Calais migrants: the dangerous link between rhetoric and policy

Migrants gather by a fence in Calais Calais: more desperate people are living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions © DENIS CHARLET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The situation at Calais is far from new. Calais has long been a place to which refugees and other migrants have come in the hope of getting to the UK. In 2002, it was mostly Iraqis and Afghans. Now there appears to be a wider range of nationalities including Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese.

However, the situation at Calais has in recent times got worse. More desperate people are living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and their collective plight has become more visible and disruptive.

But why are political leaders and commentators apparently so shocked by this? For all the despair and discomfort confronting those immediately affected, Calais is but a symptom of the global refugee crisis. And as that crisis has grown in recent years, so has the comparatively small aspect of it in Calais.

By far the greater impact of this refugee crisis is not felt in the European Union, still less at Calais. Around 3,000-4,000 people live in the Jungle at Calais.

Let’s put this in perspective – the UK received 32,000 asylum applicants in 2014, itself a tiny proportion of the country’s 64 million population. By contrast, Lebanon hosts more than one million refugees from Syria alone, making up a quarter of its population. And Turkey hosts more refugees than the EU countries combined.

More failing rhetoric and policy

Sadly, political leaders who have largely ignored the growing refugee crisis continue to prioritise the same policies – increased border policing and harsher treatment for refugees and other migrants – which have done nothing to alleviate the crisis to date.

Perhaps worse is their persistent rhetoric which carelessly or deliberately presents a false picture of the crisis while further inflaming growing anti-migrant hostility. This dangerous narrative feeds the illusion that the UK is bearing the brunt of the crisis because it is the land of milk and honey.

You wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric, but the UK actually provides less financial support to single asylum applicants than France, and detains far more people for indefinite and much longer periods. The UK also receives less than half the number of asylum claims as France does, which has been the case for several years.

But the Prime Minister still talks about ‘swarms’ and political commentators such as John Humphrys on BBC R4’s The Today Programme speak of ‘illegals’ – careless or wilfully denying that the majority of the people they are describing are refugees from conflict and persecution, and that the number of such people trying to find safety in the UK is small by any fair comparison with many other countries.

We’ve been here before too. Political rhetoric in the early 2000’s was pretty nasty in relation to asylum-seekers. As that experience shows, such rhetoric doesn’t solve anything.

Rather it increases anxiety – or worse, hostility and xenophobia – which in turn demands satisfaction. This becomes a vicious circle, and makes it much harder for political leaders to introduce policies that would address the current crisis because those policies don’t sit well with their own rhetoric.

Today the Home Office issued a consultation on restricting support for those refused asylum, including families with children. This has been tried before and it failed. And there is no reason to think it would have any impact on the situation at Calais. As Home Office staff have previously warned, withdrawing support makes it more difficult to remove from the UK those people who have no entitlement to be here.

How do we solve this crisis?

To reach a point where the crisis is better managed and can be significantly reduced, there are really only two possibilities. We can, of course, bury our heads in the sand and just hope that conflict, persecution and hostility – the real driving factors behind the refugee migration – will just decline of themselves.

Alternatively, we will need to accept that no country can effectively respond to this crisis alone. We need coordinated and collective action within the EU and beyond, and to achieve this requires showing some solidarity with those countries who really are disproportionately affected. Yesterday, the Home Secretary and her French counterpart called on other European and African countries to help them with the situation at Calais.

But the UK has spectacularly failed to show such solidarity so far. It has accepted only 187 Syrian refugees for resettlement from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, who together host more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. The UK’s ongoing failure to accept some responsibility for refugees at Calais demonstrates a lack of solidarity with France – albeit on a less staggering scale. Similarly, the UK has refused to take part in EU measures to relieve some of the pressure upon Italy and Greece.

But if our political leaders persist with the current rhetoric, it will become increasingly difficult to implement policies which would do so.

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