By Zachary Fieldhouse
Migrants have long been part of the landscape of the sleepy northern coastal town of Calais, France. The city is the point of embarkation for the United Kingdom and many migrants have, over the years, boarded lorries crossing the Channel for better opportunities. However, it was particularly in recent weeks that the debate on the situation in Calais has become more contentious. There have been no government mandated refugee centres in the town since 2002 and latest estimates put the number of migrants at around 2,500 people. These are hundreds more than the typical 250 to 300. Large numbers of these migrants hail from the Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan.
No one, of course, can blame the migrants for their desire to better themselves and the lives of their families. The current situation, however, is simply untenable. The relationship between locals and migrants is tense and, with the increasing destitute and desperate migrant population, crime has become a factor. There have been, for example, reports of vandalism and harassment of the local populace, and the streets of Calais and its abandoned buildings have been infiltrated by roaming bands of refugees. Some reports suggest that relief efforts provided by local food banks and charities have been unappreciated by the refugee population. In some isolated cases, for example, food has been rejected because it has been deemed ‘too bland’.
Regardless of the situation on the ground, however, I think that the real issue in Calais is a symptom of failed European and international law. Mediterranean countries, which have seen a new wave of migrants from North Africa, Turkey, and elsewhere, have simply been losing track of people. Migrants have slipped through the ever-widening cracks in the system. Asylum-seekers are obliged to lodge an asylum application with the first ‘safe country’ at which they arrive and, given the proximity of Italy to Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria, it has not been able to cope. The growing number of migrants sans papiers has been met with fear by European governments. In Calais, for example, the government chose to erect a five metre fence and employ patrolling guard dogs to prevent people from raiding England-bound vehicles at the port.
Another factor that plays a crucial role are the Media. They certainly have their share in misrepresenting the migrant issue. Newspapers widely reported the views of Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of the coastal town, who blamed Britain’s welfare policies and its perpetuation of an idealized view of the UK throughout the world. Indeed, the UK cannot help if it has a positive view on the world stage. It cannot help that people are drawn to it by their learning English. It cannot be blamed for a welfare system which is created for its own citizens just because that may attract migrants entering the EU.
There are more factors to consider. The underlying problems of increasing migration to the EU– the burdens on flagging health care systems and schools and inadequate housing – will not disappear upon erecting a five-metre fence. The real problem lies with policy, particularly the Schengen agreement which eliminates internal border controls between EU countries. Governments are unable to police internal EU borders. Migrants which could and should have lodged asylum applications in the Mediterranean are allowed to conglomerate in more affluent areas and put on a strain on local government services. They could still have been relocated to another EU country as part of a burden-sharing mechanism. The Schengen and asylum systems need to be fundamentally reworked to take disparities in conditions between European countries into account. Without these fundamental changes, European countries will never tackle the migration issue and the needs of asylum-seekers in Calais, and elsewhere, will never be met.