Three thousand migrants have congregated in the area known as the ‘Jungle’ in the past few weeks with many hoping that they will an opportunity to make a clandestine crossing of the Channel to find a safe haven in the UK.
Tension has been rising as the refugee presence has combined with disruption caused by the actions of employees of a ferry company who have lost their jobs when the firm was sold to a competitor. The slowdown in the movement of traffic through the town and its surrounding area have provided the desperate refugees with more opportunities to board lorries and other vehicles boarding the freight facilities at Coquelles, where trains are loaded to make the journey through the Eurotunnel.
The attempt to board in this way has involved great risk to the people involved and has resulted in nine deaths since the current phase of the crisis began in June.
Groups acting in solidarity with the migrants have pointed out that these tragedies have been occurring on a regular basis for several years. Calais Migrant Solidarity documented the deaths of sixteen people in 2014 who died in activities in and around the channel crossing and its associated motorway routes. These include:
- January – a 17 year old boy from Iran is killed by being driven over by a truck just outside the parking area in Coquelles.
- March – a person from Ethiopia was killed having hit his head whilst hiding in a truck he thought was to going to England.
- May – Mengs Medhane, 16 years old from Eritrea, dies after jumping from a truck he thought was heading to England.
- October – a 16 year old woman from Ethiopia was killed crossing a major highway near Calais whilst trying to cross the border into the UK.
Tension around the Channel crossing has even deeper roots, going back to the years around the turn of the millennium, when the then Home Secretary David Blunkett began collaboration with his French counterpart to act against gatherings of refugees in the Calais area hoping to make the journey to the UK.
Since this date the frequent flare-up of new phases of the refugee crisis have confounded British politicians and officials who have attempted to deal with the issue by urging the French authorities to adopt ever tougher police measures to disrupt the refugee camps. The UK has also provided its own immigration officials to run what are called ‘juxtaposed controls’ on the French side and has contributed an estimated £19 million to upgrading fencing and other security measures in and around the freight terminals and rail lines.
In addition the French police have mounted a series of paramilitary-style raids on the refugee camps, smashing their flimsy tents, confiscating sleeping bags and other property and dispersing the migrants away from the town. These actions have been condemned by French organisations providing humanitarian aid to the people involved who point out that although it increases the hardship of the victims it does nothing to stop their regroupment and return to the area to attempt crossings once again.
The failure of all attempts to resolve the issue have provoked critical comment in the media, with manyBritish commentators asking why the refugees seem to be set on entering the UK rather than seek asylum in the countries they have passed through. Public opinion in the country seems to take little account of the fact that the numbers gathered at Calais make up a small fragment of the refugee population of Europe, with more than four times as many people seeking a haven in Germany than they do in the UK, and France itself receiving double the number as apply on the other side of the Channel.
The persistence of people making repeated attempt to cross the Channel is also partly explained by groups represented in Calais, with Syrians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Afghans and other nationalities known to come from countries known for the displacement of large numbers of people as refugees. The UK-based charity Freedom from Torture believes that up to one third of the people in the camps are victims of torture. For these people the days and weeks camped out in the Jungle are a small fraction of the months and even years many have spent in vast wanderings across many countries in a search for safe asylum.
The hardship of being a refugee in a world where few countries are providing standards of personal security and welfare support is the chief reason why the Jungle area of Calais keeps filling up over the years with more people who are prepared to attempt the perilous journey to the UK. Their presence follows the ebbs and flows of the refugee movements across a wider area, reaching right out to the borders of the Eastern Mediterranean countries in one direction, and directly across to North Africa in another.
The situation in Calais is first and foremost a product of a humanitarian crisis and it will not be solved or even managed down to a tolerable level by what are essential tough cop police measures. But we should not let the politicians or the media lead the public mood into a fit of pessimism and despair that anything at all can be done about the situation. Europe is a region of 500 million people and, despite its recent economic travails, it remains rich and resourceful enough to attend to crises which sweep a tiny fraction of that number into the insecurities of refugee existence.
What we see in Calais today is a problem that most definitely does have a solution. It means calling on all the humanitarian traditions of the continent to find that solution and the willingness to be guided by laws and conventions which themselves were put in place to handle other refugee crises in the past, We should tell our politicians that this is the direction they need to go in, and not merely repeat the failed policies of higher fences and tougher police actions that have made up most of the last 15 years.