How to solve a problem like Calais?
“The migrants should be deported from French territory and placed in closed detention centres until they can be sent home.”
These are the words of a young, French self-proclaimed, nationalist at the anti-immigrant demo in Calais on Sunday, the 7th September. This notion, that if we could just somehow send them all back, reverberates through immigration policy and public discourse and it has been every right winger’s wet dream since the dawn of time. The fantasy is that if we can build walls, close the borders, send ‘the lot’ back, possibly lock them up before that, so that they never want to come back and they tell all other potential immigrants not to come here, because we are so horrible – than we would solve a problem like Calais.
Some of this fantasy has become true. We are horrible to immigrants, and when I say ‘we’ I mean not only Britain, but most EU countries too. And the US is not doing much better either. Some of this fantasy has over the years been translated into very harsh legislation, which is very restrictive in terms of human rights, and very unfair, especially to those who have experienced violence and torture. Politicians, regardless of their politics, gave into this anti-immigrant fantasy and started promising (and in some cases delivering) ‘tougher’ (read unfair) policies. This has not only restricted access to entitlements for immigrants – it has dehumanised foreigners beyond repair.
And yet they come. They risk their lives crossing deserts, seas and lands to get here. Sometimes, they don’t make it, they drown and then we feel sorry for them. But after we felt sorry, there is a very little we are prepared to do to face the issue. We are not even prepared to ask the right questions, let all alone to face the facts and answers.
And the facts are:
Immigrants risk their lives to reach our shores because what they are leaving behind is war, imprisonment, indignity of poverty and denial of basic human rights. Just look at the reports of those media outlets who actually bothered to speak to immigrants in Calais, they come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria – all your usual holiday destinations. European refugee policy that should be there as a safety net for many of these refugees is failing them. It has been restricted in order to ‘reassure’ electorate that has a ‘perception’ that immigration is ‘out of control’.
They are not looking to swap one horrible existence with another. They do not want to come to Britain because it is better to them than France and Germany. They want to come here because we are less horrible, but crucially because they can work here. They are not interested in British welfare system, or health system, often they don’t know much about it. But they do know about our unregulated labour market and they want to work and need to work. They need to survive and send money back to help their families survive. They know human dignity and they know capitalism. And they are coming here to claim their share of both. Sadly, frequently they are prepared to be exploited, but they still see it as having a choice and some control over their lives, even if they are paid illegally low wages. Unless we wake up tomorrow in a country with no unregulated, exploitive labour market, we have to face the fact that sections of our economy survive because of cheap migrant labour. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just think about where our nannies or our cleaners come from, and who do you know who pays NI and tax for their nanny?
Building walls, locking them up, sending them back, warehousing them in camps, humiliating them in Calais, protesting and legislating against them, has all been tried and it did not work. Now, here is another kind of fantasy: maybe, just maybe, our political leadership (we mean all parties) will face the facts (instead of perceptions) and try different approach, and for once deal with factual reality of migration as normal, positive, human phenomenon and that as a grown up country we can deal with it to our advantage. I know… but one is allowed to dream.
P.S. After reading this blog we prescribe The Daily Show report on the US unwelcome committee, as a compulsory viewing.