Wednesday, 12 August 2015
"Don't even give them cake" (Calais 2015)
Migrants in Calais are so desperate to come to the UK that they are risking life and limb. Britain's answer? Barbed wire. Bash the French. Send in the dogs and the army. Deny them benefits perhaps? Let them starve? Mustn't encourage others...
Whatever next? Let them eat cake? This is supposed to be the civilised 21st century Britain.
They keep coming because Britain has a great reputation. The trouble with reputations - both good and bad - is that they can endure beyond real events.
These are not invaders. This is not 1066 and the Norman invasion. This is not the Spanish Armada with the Inquisition. The "invaders" are not Nazis.
Barbed wire and starvation won't stop migrants from coming. British foodbanks are bad enough. I do not wish my country to try and starve people out. I do not wish my country to turn a blind eye to adults, children or babies drowning in the Mediterranean.
Britain has such an island mentality. We are justly proud that we managed to maintain our independence despite the odds over centuries. We should be more sensitive to the fact that our European neighbours' countries were more easily turned into war zones.
One of the advantages of having European friends is that they can tell us when we are getting it wrong. The Germans may tell the Greeks that they have been spendthrifts. The Greeks may tell the Germans that they are being too austere. The British and French keep to verbal fisticuffs these days.
In March, I saw for myself the measures that Eurotunnel had taken to expand the compound, so that fewer lorries were exposed in the open. I heard about their thorough lorry checks. Frustration was rife over the same migrants returning day after day. French police were powerless. They had to keep putting the migrants back on the other side of the fence - a short distance away from where they were found.
I heard about the fights breaking out with lorry drivers, fearful of UK fines and damaged cargoes. There was exasperation that inadequate staffing levels in British passport control at Calais meant lorries had to queue on the motorway, making them sitting ducks for migrants. The Calais residents, drivers and Eurotunnel were afraid that migrants would be knocked down and killed on the dark road late at night.
My visit took place on 25th March 2015. The problem has been around even longer than that. It has just been ignored. A Guardian article describes a problem back in September 2001.
I saw a picture of a child passed over a barbed wire fence in the news. I remembered reading bedtime stories to my children at similar ages. Michael Rosen's "We're going on a Bear Hunt" came to mind. A father and family go out in search of a bear. They travel through all sorts of terrain and get scared by the bear in a cave and rush home. For these migrants the scary bear is at home. Even if Mr Cameron stands at the mouth of the tunnel and pretends to make himself as scary a bear as possible with the army for back-up, it won't be scare these migrants to go back home.
Increased cruelty may scare the ordinary British people more, already robbed of old social safety nets. Yet strangely greedy bankers still manage to stay out of prison.
The crisis in Calais is costing Britain money. If money is your priority, it is not working.
Reaction and overreaction
A little while ago I did a pro bono translation for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris. I translated the annual report section on migrants. After the translation, I deleted "proud Brit, Francophile and Europhile" from my profile. It was a reaction. An overreaction. I just didn't feel so proud of my country or Europe after that translation. I translated the failure to accept accountability for migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. I translated legal avoidance tactics.
These migrants are desperate people. Some are fleeing torture, death, famine, etc.
And what if some of these desperate people prove to be economic migrants?
Opportunity in Family History
What is so wrong with wanting a better life for yourself and your family? My parents wanted a better life for me. They wanted me to have an education and greater opportunities than they had. I do not agree with all Margaret Thatcher's politics. I do appreciate that I got the opportunity to go to university because of the social mobility she fostered. Today, we are going backwards.
To the best of my knowledge my genealogy is completely British. My children however, are of Anglo-Indian descent on their father's side. Although our marriage did not last, I can still appreciate that his family came to Britain to give their children (and therefore my children too) better opportunities.
The family arrived on a ship at Marseille via the Mediterranean. The female line can be traced back to Poitiers in France during the French Revolution and to Tipperary in Ireland. They arrived in Britain in the bitterly cold winter of 1962-63. They were cheated out of the home they had pre-arranged (just as some migrants are being taken advantage of today). They ended up in a hostel and later in a one-bedroomed flat with 3 children under 5.
Life is not easy for immigrants in Britain. It is tough for the first generations to settle. They come for their children's education and opportunities. I remember watching a documentary on how hard immigrants found it to return to India after discovering that Britain is not the El Dorado that they had believed. They ended up sleeping under railway bridges or in sheds at the end of London gardens. Too proud to lose face and return home unsuccessful.
EU 2020 Initiative
I came to London from my native South West for greater job opportunities. Today the Internet can create jobs and improve educational access even in rural areas. The EU's 2020 initiative is providing improved broadband connections for Member States. Cornwall has benefited. The EU now has satellite broadband available aimed at raising coverage to 100% in every Member State.
Estonia has made access to the Internet a human right. The digital divide creates more haves and have-nots. Without wifi access, it is difficult to compete economically or in education terms today. The gap may get wider. How about extending the 2020 initiative outside Europe?
Stop-gap solution or fix?
Conflict, famine and lack of opportunity are forcing migrants to leave their own lands. As a project manager, I know you can keep applying a stop-gap solution to a problem, but in the end it comes unravelled in a spectacular way. It is far better to deal with the problem at source.
The source of the problem is not at Calais - nor is it in the Mediterranean. People don't like charity. The majority don't sponge off the state. Put more effort into solving the world's conflicts, create education and business opportunities via the Internet wherever they are and they will help themselves. An unrealistic ideal? Africa has already shown it prefers to help itself.
Dedicated or crisis budget?
Ah, but it will cost money.... It's costing money now. Far better to have a dedicated budget than a crisis one. The solution has to be a long-term one. Better get started now. If we had started back in 2001, there wouldn't be such a problem today.
Maybe international aid should be seen as the repayment of a debt rather than a hand-out? Once Africans were snatched from their homeland into slavery. Today they come of their own free will and we won't let them in. What a cruel paradox.