Afghan refugees arriving in Calais - should France and the UK be doing more to help them?

BY ALICE STANDEN

The 'Calais jungle' refugee camp pictured here in January 2016. It was demolished by police in October of the same year.


Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban last summer are now facing oppressive and dangerous conditions in Calais, northern France, where many are wanting to cross the Channel to the UK. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including charity Care4Calais, who are working with refugees, have raised the alarm about the poor conditions refugees face. These include both the severe weather conditions and the French government’s strict policies to decrease the number of refugees.


Refugees are currently at risk of dying in freezing temperatures, due to only having makeshift shelters to live in, a risk that has been multiplied by the forceful evictions of refugees by police. Since Christmas, at least 150 evictions have taken place in northern France, many of them by force. Teargas, rubber bullets, and batons have all been employed by police during evictions, according to charities that work with those affected, whilst French authorities maintain that more than a dozen officers have been injured. There have also been cuts to funding for charities working on the frontline of the refugee crisis, as well as French authorities restricting areas where charities are permitted to distribute food and other essentials. This combination of factors has morphed into a “humanitarian crisis”, says Louis Woodhead, facilitator with the Calais Food Collective. Indeed, it could become much worse over the course of 2022.


This summer, the United States withdrew their troops from Afghanistan and thousands of people were airlifted to safety in the UK upon the Taliban takeover. However, many were forced to make the perilous journey across land and sea, as they weren’t provided a safe escape. The number of refugees in France has been steadily increasing over the last decade. Yet there has been a negative response to the recent increase in numbers. Five years ago, the ‘Calais jungle’— a 1.5 square mile area refugee camp— was demolished, displacing those who had previously been receiving support from the French government and grassroots organisations. Now, the crackdown on makeshift refugee camps in Calais continues, as well as the imposition of restrictions on charities attempting to help.


Imogen Hardman, operations manager for Care4Calais, explained how they “are trying to ensure that people have access to tents, sleeping bags, boots and warm clothes” amidst evictions by police “every 48 hours”.


Many refugees will be intending to eventually leave France and seek asylum in the UK. However, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s controversial plan to use jet skis to turn back small boats mid-Channel may be enacted as early as this month, according to Senior Home Office sources. Migrant small boat crossings from northern France to the UK are at record levels, with Sky News reporting that more than 28,300 people made the journey in 2021. There is perhaps some reluctance from governments to welcome refugees, despite many of them being qualified, prepared to work, and eager to contribute to the economy.


However, this isn’t necessarily representative of public opinion in the UK; a survey by YouGov published in November 2021 found that four in five Britons disapproved of the government’s handling of asylum seekers crossing the Channel. Even among Conservative voters who, according to a YouGov poll conducted last year, consider immigration a larger concern than the ongoing pandemic, 77% take the view that the government is handling the situation poorly.


Declaring a person’s existence ‘illegal’, as well as persecuting them for doing no harm, is inhumane. There are many positives to be gained from welcoming refugees, as highlighted by the non-profit organisation the Borgen Project. It’s often suggested that refugees subsist on benefits, rather than making an active contribution to society— this may be seen as a racist stereotype, as hosting refugees could actually boost the local economy, with one economic advisor estimating that 1000 refugee businesses could generate $100 million each year. Furthermore, an increased number of people participating in the economy can serve to boost it. This is especially true in countries with an ageing workforce, as young refugees entering the workforce allow older workers to retire and contribute to pension funds.


Additionally, the stereotype that refugees take away jobs from locals is also inaccurate: migrants can fill gaps in the work market, taking on jobs that many native citizens don’t want to do, as well as bringing novel skill sets to their new homes. Lots of refugees will have professional qualifications, a high degree of adaptability, and offer skills that others cannot. Welcoming refugees isn’t just the moral and human thing to do, it is also beneficial to the nation that welcomes them.


With such a high population of refugees, it’s clear that France should be doing more to support those seeking asylum on its soil. France is considered to be one of the main host countries for asylum seekers in Europe, and those who seek asylum there have a protected status, under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951). Therefore, it has a duty to assist refugees— instead of relying on charities, only to then cut the necessary funding and limit where they can distribute essentials— rather than leaving them out in the cold.


Image: Flickr (Malachybrowne)