Back in the Headlines

"Channel migrants"
January 2, 2019

“Channel Migrants”

Attempted Channel crossings have seen the Calais ‘Jungle’ tentatively re-enter our news. Since the start of November, over 200 forced migrants have been counted journeying to England by sea.

The Channel is the world’s busiest shipping lane, making it a sickeningly dangerous route for covert vehicles. Passengers cross at risk of freezing, drowning and collision. They know these risks; they cross anyway.

Yet the focus of news reports has been on the culpability of human traffickers. These fail to account for the lack of safe passage and inhumane conditions on the French border that are driving people into smugglers’ arms.

The psychology behind this kind of immigration is more complicated than mainstream media narratives allow. We focus heavily on the economic pull of the West and treat asylum seekers whose hearts are set on the UK with particular suspicion. We think that economic migrants cannot also be refugees. While the pull factor is important, it is often fragmental in explaining why parents put their children onto dinghies.

child refugees; the jungle

Children in the ‘Jungle’

What the media is saying

The BBC and FT run with Channel crossings as “a major incident,” quoting Home Sec Sajid Javid. The Telegraph says Javid must “get a grip” on the situation. They tell us he is cutting short a family holiday to deal with this “major incident”.

Yet the incident is bigger than the dinghies off our shore. Yesterday their passengers sat on Calais’ coast, and they were not alone. They may be on the Channel today, they may have turned the head of the media lighthouse, but just beyond the glimmer, their thousand friends still wait in darkness.

These crossings should be waking us up to the crisis across the water, but the headlines seem unable to grasp it. A whole horizon away, it is just too far and far too near.

The living conditions for displaced people in Calais are barbaric, a word I don’t use lightly. Having worked there for a year I see some of what is hidden, and hear even more. A policy of property destruction and perpetual harassment is designed to push refugees from public sight. The aim is to keep the unpalatable invisible, but the strength of the state on show.

The total absence of journalists on the ground – who mourned the death of the glamourous ‘Jungle’ in 2016 (the one worthy of West End stages) – is an aid in this mission of silence.

A dinghy being rescued | Credit: Gendarme Maritine

Little is new about these recent arrivals besides their mode of transport. People in Calais attempt lorry crossings every night. These journeys are less visible to the public eye, but they’re also far more frequent, which shows how arbitrary our editorial agenda is.

One difference is that, while extensive and expensive measures have already been taken to make lorry ports as inaccessible as possible, the sea route is a new one to clamp down on.

iPhone snap of attempted lorry crossing, sent to me by the taker

From hereon out, I expect the discussion will be about how we clamp down, how we keep this ‘crisis’ beyond our horizon. Centrist editorials and educated politicians won’t talk about it that way. They will talk about it as though we must protect unsuspecting migrants from evil traffickers. As if crossing isn’t a choice they have made for measured reasons; as if we must protect them from themselves after all they have survived; as if traffickers aren’t doing the job that governments should be doing— and in the case of unaccompanied minors, are legally obliged to be doing. In safe passage for refugees, they have found a market ready and waiting.

Sky News quotes a government spokesperson warning gangs “who exploit vulnerable people and put lives at risk” will be targeted. Whatever my thoughts on the mafia, the Home Office is not allowed this moral high-ground.

CNN’s spin is how “deeply concerning” Caroline Nokes finds all this (she’s our Immigration Minister, in case you’re also struggling to keep track of the government these days). She’s particularly upset by the “organised crime groups” and “opportunistic” individuals at the heart of the scoop, a headline shared by The Independent and Evening Standard, as well as Channel 4.

What I see is a government passing the buck, a government obliged to provide asylum under the very Geneva Convention that gives it so much global kudos. If smugglers are villains, then the government can be hero. In truth, they are accomplices. A government that deludes itself into believing walls can pacify a very real global displacement crisis, feeds the market in which smugglers thrive.

open borders; the jungle

A flag marking a Calais camp last winter

Yes, the mafias of Northern France are intimidating and exploitative, but they are not the same species as the human-trading criminal networks that come to mind when ‘trafficking’ is mentioned. ‘Jungle’ smugglers often come from the same communities as their customers and are generally seen as doing the job that governments are failing to do. They are makeshift mafias, they recruit guys in camp who want to earn some cash before crossing themselves, and often they are working for friends. Our government depends on extreme connotations of ‘traffickers’ to construct a narrative in which they can play the good guy.

Worse still, the slander isn’t saved for smugglers. The Guardian and BBC offer balanced articles on the subject, but their language is indicative. Passengers are being “intercepted,” “detained,” “stopped off the coast,” “caught”— terms that focus on the criminality of the crossing. Not the desperation or danger.

The passengers are therefore “illegal immigrants,” a misleading term given the right to enter a country without papers is enshrined in UN human right law. Some of the people being described by these terms are hypothermic children. It’s not your typical invading force.

It’s twisted, really, that the Financial Times must reassure us plans are underway to “discuss the threat,” as if we are the ones in peril. Sky news adds, “Armed forces ‘stand ready’”.

My personal favourite comes from the white paragon of steadfast impartiality, the Sunday Times: “Cross-Channel migrants target ‘soft touch’ Britain”. British asylum is a trophy that lies at the end of a marathon obstacle course. As the furthest destination on the European stretch, it’s the obvious choice for lazy migrants who feel like ‘shopping’ the easy option.

Forgive me for not bothering with The Sun or Mail.

Things you can do

Read the press critically. Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are reading about, and above all, recognise you almost never hear from the people making these journeys in the press, despite right to reply being journalism 101. Displaced voices have been systematically excluded by our media, and the cynic in me wants to say because alarmism sells better. This “Channel migrant” episode has shattered my faith in our media’s reliability. In Calais, I have the benefit of seeing the truth first hand, which I don’t for most other topics. So when it comes to it, I’ll be asking people with lived experience, and my advice is doe the same..

Give to Mobile Refugee Support, the team I work with in Dunkirk, who provide essential goods, connectivity and friendship to the people passing through. Donations can be made in cash or kind.

Join the SolidariTee movement, a student-led fundraiser set up in 2017 as a direct response to the dwindling media coverage regarding the migrant crisis. Shirts are a tenner on depop, a way to wear your statement of support while donating to a needed cause. For every £10 t-shirt sold, at least £8.50 of it will go towards supporting NGO’s providing legal aid for refugees.

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