We can’t stop the flow of migrants to Europe. Rehousing them is our only option

Migrants walk down a slope  leading to the Channel tunnel terminal.
Migrants in Calais on their way to the Channel tunnel. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Rarely since 1558, when Queen Mary lost the town to the French, can Calais have ruffled as many British feathers as it has this July. British lorry-drivers, British holidaymakers, and British booze-runners – they’ve all had their journeys wrecked by a recent rise in refugees attempting to break into the Calais end of the Channel tunnel.

Without wanting to entirely dismiss their experiences, it is nevertheless useful to remember that the Calais crisis is just a tiny part of a wider one. Of the nearly 200,000 refugees and migrants who have reached Europe via the Mediterranean this year, only 3,000 have made their way to Calais. This means that the migrants at Calais constitute between 1% and 2% of the total number of arrivals in Italy and Greece in 2015.

Far from the UK being a primary target for refugees, the country is much less sought-after than several of its northern European neighbours, notably Sweden and Germany. And while the chaos at Calais may seem unique, many more migrants arrive every week on the shores of Italy and Greece than will reach northern France all year.

Debunking this Anglo-centrism is not an academic exercise. It is crucial to understanding how the Calais crisis can be better managed.

Britain’s responses to the phenomenon are based on the assumption that it is a local problem. They include building more fences (Theresa May’s proposed recourse), sending in the army (Nigel Farage’s), or clearing the camp entirely (the default reaction in years gone by). Such solutions presuppose that the crisis is a one-off event peculiar to the British-French border, and that these migrants – once cordoned-off and forgotten about – won’t come back and try again.

But such short-termism ignores a vital fact: the migrants at Calais are merely the crest of the biggest global wave of mass migration since the second world war. Others will keep coming in their wake, whether we like it or not. Previous camp clearances over the past decade have ultimately not stopped the flow at Calais. Why would they work now?

The reality is that there is no quick solution, or even a solution at all. But there is a way of at least managing the problem in a more orderly fashion in the long term – if we recognise that Calais is a symptom of a much bigger issue: a Europe-wide migration crisis, or even a worldwide one. A crisis that can be mitigated, but not avoided altogether.

Accepting this reality is the key to managing it. My job is to report on the migration crisis in all its forms – in north Africa, Italy, Greece and throughout the Balkans. In the course of my reporting, I’ve interviewed dozens of refugees about why they’re risking death to reach Europe. The most common answer is this:because there is no other option. Many cannot return home, or start new lives in other countries in the Middle East or north Africa. So they have nothing to lose by trying for Europe. This means that they will continue to cross the sea in leaking boats – and a few of them will continue to set up camps at Calais – until there is a safe, legal and realistic means of being relocated to Europe.

For many, the implications of this will be hard to swallow. But the reality is clear: the only logical, long-term response to the Calais crisis is to create a legal means for vast numbers of refugees to reach Europe in safety. This may sound counter-intuitive. But at the current rate, whether we like it or not, 1 million refugees will arrive on European shores within the next four or five years. Whether they set up camps at Calais depends on how orderly we make that process of resettlement.

The prime minister thinks that sending home west African migrants will do the trick. But this so-called deterrent won’t put off most of the people at Calais. The majority of migrant arrivals to Europe in the past two years have been Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans. These are not “economic migrants” – they are people respectively fleeing civil war, oppression and religious extremism, and in some cases all three. They therefore have a legal right to seek sanctuary in Europe.

Promising to swiftly relocate 1 million Syrian, Eritrean and Afghan refugees within a viable timeframe is the only thing that will persuade most of them to stay and wait in the transit countries of the Middle East and north Africa – instead of going by boat, or setting up shanty towns in northern France. Currently the EU has promised to relocate 22,000 Syrians and Eritreans awaiting asylum in the Middle East. But given that there are already a total of 4 million Syrian refugees, this is a tiny, token number – and will do nothing to discourage the tide of people crossing the sea through illegal means, or turning up at Calais. We need to promise to resettle a far bigger number in the long-term in order to persuade them to stay put in the short term.

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1 reply

  1. There is sufficient evidence that for instance the Syrian civil war was planned in London. It is reported by a previous French Foreign Minister that two years before the start of the present conflict he was told in London that ‘we will do something in Syria’. And now not to take responsibility of the refugees is simply criminal.

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