THE humanitarian imperative of helping Channel Tunnel asylum seekers is getting lost in a disastrous mix of British politics, public anxiety and French industrial action, writes Euan McColm
After what they’ve experienced in their home countries, the sight of a few security guards and some makeshift fencing is hardly much of a deterrent.
Television cameras have captured the desperation of migrants attempting to make their way through the Channel Tunnel from Calais in France to the United Kingdom; even when it’s clear they’ve been caught, they cling to lorries, refusing to give up hope that they’ll make it, that a new life can be theirs. Dignity is an indulgence in these circumstances. If they can just hold on and keep their heads down, maybe they’ll be among the lucky ones.
On Tuesday night, a Sudanese man died as hundreds of migrants made 1,500 separate attempts to storm the Channel Tunnel. In the aftermath, Prime Minister David Cameron described a “swarm” of people coming across the Mediterranean sea, hoping for a better life in Britain.
On Friday, Cameron announced the government’s latest response to the increasing number of migrants trying to make it across – or under – the channel from France: the UK will send extra sniffer dogs and fencing to Calais and work with the French on what he described as an “unacceptable situation”.
Those trying to get to British soil might be driven to do so by fear of what might happen to them back home, but with immigration – particularly of the illegal variety – a major issue for voters in the south, the PM had to be seen to be acting tough.
Giving Ukip points to score won’t make it easier to help those in need
None the less, despite his promise of dogs and fences, Cameron conceded that this was a problem without any easy solution, warning it would be “a difficult issue across the summer”.
Thousands of migrants have attempted to break through fences surrounding the French entrance to the Channel Tunnel this week, but the phenomenon is hardly a new one.
As soon as the tunnel opened in 1994, it became yet another route for those seeking asylum in the UK. Since then, tens of thousands are believed to have used it to enter the UK, stowed away on lorries or hiding in cars belonging to unwitting tourists.
The current crisis has echoes of the situation almost 20 years ago when the numbers of migrants attempting to illegally enter the UK via the tunnel led to the foundation by the French Red Cross of the Sangatte refugee centre. Opened in 1997, Sangatte was home to as many as 1,500 people at any time. The creation of the centre, along with increased security around the tunnel, led to a reduction in the number of illegal immigrants making the journey from France to the UK, but brought its own problems, including riots. France’s then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, ordered its closure in 2002.
Since then, the tunnel has remained a key route into the UK for asylum seekers. Its operator, Eurotunnel, says it has intercepted more than 37,000 migrants since January. The problem shows no sign of going away.
There are estimated to be as many as 5,000 migrants in Calais waiting to seize an opportunity to cross to the UK. Many of these people have fled Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, where they fear for their safety. Others see the UK as offering the best chance for them to create prosperous lives.
Of course, the UK does not bear any responsibility to assist those whose reasons for wishing to settle here are financial, but for those who fear for their lives if they remain in their home countries, things are rather different. The UK has a duty to consider the asylum applications of those who make it across – or under – the channel. And once they are on British soil, this can be a time-consuming process.
Those close to the Prime Minister say his instinct is that Britain should help those who are genuinely fleeing danger at home but that he is mindful that the popularity of Ukip – which is often accused of demonising asylum seekers – means he has to be careful how he presents the UK’s response.
One Tory party source said: “Some people would like us to throw open the doors, I know, and be much more open to the idea of more asylum seekers coming here, but they have to think of the implications of that.
“Ukip is playing a strong game, scaremongering about asylum seekers and calling for tighter restrictions on the numbers coming here. Some people might want us to stand up to that more strongly and make the case for why we should take our fair share of asylum seekers but the issue then is that Ukip would exploit that and it would win them votes. A lot of people really don’t want to see any more asylum seekers in the UK and playing things in such a way that you give Ukip points to score isn’t going to make it any easier for the UK to help those in need.
“The Prime Minister has to think about that constituency of people who are quite strongly opposed to asylum seekers coming here in any sorts of numbers at all. Obviously he doesn’t want to open the doors to everyone, but he does feel Britain should play its part and we can do that best if he makes it clear that he takes people’s concerns seriously.”
