We Asked an Expert How to Solve the Calais Migrant Crisis

He told us that letting all the migrants from Calais into the UK would be no big deal, and that sending in the army would be "deeply shameful."

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Aug 3 2015, 2:15pm

A migrant in one of the "Jungle" camps in Calais. Photo by Jake Lewis

This article originally appeared in VICE UK.

As the migrant crisis unfolds in Calais, the human cost is rising. At least 11 migrants have died since the beginning of June in attempts to cross the border, including an Eritrean baby who died one hour after birth. On Saturday night, an estimated 200 migrants broke down security fences, and the French riot police reacted by spraying them with a chemical irritant, reported by Al Jazeera to be tear gas.

David Cameron has been giving it his a-grade dehumanizing chat, last week saying that migrants are "swarming" over here, as if the whole thing was an episode of The Walking Dead rather than people's actual lives. A Friday morning Cobra meeting promised to send sniffer dogs and fences to help the French authorities. One MP even called for the army to be sent in, because injecting some dudes with assault rifles into the situation is definitely the best way to help a bunch of PTSD shocked Afghans.

Or is it? We spoke to a real expert, Professor Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, to get some perspective.

VICE: Numbers wise, how big an issue is migration for Calais? And what are the projections for the future?
Professor Alexander Betts: The numbers of people coming across from Calais are actually relatively small. In the so-called "Jungle Camp" in Calais there are probably only around 4,000 people waiting to try to cross. Last year, there were a total of about 31,000 asylum seekers entering the UK.

If we want to make predictions about the future, we need to understand what is driving the current movements across the Mediterranean and in turn from Calais. The majority of people coming to Europe and the UK at the moment are from refugee-producing countries like Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. These are war-torn or human rights abusing countries. Only a minority are coming simply to seek a better life. Whether the numbers will increase depends upon our ability to collectively tackle the root causes of why people are coming. Ninety-five percent of the world's refugees are in countries that neighbor conflict and crisis—like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon—and unless we support greater protection for refugees in those counties, people will inevitably seek their own solutions.

What are the main concerns we should be having?
Many newspapers are depicting the Calais crisis as about the disruption to people's holidays. David Cameron said this week "of course people really look forward to their annual holidays and I have friends and family that are using this route." This misses the point in a context in which nine people this month have died trying to cross, and in which we know these people have come from desperate and refugee-producing countries. It's really important that the public understands who these people are and why they are coming. The reason they are coming is because we face a global refugee crisis.


Related: Our short documentary 'The Migrant Crisis in Calais: Britain's Border War'


What would happen if we just opened the gates and let everyone in?
If we let everyone in Calais in, and assessed their asylum claims here, the consequences would not be hugely significant. The public concern is that allowing access to the UK might serve as a "pull factor," but this is improbable. When we get a sense of perspective and look at the numbers, only a tiny proportion of the world's most vulnerable people are coming to the UK. To take the Syria case, where the highest number of people are coming from—there are 4 million Syrian refugees, less than 7 percent are in Europe, and only a few thousand have reached the UK.

What migration will we see in the future?
It's impossible to accurately predict future migrant trends. Migration is driven by a complex range of factors. However, what is obvious is that on a global scale, refugees and displacement will be one of the defining issues of the 21st Century. Conflict, human rights abuses, and climate change will force people to cross international borders in search of the minimal conditions for survival. Collectively, the world will have to find creative ways to protect and assist such people. It will rely upon international cooperation.

So what should we do?
There are a number of steps that can be taken. First, we need to allow asylum seekers access to the UK. Once here we need effective and humane ways to assess people's asylum claims, provide sanctuary to refugees, and sensible alternatives for others.

Second, we need better cooperation within the European Union to ensure equitable distribution of responsibility for refugees across Europe.

Third, we need to ensure we engage in effective search and rescue within the Mediterranean.

Fourth, we need to build the capacity of other countries around the world to host refugees, particularly offering assistance to states' neighboring conflict and other refugee-producing countries.

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The Syria crisis illustrates the lack of sustainability of current responses. Out of 4 million Syrian refugees, 1.6 million are in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon, and 600,000 in Jordan. These countries' capacities are being stretched to the breaking point and, understandably, countries like Lebanon and Jordan are closing their borders, leading people to travel further in search of safety. To genuinely address this kind of challenge, we have to show greater solidarity and a willingness to share responsibility with the countries most affected by the crisis. One key way to do this is through development assistance, targeted to supporting the temporary integration and self-reliance of refugees within their regions of origin.

People gathering materials to make shelters in Calais. Photo by Jake Lewis

There have been calls to send in the army. How do you see that going? Is the problem here a lack of firepower?
It's rather absurd to adopt a militarized solution to address a relatively small immigration challenge. If we were to use the army to respond to desperate and vulnerable asylum seekers trying to come to the UK, it would be a deeply shameful and unnecessarily costly response. It would turn what should be a simple administrative challenge of ensuring access to an asylum process into an escalated security issue. It risks the unnecessary use of coercion and violence against vulnerable people, while also creating the damaging public perception that these people are actually a security threat.

What should our goals and priorities be? It seems like it's gonna be difficult to please everyone.
There are ways in which sensible policies can benefit both citizens and migrants. For me, there are a number of priorities, and they probably need to be in the following order.

First, to prevent the unnecessary loss of life that results from our immigration control policies.

Second, to ensure that people fleeing persecution and violence as refugees have a place to go where they can live in dignity until it becomes possible to return home.

Third, to ensure that all migrants are treated humanely even if they face deportation.

Fourth, to encourage an open, honest, and evidence-based debate on refugees and migration.

Fifth, to find policies that ensure that we minimize the costs and maximize the benefits of migration for society as a whole.

Follow Amber Roberts on Twitter.

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