Calais – European Wasteland for Refugees and Asylum Seekers?

Like Stone Age scavengers looking desperately for what to eat, the stories of migrants in Calais, France trying desperately to cross over to Britain in search of what can be termed ‘greenest’ pasture, again underscores the crisis of refugee management in Europe. It further reflects the dire situation majority of Africans are living.

Calais is a port town in France that borders Britain through the sea. Many Africans arriving in France, seeking asylum in Europe are again forced to take another dangerous journey to Britain through the Calais. Calais is strategically important for the desperate asylum seekers, as it has the narrowest part of the Strait of Dove that separates France and Britain, making the risk over the Strait lower. Moreover, Calais is a major ferry point. This makes the risk what taking, thus making Calais, not just a ferry point for good, but for humans.

However, the story is not that simple. According to Calais Migrant Solidarity, a campaign platform for the welfare of migrants in Calais, many asylum seekers have either died or been seriously wounded in the desperate attempt to enter Britain. Matthew Taylor and Guy Grandjean’s contribution in the Guardian, relying on local human right groups, put the number of dead this year at 16 in 2014, which it said is the highest recent period. Most of these refugees are from the East Africa mostly Eritrea, Somalia, etc., where mixture of conflict, repressive regime and lack of opportunity has forced an active layer of the population that should be developing the economies into desperate fortune seekers in Europe. Noteworthy is fact that the journey of these migrants is a long but deadly one. The journey start from the home country through Libya, where migrants pay as much as US$6, 000 to middlemen who helped ferry them through Italy to France, while the journey to British promised land start from Calais.

If tens of lost lives are recorded in the journey from Calais to Britain, one can guess what how many lives would have been lost through the long journey to Calais. But this is just one aspect of the story. What actually interests us is the response of European government to this situation. Walls of rejection have been constructed by many a European country; while millions of dollars are spent for strengthening security in these borders. Moreover, more millions are spent on repatriating these migrants back to their countries. Yet, this situation, rather than discouraging the dangerous venture, only makes the struggle of migrants more desperate. It has also led to more loss of lives.

Moreover, it has put the security, legal and justice systems of European countries and Europe as a whole in credibility challenge. Many migrants from Calais, according to sources, have been killed or lost their lives in attempt to avoid the police. But there is more. The over 1, 400 migrants in Calais have not received any welfare aid from the French government, yet millions of euro has been spent to prevent and haunt the migrants down. Most of the migrants live in excruciatingly poor conditions with no sanitary system, while exploitations including sexual harassment have become norm in the camp. While the living conditions of these migrants are terrible, dead do not fare better. The dead among the migrants are neither taken care of by the local authority in Calais or the central government. Interestingly, young children are witnesses to these horrible conditions. All of these have painted Europe’s welfare and humanitarian image in very bad lights.

The fact that the migrants prefer Britain to France and Italy has little to do with economic viability of each country, but more to do with the horrible manner immigrants are treated in these countries. There is discrimination against immigrants, with harassment and embarrassment from the police. Many cases of police brutally against immigrants including detaining them in poorly organized centres have been reported, while concerns about the human rights of those being deported are ignored.

But this is not a France or Italy case alone. Even in Britain where many immigrants are looking up to as safe haven, there is systematic disregard for the conditions and rights of immigrants. Just recently, the British government refused entry to immigrants who found their way to Britain through Calais. Moreover, millions of pounds are used to equip the police for this purpose. This is in spite of the European Union’s regulation for uniformity in refugee and asylum policies of member states.

Truly, in order to ensure balance distribution of asylum seekers, EU underscores that the first country an asylum seeker enters should be the country where the seeker applies for asylum. But the manner the migrants and asylum seekers are treated, coupled with discrimination and even falling standard of living of citizens of many European countries – which has in turn fuelled the anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiment within a section of the European population – have forced many immigrants and asylum seekers to seek for the better deal.

Of course, the approach of the immigrants does not help their home countries and families; neither is their selectivity in the choice of destination sustainable on the basis of limitation of capacity of host countries. Mass movement of Africans from their countries depletes the human resources of these home countries. However, in desperate situation, human being resolves the immediate survival before thinking of tomorrow.

Consequently, European authorities need to take deeper look into the desperation of the migrants and asylum seekers, beyond the security and legal consideration. What will make full grown up man or even families to embark on suicidal mission in search of better hopes? How many months of hard labour does it take to cough out $6, 000 for this suicidal mission, with little hope of success? If the economies and politics of the home countries are functional, $6, 000 is significant money to start something. But, such amount in a depressed economy and rotten society run through dictatorship and armed conflict, guarantees no future for a family.

Therefore, European authorities must balance human rights and humanitarian consideration with consideration for border control and security. The huge amount being spent on border security and migrants’ control can help to resolve the conditions of these desperate migrants and asylum seekers. For instance, it can help to settle many of them down for proper live, which can in turn give these migrants the chance to send something home for families and relations. Also, European authorities need commit themselves to strengthening civil society in conflict-ridden and economically backward countries. This is in addition to helping these countries build viable and independent economies that will make desperate migration unattractive.

There is also the need to relax migration policies, which while denying many migrants and asylum seekers the opportunity to escape horrible conditions at home, only provide quick money for merchants providing this service through the dangerous and deadly route. This can start with proper treatment and protection for Calais migrants by both France and Britain.

– Mehari