David Cameron has received a barrage of criticism over his description of the approximately 5,000 refugees camped in and around the port of Calais as a ‘swarm’. Everyone from Jeremy Corbyn to the UN Special Representative for International Migration has levelled criticism at the Prime Minister, and even Nigel Farage has distanced himself from the comments. The level of media fury would seem to indicate that many people feel far more sympathetic to the refugees.
As well they might, for the situation in Calais and elsewhere is dire. Many have died attempting to gain access to the Eurotunnel terminal or the ferry port – nine people in just the last two months. The number killed earlier in their mammoth journey, as 137,000 people made the attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in the first half of 2015, is unknowable.
Those who survive are crammed into makeshift shanties, barely tolerated by the authorities. There, they live in squalor and poverty just as bad as that they have fled in their home countries across the sea. Why, then, do so many people make this potentially lethal and certainly arduous journey? And why, faced with the desperate plight of so many of our fellow human beings, and given the media concern already mentioned, have the governments of Europe not made a greater effort to find a solution?
The first question is a simple one to answer, but doing so means confronting unpalatable truths about the foreign policies of Western governments past and present. The simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of the refugees come from North Africa and the Middle East. These are regions suffering significant political problems, with an average Democracy Index of 3.65 compared to 8.41 in Western Europe and with 14 of the 16 deadliest conflicts worldwide playing out on their soil. The push factors, driving people out of their homes in search of a better life, are obvious.
Many of these problems trace their roots to the actions of Western governments. The instability in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan is a direct result of the military operations in those countries by the USA, UK, France and others over the last twenty-five years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a consequence of the bungling of British and American politicians in the 1940s as they searched for a territory to fulfill the Zionist objective of a Jewish State in Palestine. Many of the totalitarian governments in the area, such as that of Saudi Arabia, are or have been in the recent past firm allies of NATO countries and have received military support from European and American supporters.
Going back further, many of the tensions in both regions stem from arbitrary borders drawn by imperial European regimes – the Asia Minor Agreement of May 1916 being a prime example. And Europe’s imperial history which also contains clues to the reason why refugees choose countries like France and, particularly, the UK as their ultimate destinations. European imperialists constructed detailed narratives of their own superiority of governance in order to justify their often-oppressive colonial projects. It is also a fact of the contemporary globalised economy that American and European capital is pervasive throughout the African and Middle Eastern markets.
The pull of Europe has been engineered by Europeans, for our own purposes. This applies to Britain more than any other country – our imperial dominions were more extensive, our language is more widely spoken, our capital is more powerful (Germany excepted) and our myth is more firmly ingrained. You cannot spend centuries telling the people of the world that your own country is better than theirs and not expect some of them to believe it.
Once we accept that we, as a country and as a continent, bear much of the responsibility for this mass exodus, we must then consider solutions to the crisis. The UK has axed support for the Italian Mare Nostrum programme, which is tasked with rescuing refugees who become stranded in the Mediterranean. This decision must be reversed – indeed, the European Union as an organisation must take action to support this programme, with post-imperial countries such as Britain, France, Germany and Portugal paying a heavier share of the burden. The authorities of France and Britain must cease to treat the refugees of Calais as threats or as criminals, and should instead take steps to find them places to live and work. Given the huge cost to French and British taxpayers of the operations on both sides of the channel, as well as the fallout from the huge delays caused by Operation Stack, this is an economic as well as a moral imperative.
In the long term, we must work to eliminate the problems at source. Cutting our support for violent and oppressive regimes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, working with moderate and democratic factions in turbulent countries to prevail over tyrannical regimes and extremist groups and supplying humanitarian aid to quell crises as they happen; all will help to reduce the flow of people across the sea. Meanwhile, all countries should take their fair share of asylum seekers – the UK, for example, currently accepts only a sixth as many as Germany – and must work together to ensure that the refugees flooding into Europe are fairly treated.
The Mediterranean refugee crisis is a huge problem for Europe, and it is one which can only be tackled by working together to ensure a place for these desperate people to live safely, and to undo the damage we have done in their home countries in order to bring the crisis to a managed end.