migrants will find a weakness somewhere else.
The Red Cross refugee camp at Sangatte was closed, after British pressure, in 2002. Britain agreed to admit a handful of Bosnians and Kurds. Defence of the UK border was moved, by treaty, across the Channel to Calais (for the first time since the 16th century).
New migrants arrived and lived in squalid camps known as “the jungle” in the dunes and scrubland north of Calais. The jungle was bulldozed in 2009. The migrants now live in new encampments further north (“jungle 2”). After protests by the UN, the French authorities were obliged earlier this year to provide minimal sanitary facilities.
And so it goes on.
The people and politicians of Calais are fed up. The people of Kent are fed up. The lorry drivers are fed up. Some, not all, French politicians say that the British border should be shipped back to Kent. Britain “attracts” the migrants, they say, because it does not have identity cards and because it has a thriving black economy. Let the migrants cross, they say. We have migrant problems of our own.
Some British politicians blame the French. Why don’t they just enforce their own laws, arrest all these people and send them home? The French do so, up to a point. The problem is that French courts often refuse repatriations to conflict zones.
Other migrants have Italian-issued papers for the Schengen zone, the border-free area of the continental EU. They have a right to be in France, but have chosen to go to Britain because they speak a little English or have family links in the UK.
The “Calais problem” cannot be solved in Calais because it is not a Calais problem. It is a small part of a European, or world, problem which has no obvious solution either.
When the Calais saga first began some 20 years ago, the migrants were mostly Bosnian refugees from the Yugoslav civil war. They were followed by Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans and Somalis – the enterprising flotsam of successive war zones in Europe, Asia and Africa. In many cases, they had invested their life savings with people-smuggling gangs who promised to take them to Britain but dumped them at Calais and pointed vaguely across the Channel. Those migrants observed certain unspoken rules and limits.
Police and volunteer workers say that the latest arrivals in Calais, including many Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis, are less patient and more determined – and sometimes more aggressive. “There is a change in the mood,” one police officer said. “It is partly the sheer numbers but it is also the fact that they have already been through so much before they get here.”
Speaking to all the different migrant groups in Calais over the years, it has been impossible not to admire their forbearance and their courage. A steady trickle gets through to the English El Dorado.
The whole depressing circus might be a kind of “Jeux sans frontières”, or rather “Jeux avec frontières”, organised by the UK Government to select the most enterprising possible recruits to the British population.
Adamkhan, 34, encountered last year, was a typical case. He was a maths teacher in a primary school in Peshawar, Pakistan. He fled after he and his family were threatened by the Taliban for promoting “Western education”.
Speaking in excellent English, he said: “I know the UK is a crowded island and no one wants us. I know the French authorities have a very difficult job. But what is the solution?”
If an answer exists, it is not in building bigger fences or bulldozing more camps. Adamkhan and all the others had good reason to leave their homes and risk their lives. The British Government has good reason not to let them all in.
More should be done to prevent these young men from leaving their homes in the first place. And Britain should offer – as it did in 2002 – to take in some of the most deserving and qualified.
Neither is likely to happen. Neither would solve the problem for long if it did happen. That is what makes Calais such a never-ending tragedy. Everyone is right and everyone is wrong.
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