In UK, heated debate as migrants' numbers grow across the Channel

Public support for allowing migrants from Calais to enter is very low.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Migrants walk near a wall that is marked with the word 'Calais' as they advance towards the Channel Tunnel access near Calais, France, July 31, 2015. Some 3,000 migrants live around the tunnel entrance in a makeshift camp known as 'The Jungle,' making the northern French port one of the frontlines in Europe's wider migrant crisis.

Scenes of asylum seekers camped near the French port of Calais trying to enter the UK have ignited a conversation across the English Channel about how welcoming a country Britain is – and should be – for migrants. 

Thousands of desperate migrants, many refugees from the conflict in Syria as well as sub-Saharan Africa, have gathered in makeshift camps, attempting to board trucks and trains in the hope of forging a better life. On the other side of the Channel, miles-long traffic jams and extended delays on the Channel Tunnel train have revealed a clogged system struggling to cope with newfound pressure.

Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted he expects the crisis to last all summer. And as Europe confronts both record refugee flows and tough economic times, his government is finding itself caught in a pincer movement between those who want to see a humanitarian response and those demanding stricter border controls – issues that drive at the heart of the European Union "experiment." 

Harriet Harman, interim leader of the opposition Labour party, has slammed Mr. Cameron’s “incendiary and divisive language” about the issue, which included references to "swarms" of immigrants trying to enter the UK. The UN special representative on migration, Peter Sutherland, said that “there’s no dog-whistle [the government] won’t blow.”

On the other hand, the euroskeptical and anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) has heaped on pressure ahead of a 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. And public opinion is clear: A survey by pollsters YouGov found only 15 percent of respondents believed Britain should take refugees from Calais. 

At the moment, Cameron is taking a harder line. The government has unveiled a range of measures intended to make life in Britain less attractive to undocumented migrants, whether asylum seekers or those planning to work without papers, including making it impossible for undocumented migrants to obtain a driving license, open a bank account, or rent a home. Today, the government announced that property owners will be jailed for renting homes to undocumented migrants.

For many who oppose further immigration, that may address some of their beliefs that immigrants come for what they think is easy access to financial and other assistance. But Robert McNeil of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University says things like family or language skills are the strongest drivers for many struggling to find a new home: “It makes a big difference to be able to walk to the shops and buy a pint of milk,” he says.

In practice, asylum support is relatively meager, amounting to $110 per week for a couple, $70 for a single parent, $60 for a single person, and just over $80 for children under 16. Housing is supplied by local government, but often in undesirable areas and in dwellings that cannot otherwise be rented. 

Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, says discussion of Calais has taken on a parochial dimension.

“The country that gets far more applications than any other is Sweden,” he says. “Generally the countries that are attractive to asylum seekers are those which are attractive to any rational person.”

A 2014 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says Britain is the world’s third most popular destination for migrants, behind the US and Germany. However, most were economic migrants, not asylum seekers. About 7.8 million people who were born abroad live in the UK. Britain did not make the top five destinations among EU countries for asylum seekers in 2015: in descending order, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, and Hungary topped the poll.

Overall, an estimated 185,000 asylum seekers entered the EU in the first quarter of 2015, while the most generous estimates say there are 5,000 asylum seekers in Calais. Current numbers are not out of line with previous years. EU statistics show a 1992 peak of 672,000 asylum applications, while total for 2014 was 626,000. EU statistics agency Eurostat notes the increase from 2013 to 2014 was “in part due to a considerably higher number of applicants from Syria, Eritrea, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Ukraine."

Instability abroad has contributed, with an estimated one-fifth of prospective migrants in Calais arriving from Syria.

But, notes Philip Cunliffe, senior lecturer in international conflict at the University of Kent, no EU country is facing a crisis in comparison to those that neighbor war zones. According to USAID, 1.2 million Syrian refugees are now living in Lebanon, with a further 1.7 million in Turkey and over 700,000 in Jordan.

Back in Calais, there is little sign of improvement, despite political attention. A joint letter by the French and British interior ministers, Bernard Cazeneuve and Theresa May, published in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, called on the entire EU to address the issue.

Verona Murphy of the Irish Road Haulage Association, a group representing the trucking industry, says things are growing graver by the day, with 10,000 migrants expected in Calais by the end of August. “The French turn a blind eye, as they seem to be taking the attitude [of] let the UK deal with it.”

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