So, according to those who know him, the Prime Minister is walking a tightrope, just now, trying to balance his wish to assist those in need with the need to assuage public concerns – fuelled by Ukip – about the UK being deluged by immigrants. Making things even more difficult is the behaviour of French ferry staff, who have added an unruly protest into an already heady mix.
Striking French workers have a long-earned reputation for militant behaviour and those currently adding to the chaos around Calais are living up to it.
About a dozen employees of My Ferry Link burned tyres across a motorway leading to the port in Calais on Friday as part of a dispute over 600 job losses. Police closed off sections of the motorway causing long tailbacks. Although the route to the tunnel remained open, the protest caused disruption and diverted police attention when it was required to deal with the migrant crisis.
The same officers called to deal with the fire-raising strikers had earlier attempted to form a ring around the entrance to the tunnel, leading to scuffles with migrants late on Thursday night. As tensions built on Thursday, migrants grew bolder and, eventually, around 100 attempted to break through police lines. It may have seemed a futile exercise, with baton-wielding officers and riot vans blocking their paths, but two of those who made a bid to reach the tunnel were successful and were later photographed clinging to the top of a lorry as it left the tunnel terminal at Folkestone.
The televised footage of clashes between migrants and police reduces the situation, removing from it any nuance. But as police searched one Syrian man – suspected of attempting to cut through fences near the entrance to the tunnel – a friend of his, a countryman called Adam, spoke up.
“We are just trying to cross for a safe place,” he said. “Why all this police? We have a war in our countries and we need a safe place.
“The English government has to accept the people who has a war in his country… but if he doesn’t have a war then leave him here. We [Syrians] have a big war.”
But while French police may be overstretched, British politicians continue to score points against each other over the crisis.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage warned that “unless something radical is done, it is only a matter of time” before a British holidaymaker or lorry driver dies as a result of the “virtually lawless” conditions at the French port.
Farage said that he’d had personal experience of the situation, with migrants trying to get into his car as he queued at the Channel Tunnel.
“I was stuck on that road outside Eurotunnel a few weeks ago. I was there for about 40 minutes and I was surrounded by scores of migrants, crossing the motorway and trying the passenger doors on my car. It is a pretty scary situation,” he said.
“The British government appears not to want to criticise the French government at all but frankly they are not doing enough.”
Labour’s acting leader Harriet Harman demanded that the government get a grip on the situation.
“This is not just a problem in Calais now,” she said, “It’s a major problem in Kent as well. As long as nine months ago we were pressing the government to get on to this and sort it out.”
Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs committee, urged Cameron to hold talks with French president François Hollande as soon as possible, saying that he had witnessed 148 migrants successfully make the journey illegally to England on Tuesday morning while at an immigration processing centre in Folkestone, Kent.
The SNP’s immigration spokesman, Stuart McDonald MP, might have been expected to propose a radical solution; after all, the Scottish Nationalists have made much of the notion that Scots are more liberal than those in other parts of the UK. But he was rather muted, saying: said: “The failure to get to grips with the situation in Calais is a huge frustration for travellers and businesses, but most importantly, it has once again resulted in a terrible human tragedy with the Sudanese man apparently killed. He is the ninth to die in the tunnel since June.”
McDonald did, however, signal a desire for the process of asylum applications to be improved. “Instead of fire-fighting, governments must work together – and with other EU governments – to find a sustainable solution,” he said. “That almost certainly will have to involve discussions around dealing with applications from refugees and migrants already in Calais and some possible resettlement. Otherwise, we’ll simply continue to see disruption and deaths in the port of Calais and at Coquelles, and that is not in anybody’s interests.”
It fell to the new Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron to be the voice of compassion on this issue, which he said was about helping desperate people rather than controlling borders.
“We are treating this as a security issue, but primarily it is a humanitarian one,” he said. “We should be big enough to take a lead and accept our fair share of refugees.
“Just moving in with force and building a bigger fence is not a solution.”
Desperate migrants are already willing to risk their lives to travel to the UK. The building of new fences seems unlikely to stop that drive.
And, although Cameron’s tough talk on the subject might represent a sensible short-term political response, perhaps Farron’s more thoughtful contribution holds the solution.
Unless, of course, Britain truly wants to turn its back on the victims of war and torture.