The images of chaos in Calais on Tuesday as hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants tried to climb into United Kingdom-bound trucks are shocking. But not because the UK is threatened by an invasion of people who want to take advantage of British taxpayers or steal their jobs. They are shocking because they show how desperate a growing number of people are. These men, women, and children left their families, jobs, studies, and homes in countries like Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan because they felt they had no choice.
When I was in Calais last winter documenting violence by French police against asylum seekers and migrants there, I spoke to people who left war and human rights abuses in their countries because they feared for their lives. Having survived the incredibly dangerous and expensive journey across the Mediterranean, many had made their way across Italy and France, to try to find a truck to hide in, hoping the UK would offer them the shelter they had not been able to find elsewhere.
As the number of people crossing the sea to Italy and Greece continues to grow, so does the number of asylum seekers and migrants in Calais. There is a shelter for 100 women and children, but everyone else is in a makeshift camp. A center open only during the day offers one meal per day, showers, and a place to recharge mobile phones, but it’s designed to serve 1,500 people, half the number who need it.
The predictable response of the UK Immigration Minister James Brokenshire to the latest crisis in Calais has been to announce more resources to combat organized criminal gangs involved in migrant smuggling. But such measures will do little to address the factors that drive people to flee their home countries. The solution needs to begin with humane treatment of those in Calais, and in recognizing that the issues in Calais are merely a symptom of a wider crisis.
When the leaders of the UK, France, and other European Union countries meet in Brussels on Thursday, they should support the European Commission’s modest proposals for a fairer distribution of asylum seekers, agree to a generous resettlement of refugees, and facilitate family reunification. Otherwise the chaos in Calais, and in the Mediterranean, is only going to get worse – and the first to suffer are those who have already suffered so much.