Anti-Migrant Rhetoric Masks Human Suffering in Calais

The Port of Calais (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Returning from a meeting in Brussels to London by the Channel Tunnel train last week was easy and smooth. Gliding into the tunnel from the flat fields of Normandy on the 16-carriage Eurostar high-speed train has become routine, even uninteresting. Nothing unusual caught the eye, passing Calais between the bastions of pre-stressed concrete and ugly overhead power-lines. For most travellers on the trains from the French and Belgian capitals to London, the novelty of slipping under the English Channel at over 200km/h wore off years ago.

Not so a short distance along the coast. There, beside another terminal, at Coquelles, massed in a tawdry makeshift migrant camp, you’ll find several thousand migrants. It’s a depot the size of a regional airport where the freight trains load hundreds of lorries day and night directly onto the flatbeds that are hauled through the tunnel, in between the passenger trains, to offload at the freight terminal near Folkestone in Kent. It is this route that some desperate migrants have been trying to take in order to get to Britain. French police and Eurotunnel security people have struggled to cope with an increasingly febrile situation. Already, several would-be migrants have died in the nightly scuffles as scores try to breach the terminal’s security, some successfully, attempting to board the freight trains.

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U.K. Prime Minister Cameron is facing a barrage of criticism from almost every quarter following his public stance towards the migrants. Refugee welfare groups and Opposition politicians have joined in attacking his choice of inflammatory language in depicting a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean…heading to Britain.” Acting leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman MP chided Cameron to remember that “he is talking about people, not insects.” Elsewhere, Cameron’s Tories, echoed and cheered on by the right-wing tabloid media, have continued to insist that almost all those in flight are economic migrants.

Advocacy groups such as the Jesuit Refugee Service and political opponents alike accused the P.M. of dehumanizing some of the most vulnerable and desperate people on the globe. Others have noted that the Conservative government is clearly more concerned about the inconvenience caused to Europe-bound British holidaymakers—it’s the height of the U.K. vacation season—than the plight of the migrants, as security measures and frequent incursions into secure areas have brought chaos to the trains and the approach-roads on either side. Such an analysis of the unfolding tragedy is depressingly unsurprising from an administration that, encouraged by a surprise election victory, recently announced swinging benefit cuts which amount to an attack on the poorest, even as anti-austerity voices grow louder.

An estimated 185,000 people have managed to cross the Mediterranean since January this year. Many, of course, have died tragically and horribly in the attempt. European nations still dither and fail to agree on an adequate and humanitarian response; the suffering has not gone away but has only vanished from the headlines. German and Italian ships rescued a further over 3,000 people earlier this week while Italy alone has received over 60,000 refugees in the first half of this year. Of this number, only around 3,000 have reached Calais and are now sleeping rough in the improvised transit camp that they themselves have poignantly named “the jungle.”

There has been a surge of unsubstantiated invasion hysteria in recent days and weeks as the numbers sleeping rough at Calais have increased to around 3,000, but there have been migrants around Calais Port and railhead for years. They used, with some success, to breach the fences near the quays, in order to board the lorries, until security was beefed up then they moved more recently to the Coquelles railhead, where the protection had been weaker. The response of the U.K. government at the end of this week has been to provide more fencing and a pack of sniffer-dogs, but no humanitarian assistance to the people in the camps. The French authorities have been providing medical and sanitary facilities while the U.K. government has installed only security equipment.

Advocacy group Seeking Sanctuary, which provides basic humanitarian aid for the migrants, is becoming increasingly concerned, as are other organizations, about the “demonization” of these people. They point out that populist media reports in recent days have focused much more on the traffic chaos and delays on the English side in Kent. In a statement released today, they speak of one refugee, a dentist from Syria living in Calais who had been caught between ISIL and Assad's army. For him and many like him "survival is what matters, rather than any thought of an 'Eldorado' in Britain." They ask: faced with the squalor of the 'jungle' in Calais, and having survived the perilous Mediterranean crossing, is it surprising that some migrants are prepared to risk their lives again?

Reports of many thousands of migrants trying to reach Britain are misleading. These are people fleeing war, violence and persecution, for the most part, rather than, as Cameron had it, economic migrants. It is simpler to portray them as “illegals.” Many people here felt that it was insensitive and opportunistic of Cameron to try to score political points from the situation—they were trying to come into Britain, he claimed, because his government’s policies had led to a better quality of life here which these people, he claimed, are seeking. Each of the 3,000 or so men, women and children, from failed states like Syria, the Sudans or Eritrea, living in the Calais camp is an individual, a human person. Together they do not form some kind of Napoleonic or Nazi invasion force that threatens this sceptered isle. As one migrant from Sudan, living in the Calais jungle and widely cited in the U.K. media this week, put it: “It’s easier to leave us living like this if you say that we are bad, not human.”

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