Immigration has become one of the most topical policy issues in Europe, especially as rules change from country to country. Calais, a port in Northern France, is seen by many as a stepping stone to a blissful life in Britain. Formerly a very popular tourist and holiday destination, Calais has now become a centre of immigration law and bureaucracy with its own issues with the immigrant population. Thousands of immigrants from place such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, India and Palestine live in shanty towns in and around the town. Some live in camps on the city outskirts, so-called “jungles” because of the horrific living conditions there; while others live near the port in huts made of scrap materials and garbage. In these communities, they live according to where they come from, which allows for a real bond and camaraderie.
Visiting reporters speak of how optimistic and banterous they are, and despite their living conditions, still hope for a better future. They are mainly young, from the ages of 15 up to their early 30s, fluent in English and well educated. They’ve left their homes and families thousands of miles away and travelled on foot, by bus, lorry and any means possible to get here, to reach what they hope will be their perfect life. Still however, they all have one main hope and dream – that their home country becomes a better place, and soon, so they can return. They are disappointed that after this treacherous, oftentimes violent journey, with the few clothes on their backs and a vision of a life in their heads, that the life that greets them at the end of the road is one of squalor, degradation and poverty. They say their lives back home, even at their worst, are never this bad.
Since for the most part, such immigrants don’t carry their documents with them, they’re called into questioning by the local authorities on an almost daily basis. French police raid the camps and though it’s mainly to check identification, some are called into questioning for anywhere between 24 and 48 hours, says a young Afghani. If they fulfil certain criteria – which the reports I read wouldn’t go into, – they’re sent to a detention centre and may be reported. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against certain immigration procedures, as well as against certain detention centres. This has shed some more light on the situation in Calais, prompting French and international reporters to flock there – these reports are my sources.
From Calais, immigrants try and cross over to Britain either by sea or by lorry; and naturally, the border security is incredibly tight. The fine for a lorry driver is €2,500 per immigrant so they try to make sure no one sneaks on. It’s hard to keep taking precautions like this though, since so many of these drivers are immigrants themselves and know what it is to be as desperate as these young people in Calais.
The legal situation for these immigrants is in itself a grey area, since the land they live on is not their own, but they are not citizens of the EU (to qualify for council housing). They have no papers on them, so deportation is a tricky process. So who takes care of them?
Thankfully, this situation isn’t as dire as it could be, and there are a variety of organisations and charities who feed and clothe them, and provide other such services. A local Calais church provides coupons every week for people who need to shower – 4 cubicles for 600 people, with a bus that ferries around 60 a day. Informal charity networks distribute clothing once a fortnight, and there are at least a handful of vans distributing food daily. They are at least being cared for on a very basic level, so they don’t suffer in absolute poverty. For the most part, the immigrants are well educated and pragmatic about their chances of making it to Britain in the near future – most have been in France for at least a year – which makes their wait all the more painful. They understand that their journey has been delayed because of immigration rules, and know that they may need to wait for several months, perhaps years, to make it to Britain. From there, it will once more be a long wait for them to be able to have the life they want and be able to afford the luxuries of Western living they dreamed of.
The cost of moving across to the UK is also an expensive venture, and is something that Afghanis in France prepare for in their home country. But money isn’t readily available to the sector of society who wish to emigrate, so they are forced to turn to the Mafia. It costs them £15,000 to make the trek to Britain, and for a loan of that amount, the interest is almost 100% – they must pay moneylenders £25,000 in return. So it’s not a decision that can be made likely – any given immigrant in Europe has faced financial, social, political and physical barriers and have still managed to make it through all that. For that, if nothing else, they deserve our respect and any help we can provide.
Understandably, employing these workers is out of the question; but here’s a thought. When they finally get to the UK, they’ll need to train for a job anyway. Why don’t volunteer organisations in France begin training them now, in preparations for minimum wage jobs? It’ll give them something to do during the day rather than focus on their situation and worry about the future, and if in the end they aren’t able to emigrate to Britain, these skills can always be used in other countries.
It would take a cold heart indeed to send all these people back without a second thought, and to dismiss their problem as being one of distant shores. But you have to wonder about why they’ve left – they’re pursuing a dream and looking for a better life, which is hardly an idea we can persecute them for. Yes, those who sneak across illegally to take advantage of the welfare state in Britain shouldn’t be allowed to do so. And there should be some form of punishment for these actions, because the system exists for a reason, even though it’s a flawed one. But for those who want to emigrate through legal means, they should surely be encouraged? The average Western European is unwilling to work long hours for minimum wage, but immigrants are. If they work and live legally, and earn enough money to pay taxes, surely that’s a contribution to the economy? I realise the situation is much more complex and involves international human rights laws, immigration procedures and what have you; but let’s look at it ideologically. You have Person A who is an unemployed citizen of Western country X. Person B from country Z wants to emigrate to X to work in whatever job is available, to make ends meet and to make a better life. How can we block our minds to this idea? And if we do, how dare we call ourselves advanced, developed nations if we can’t even open ourselves up to the notion that borders are becoming obsolete and that global and rural-urban migration is very much a reality.