Our media officer Chris is a former volunteer and trustee of Refugee Info Bus, an NGO operating in Northern France and across Europe to support people on the move. Here he responds to recent negative press coverage of people crossing the Channel.
Negative press coverage of people arriving in the UK across the English Channel has ramped up in recent weeks. The number of people arriving in small boats on the Kent coast daily has suddenly become headline news.
We cannot turn away from the plight of people across one of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world. According to Refugee Women’s Centre, an organisation working on the ground in Calais and Dunkirk, mass evictions and worsening living conditions in Northern France are coinciding with this increase in people attempting to cross the Channel by boat.
Aid groups on the ground estimate that there are over 1000 people currently displaced at our border in Calais. This is not a new phenomenon. The numbers of displaced people sleeping rough in Calais began to grow in the late 1990s, although the situation really registered on most people’s consciousness in 2015 when thousands of people were living in the “Calais Jungle” at the height of the “refugee crisis”. The camp was evicted in October 2016, with thousands of people dispersed across France. But even since the eviction of the Jungle, there has consistently been around 1000 people displaced at our border.
Calais is a deliberately hostile place for people seeking safety. Relentless evictions and intimidation tactics in Northern France deters people from wanting to stay in France, and creates the conditions for people to try and get to the UK at any cost. The UK has failed for decades to provide a system of safe, legal means for people to seek asylum or to enable people to reunite with their families. Current global resettlement schemes are only for people from certain nationalities. The only route for anybody else to claim asylum is to find a way get to the country, taking increasingly dangerous risks to do so. Despite the UK border being in Calais, people cannot claim asylum in the UK from there. And the French asylum system is difficult to access in the region too.
It is often touted that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. This is a deliberate misreading of the Dublin Regulation, which already puts a disproportionate strain on EU border states to deal with people arriving in Europe. Over 34,000 people are being held in squalid camps in Greece, and people are dying every single day in the Mediterranean and in detention centres in Libya. We cannot turn away. People have the right to seek asylum from persecution in any country. Nobody would put themselves or their children in a small boat in the Channel unless they thought it was safer than what they were leaving behind.
However, the media’s attack on this vulnerable group of people is working. The daily headlines are creating the idea of a crisis, building the assumption that our border controls aren’t good enough, that our Home Office policies are too lenient. We know that this is not the case. People are being scapegoated in order to justify an even more hostile environment. Resentment and rage is being whipped up when we should be feeling empathy. We should all be down at the shore in Folkestone, offering our hands, pulling people out of the waves, hearing their individual stories. Instead, an ugly anger is boiling over.
It is so easy for the populist press to just tar people with the same brush – “illegal migrants”, “Channel migrants”. But behind the headlines, these are individual people. People who have fled war, persecution and terror. People who have experienced torture and human rights abuses. People who need safe, legal routes to safety which don’t leave them risking their lives in a small boat in the Channel. People who, in the face of the worst this world has to offer, choose hope and life.
We must welcome this. We must enable people to seek safety as safely as possible, and ensure that people are properly supported once they are here.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has recently announced plans for a more “compassionate” Home Office. This comes just days after visiting Calais to announce plans for a new “joint intelligence cell” and a “shared commitment to returning boats to France” with France’s interior minister, in a move which will cost the UK millions of pounds. Prior to her visit, one of the largest evictions Calais has seen since October 2016 took place, so that she didn’t have to see the many faces of people at the sharp end of her policies. Where is the compassion there?
We call on the Home Office to provide more safe and legal routes for people to seek safety in the UK, including but not limited to:
- a system of humanitarian visas for people to claim asylum from overseas
- an extension of the resettlement scheme beyond 2021
- separated children in the UK should be allowed to sponsor their parents or siblings to join them
- existing safe, legal routes must be safeguarded
And for people who have newly arrived in the UK, they must have access to a fair and just asylum system and be properly supported to rebuild their lives here.
Nobody is safe until we are all safe.
Essential further reading
Refugee Rights Europe: On the arrival of prospective UK asylum seekers by boat, and the need for humane policy change.
Submit evidence to a Home Affairs Committee inquiry into Channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes through the EU, by 14th September.
Support organisations working on the ground in Northern France, by attending online fundraisers, donating essential items or volunteering (when global travel restrictions allow). Some groups have drop-off points for donations in Scotland.
Internet access and information
Children and young people
Organisations supporting new arrivals in Kent
Image: Aimen Ben Aissa @aiimen.In the news