By Alex Johnson
Make no mistake, what’s happening at the Channel Tunnel entrance in Calais is not a temporary crisis. This is not a short term problem, a blip before a return to regular programming. From Lesvos to Lampedusa, from Ceuta to Calais, the flow of desperate people seeking refuge from war and hunger shows no sign of waning. The pictures coming from Calais of people camped out in ‘the Jungle’, in make-shift shelters surrounded by militarised police, are not from some dystopian sci-fi. This is our new European reality.
The number of refugees and forced migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean this year are way beyond last year’s numbers. Over 200,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe via the Med in 2014. In 2015 at least 185,000 people have already made the trip through scorching sun, swells and storms.
The countries on Europe’s periphery which once provided shelter, safety and jobs for their own residents and migrants from further afield are in flames. Iraq and Syria will not stabilise in the near future – years of war have taught us as much. No number of coalition airstrikes (which may have killed hundreds of civilians) or Turkish bombs will alleviate the situation. And plans of ‘safe zones’ for Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) along the Turkish border inside Syria only serve to recall memories of safe zones in Bosnia, such as Srebrenica.
Libya, which once served as a hub for migrant labour from Sub-Saharan Africa, is now split between two rival governments and various militias. The situation for migrants there is terrible, with those in detention facing beatings, sexual assault and limited access to sanitation and medical assistance. The European Commission announced last Monday that it would contribute €6 million in humanitarian aid to Libya.
However, EU military action targeting supposed smugglers’ vessels from Libya will not deter migration, both naval officials and the people smugglers themselves agree as much. It only forces desperate people onto less seaworthy vessels. A fishing boat carrying up to 600 people capsized last week. The final number of dead bodies hasn’t been reported yet as they are still washing up on the Med’s southern shore.
The fact that this crisis has made it to the ‘chunnel’ glares in the face of Little England’s isolationist logic. This is a reality that people living on the southern shores of Sicily, Crete and Kos have known for a long time now. One thousand people a day are arriving on the Greek islands. Now the British are forced to confound this problem face to face, on a daily basis and not just while on holiday.
On the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme the Conservative MP David Davies claimed a solution to the situation was to use development aid money to build internment camps, “err good camps not bad ones”, in Africa and deport refugees there. Prime Minister David Cameron described those crossing the Med as a “swarm of people”. The right-wing press wants to send in the army.
In reaction to the Calais situation, the UK government has announced plans for benefit restrictions and automatic evictions from rental properties for “illegal immigrants”. When asylum seekers are rejected their prospects are deeply unpleasant. The detention system is an abusive and gruelling affair for those incarcerated and awaiting deportation at centres such as Yarl’s Wood.
Politicians and the media fail to understand the reasons why people are coming to Europe. Using derogatory terminology that compares people to insects will not deter them. Creating a hostile environment will not deter them. Building fences will not deter them. Ultimately what these, the most desperate of people, are escaping is terror and death. For many, sleeping in a tent amid the sand grass and wind swept dunes of Calais is better than what they leave behind. One Sudanese man in ‘the Jungle’ told the Guardian’s Nick Cohen: “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to kill anyone … No guns. No killing here”.
British outrage at the situation in Calais is directed at Paris, Rome and Brussels, for letting these refugees and migrants make it as far as the English border. But blaming Europe ignores the fact that this is a Europe-wide problem in which the UK must accept its own role. Afghanis and Iraqis are among those running head first into the darkness of the tunnel, and Britain must bear responsibility for its involvement in other countries.
Last Sunday the British Home Secretary Theresa May and Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s Minister of the Interior, wrote a joint letter in the Telegraph (and Le Journal du Dimanche) that the “nations of Europe will always provide protection for those genuinely fleeing conflict or persecution. However, we must break the link between crossing the Mediterranean and achieving settlement in Europe for economic reasons.” But Europe has already failed those “genuinely fleeing”: they are dying in our seas and on our roads and in our cities.
The European Commission has transferred €50 million to the UK and France to tackle the Calais situation and speed up asylum applications. While this is certainly helpful to both countries, the Commission should look to providing emergency funding to the states where refugees first arrive. As the New York Times writes in a strongly-worded editorial: “Greece needs help from Europe, and it needs it now. The European Commission should immediately allocate emergency funds to Greece for refugee services. It must also compel member states to take action if the union is to have any credibility at all.”
A recent attempt by the EU to alleviate the strain on the struggling states of Greece and Italy ended with a vastly inadequate agreement and only after bitter negotiations. Forty thousand Syrians and Eritreans, whom arrived last year are to be relocated, mostly in Germany, France and the Netherlands. However, that target has already fallen short. In July, the European Parliament called for a binding and permanent system to relocate people across the EU.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, has indicated that the Union might have to revisit the idea of an obligatory redistribution of refugees. Relocation is necessary to ease this situation and all European states must take part. Turkey hosts over 1.8 million Syrian refugees at present. Tiny neighbouring Jordan hosts around 630,000 Syrian refugees (that’s on top of the two million registered Palestinian refugees), and its infrastructure is at breaking point. Just over 300,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe since the war began. Europe can and must accept more people.
Claude Moraes Member of the European Parliament for London and chair of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Justice and Home affairs Committee has joined calls for a stronger EU-wide response saying the EU must show “that it is capable of managing a migration policy with fair rules, compassion, and the rule of law.”
Guy Verhofstead, the outspoken leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament has called for “a centralised European asylum system that allocates genuine refugees more equally between EU countries”. The head of the UNHCR in Greece has described the situation for people arriving in Greece as “shameful”. And Alexis Tsipras, the Prime Minster of Greece has pleaded for EU help: “This problem surpasses us. Greece is a country in economic crisis, and it faces a major humanitarian crisis within a crisis.”
There are glimmers of hope as members of the public, charities and community leaders challenge the British government’s approach. Activists helped to bring residents of ‘the Jungle’ blankets during the winter. Support centres are operating all over the UK and Europe to provide food, advice and legal aid to refugees. In Germany activists are helping refugees find accommodation and money for rent through the website refugees-welcome.net.
Now that this crisis is a reality on the UK’s doorstep the British government must work with its European partners to help stabilise neighbouring countries. It must stop demonising and persecuting refugees. Britain and the EU need to work towards greater relocation of, and assistance to, those stuck in transitory camps such as the jungle. To ignore and demonise people will confound this situation. We must accept, assist, relocate and recognise refugees and forced migrants across Europe. That would be pragmatic, responsible and humane.
Alex Johnson is a freelance journalist. He writes on Greece, corruption and European politics. He tweets here: @Ah_johns