How The UK is Responsible for the Migrants and Refugees Crossing the Channel

Article by Bradley Hillier-Smith, Council member of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary and former volunteer in the Calais camp, refugee host and political campaigner advocating for the rights and settlement of refugees in the UK.  Published in the Independent  

An informed and Liberal perspective. 

The last few months have seen a growing number of refugees and migrants attempting to reach the UK by making a perilous crossing over the English Channel from Calais in small inflatable boat – 82 were intercepted on Christmas Day alone.

In response, Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared the situation a “major incident”, giving the impression that the migrants and refugees are to blame for this unprovoked affront to our borders. It assumes this has come out of the blue and the UK are innocent victims of this “threat”.

Yet this blatantly and conveniently ignores the fact that the UK is in part responsible for this so-called major incident. We must ask what has driven these people to risk their lives to make such dangerous journeys to try and reach the UK. The answer will reveal that it is not the migrants or refugees that are to blame.

We are not innocent victims. The UK over the last few years has been actively involved through policy and practice in creating a dire situation in the Calais area. The British government has invested millions on security measures including fences capped with razor wire in attempts to prevent refugees attempting to reach the UK. This has been supplemented by the so-called “Great Wall of Calais” – a £2.3m, 14ft concrete wall surrounding the port.

These border defences make any journey to the UK that much more dangerous. They mean that refugees facing limited options face greater obstacles to find safety in the UK and are thereby confined to live in squalid conditions in the surrounding areas. They are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers in order to get to the UK and any attempted journey to the UK carries increased risk of death or injury, with reports of lives being lostand life-changing injuries being suffered.

As part of the French-British Le Touquet agreement we have invested millions in funding CRS riot police who man these border defences armed with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets. Human Right Watch reported last year that there are numerous instances of violence and human rights abuses by CRS police at the border. The police can use extreme violence in evictions of camps where they use batons, water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets, including against women and children, as they did in the eviction of the southern zone of the Calais camp in February 2016.

Since the demotion of the Calais camp in October 2016, over a thousand refugees and migrants now reside in appalling conditions without adequate food, water, sanitation and shelter in the surrounding area. The police roam the area and repeatedly use pepper spray and tear gas in unprovoked attacks often while refugees are sleeping in makeshift shelters. The CRS also confiscate and destroy personal property such as phones, documentation and medication. In some cases as witnessed myself, police will confiscate just one shoe from refugees, seemingly in an attempt to humiliate them as they walk around with a limp.

The CRS destroy tents and makeshift shelters – the number of eviction rates is higher than ever before – and as a recent report carried out by human rights groups and charities on the ground has shown, the brutal methods used to clear these small camps has led to a rise in illegal crossings.

Once we see the severity of the situation in Calais and the active involvement of the UK through policy and practice in contributing to that situation, is it any wonder why people feel they have little choice but to risk their lives on a crossing to try to find adequate safety and human rights protection in the UK? The UK is actively involved in creating conditions so desperate in Calais that refugees and migrants are compelled to do anything to escape them and to try and find safety and hope, yet it is they who are vilified for resorting to what seems like the only option.

The “major incident” is not refugees and migrants trying to find safety in the UK. The major incident is thousands of refugees and migrants left in appalling conditions in the Calais region without adequate food, water or shelter and where they face extensive violations of their rights.

It is vital to stop the targeting of migrants and refugees as threats and burdens. Just yesterday we saw the release of an outrageous Home Office video announcing plans to charge EU nationals who have made the UK their home to apply for (not even be guaranteed) a right to stay in this country simply because of their nationality. That this was considered an appropriate video to share shows the problem with the way this government views migrants.

This rhetoric needs to change. We cannot ignore the fact that the conditions that refugees and migrants endure in Calais are so intolerable that they are driven to make such a dangerous journey to escape them. We cannot ignore the fact that the UK is in part responsible for that intolerable situation. The targeting and scapegoating of migrants and refugees we’re seeing today cannot go unchallenged.