Calais needs responsible actions not provocative words

David Cameron
David Cameron

A crescendo of dehumanising and provocative language has been emerging from the UK Government in response to the greatest humanitarian crisis of our times.

The latest is Philip Hammond, the UK's Foreign Secretary, who yesterday referred to "marauding migrants" and "millions" of Africans. His words, designed to instil fear and play on prejudice, are both irresponsible and inaccurate. In fact, most of those trying to reach safe shores are refugees fleeing conflict, torture and persecution, often from Syria and Iraq, as well as from Eritrea.

Europe has a humanitarian and legal responsibility to provide sanctuary for such refugees, although in fact the bulk of refugees end up living in countries from Lebanon to Kenya, rather than in Europe.

Cameron's 'swarm'

Meanwhile, last week, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, described the global refugee crisis thus:

"You have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live."

Our Prime Minister used worrying and visceral metaphors (remember Enoch Powell and his rivers of blood? Remember the Nazis and cockroaches, or even Katie Hopkins in The Sun?) to describe the desperate transnational movement of our fellow human beings: the children, the women, and the men risking their lives across the Sahara in Africa, in the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing, all to get to Fortress Europe.

Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances

Migrants don’t swarm anywhere. They are not insects. They are ordinary people in extraordinary predicaments. Cameron would be advised to remember that he doesn’t just speak for himself, but represents the UK: he has a pivotal influence on our international reputation and how others see us.

The children, men, and women in Calais, or those who are crossing the Mediterranean, are not powerless, they are quite literally survivors. But the reality is that, at this point in their lives, they need our help as human beings first and as refugees seeking protection, and – we shouldn’t be ashamed to say it – as those simply wishing a better life.

It was reassuring to hear the chorus of condemnation that met Cameron's words, from ordinary people, some politicians, and refugees themselves. Cameron should listen and he should learn. In fact, a good place to start would be to give Glaswegian Sean Swan a call, who said last Thursday on BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland (2h3m):

"We as lorry drivers understand that these people are desperate.  We have a lot of sympathy for these people."

Mr Cameron could learn a lot from Mr Swan.

Listen to the real experts

Then after that, Cameron should speak with UNHCR and refugees too, the real experts. If he did he would learn what Mr Swan knows already: that those in Calais have spent months, maybe years in the search of protection or a better life. They are women, men and children prepared to risk their lives time and time again to board the freight facilities at the Eurotunnel. 

These are ordinary human beings pitted against extraordinary challenges. They have fled countries like Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, countries known for mass displacement due to conflict and human rights abuses. Cameron should also speak to our colleagues at the UK charity Freedom Form Torture: they’ll tell him that one third of those in Calais are thought to be victims of torture.

So, let’s inject some reality into all this. Let's listen to some real stories like that of Mengs Medhane, a 16-year-old boy from Eritrea who died jumping from a truck. Or uplifting stories, such as that of Jacob, one of our brilliant volunteers at Scottish Refugee Council, a teacher from Eritrea who escaped the Eritrean regime and who was recently recognised as a refugee in the UK.

Getting things in proportion

Let’s also get a sense of proportion about Calais. The number of refugees and migrants in Calais is estimated as 3,000. Little attention is given to the fact that the numbers in the refugee camps at Calais make up a tiny proportion of the refugee population in Europe. The number of people who have sought asylum in Germany is four times than those who have come to the UK and in France the number is double the UK figure. 

Yet somehow the camera crews have turned our attention away from the real crisis in the Mediterranean to the current "crisis" at Calais.  Cameron may now think he is "absolutely on it" with more fences, more sniffer dogs, more security. But he should listen to experience of the UN’s Secretary-General’s special representative on migration, Peter Sutherland, who advises in the Guardian that:

"Anybody who thinks that by erecting borders or fences in some way a particular state can be protected from alleged ‘floods’, which are anything but floods, of migrants is living in cloud-cuckoo land."

Need for real leadership

Real leadership would mean a genuine, calm and mature response to this humanitarian crisis. Cameron needs to lead so that the UK Government no longer stands on the sidelines and starts to share its responsibility to get Europe’s immigration and protection systems working again. Europe is a region of 500 million people that, despite recent economic difficulties, remains rich and has the means to be resourceful in dealing with this crisis.

The talk at the end of July of "swarms of people" led to a moral panic about Calais. Whether consciously or through incompetence,  Cameron has pumped up this panic: he now needs to catch his breath and silence the hysterical chatter about armies moving in. He should then refocus the UK Government onto what it should have been doing all along: protecting people through asylum and by sharing responsibility with other European states through a transnational relocation and resettlement scheme. It is this kind of leadership that will help end and prevent Calais, not fences and dogs.

The answer is not complex. It just means following Europe's humanitarian tradition and working together towards a long-term plan, informed by historic conventions and laws that were created to address past refugee migrations.

This is the path that Cameron must take, and we must tell him that this is the stuff of real leadership, not repeating the higher fences and the tough-not-smart actions that have failed before and will do so again.

What can you do? You can write to your MP to ask them to support a sensible, humanitarian response to the refugee crisis.

(1) Comments

  • Ian Patterson
    11 August 2015, 09:00

    An excellent, logical, and well-balanced response! Just what is needed to counter the empty rhetoric of some of our politicians...

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