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Calais and the push-pull of migration

  • Written by  Alexandria Innes
  • Published in Opinions
A group of men warm themselves around a fire in the Vandamme squat in Calais, France A group of men warm themselves around a fire in the Vandamme squat in Calais, France UNHCR / J. Pebrel
07 Aug
The government's methods to limit access between Calais and the UK will fail for the simple reason that they are not responding to the motivations of the people trying to cross the channel

Go back a couple of months and the newspapers weren’t talking about Calais, they were talking about the Mediterranean.  Calais is now the crisis of the hour. It’s essentially the same story: in the Mediterranean people risked their lives to get to Europe, in Calais they do it to reach the UK. In fact, migrant boats have been crossing the Mediterranean since the early 2000s. The migrant camps at Calais have been there for over a decade. 

The strategies the government are taking to prevent entry to the UK through Calais include sniffer dogs, carbon dioxide detectors, heartbeat monitors and scanners to detect the presence of people hiding in vehicles that are making the crossing. The UK has built a reinforced fence to stop people accessing the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in France and David Cameron has recently sent 100 border guards to protect the entrance. 

Domestically, the government has implemented measures to reduce the attractiveness of the UK, including a new law that migrants without immigration status can be evicted without a court order. They have also reduced access to housing and subsistence for failed asylum seekers, that is, people who have found to be without a credible asylum claim but cannot be removed by the government because of conditions in their home country, lack of knowledge of their country of origin, or lack of diplomatic relations with their country of origin.

It is the push factors that need to be addressed, not the pull factors. Erecting barriers will only worsen the crisis

These methods are attempting to limit access by creating a barrier between Calais and the UK, and they are attempting to reduce incentives for migrants making the crossing. Both of these types of methods have failed elsewhere and will fail here for the very simple reason that they are not responding to the motivations of the people trying to cross, which are varied and cannot be simplified into economic incentives. Such methods are irresponsible, in that they make people vulnerable and destitute both within and outside of the UK and in doing so they empower organised criminal agents who help people cross borders increasingly risky situations.

The UK has an international obligation to recognise the right to seek asylum from persecution, established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Refugee Protocol, and in the various common asylum laws of the EU. The EU, in fact, has been developing the common asylum system since 1999, all the while increasing restrictions to access, through measures such as identifying safe ‘third countries’ on the borders of Europe, through which asylum seekers might pass or identifying transit countries. If a person enters a safe third country they must seek asylum there and cannot travel onward. The argument goes that even if a person was forced to migrate to a transit country or a safe third country, once there, migrants are essentially safe. If they choose to move onward they are no longer ‘forced’ migrants but are voluntary migrants, and thus cannot be considered ‘genuine’ asylum seekers.

In addition to these travel restrictions, EU visa processes require a higher standard of proof that the applicant has sufficient funds and no intent to remain when travelling from countries where ‘illegal immigration’ is likely. All of these methods are barrier methods of the type used at Calais. These are the measures that initially forced people into risky boats, shipping containers, and lorries.

14Syrian asylum-seekers sleep in front of a church in Calais, France (UNHCR / J. Pebrel)

Migrants at Calais might be trying to reach the UK for a number of reasons, some of which do not meet the Convention definition, which includes race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. For example, the definition does not include people who are forced to flee conflict, environmental disaster or health crises (even though it probably should). Some migrants have family members in the UK and are trying to join them. Others speak the language.  Others know the UK has more racial, ethnic and religious diversity than many other European countries. Others have been in the UK before and want to return to a place they are familiar with.

People are complex and they have many reasons for wanting to reach the UK. They are not simply coming ‘to take our benefits’.  And regardless of whether they meet the Convention definition of a refugee, many people self-identify as asylum seekers. This is key. Limiting pull factors and erecting barriers to access do not deter asylum seekers and other forced migrants. Someone who self-identifies as an asylum seeker – as many of the migrants in Calais and the Mediterranean do – is pushed, not pulled, towards Europe or the UK.

Thus, it is the push factors that need to be addressed, not the pull factors. Limiting pull factors and erecting barriers will only worsen the crisis in Calais. We might stop talking about it, but the crisis endures, as it has for over a decade already. Barrier methods might serve temporary goals, but do nothing to address the problem long term.

Alexandria J. Innes is a lecturer of International Relations at the University of East Anglia

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