Over the last four days, 677 refugees have arrived on the Kent coast, having made the dangerous journey across the channel from Northern France. Little did these refugees know that they would cause such hysteria among politicians and sections of the media. Certain political figures have described the arrivals, which include children, as “a shocking invasion”. And proposals for how to respond to these refugees include launching surveillance aircraft and even naval warships.
The above proposals ignore the fact that we in the UK have an urgent moral responsibility to protect those refugees who are crossing (and attempting to cross) the channel.
The UK, as part of the French-British Le-Touquet agreement, has invested millions in funding the CRS riot police in Calais and the surrounding region. The CRS are reported to use tactics of intimidation, harassment and violence against refugees in these areas. In forced evictions of informal camps, the CRS engaged in prolonged beatings with batons, and used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets, including against children.
The CRS also roam the area and reportedly use beatings, pepper spray and tear gas in unprovoked attacks, often whilst refugees are sleeping in their makeshift shelters. They have reportedly confiscated and destroyed personal property such as phones, documentation and medication. These tactics create a hostile and dangerous environment for refugees in the region, where their human rights are continually violated without protection.
The UK has not provided any safe and legal routes for refugees to escape these conditions and access asylum in the UK. Instead, we have invested millions of pounds in fences capped with barbed wire in the Calais region as well as building the 14-foot high concrete “Great Wall of Calais” surrounding the port.
The UK has therefore contributed to making the situation in Northern France intolerable and unsafe for refugees. This situation compels people to make dangerous journeys to seek adequate safety, and also leaves refugees with no reasonable alternatives but to risk their lives on perilous journeys across the channel.
The simple truth is that these refugees are in urgent need of protection and are asking for our help. They have been forced to flee violence and human rights violations in their own country, and they view the UK as a place of sanctuary where they can rebuild their lives.
And, despite the overinflated claims, the numbers of refugees attempting to find safety in the UK represent a tiny minority of global refugee numbers. Around 4,000 have attempted the journey this year. This may seem like a large number. Yet, it is hard to suggest that this figure is too large for the UK to accept when we expect far less affluent and secure states in the Global South to host far greater numbers: 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are currently hosted in developing states, and Lebanon, for example, a country approximately the size of Wales, with a GDP 50 times smaller than the UK, hosts nearly one million refugees.
The UK is the sixth largest economy in the world, and has the capacity and resources to be able to offer hope, security and opportunities for refugees to rebuild their lives at little cost. It is difficult, if not impossible, to morally justify turning innocent refugees away to suffer harm and human rights violations when we could easily help them.
So what would an ethical response to the channel crossings be? It would require the UK to stop creating a hostile and dangerous environment for refugees in Northern France. The UK should instead provide safe and legal routes for refugees to access asylum in the UK. These safe and legal routes would remove the incentive for dangerous and exploitative trafficking operations and prevent the life-threatening channel crossings.
Instead of the wild hysteria and alarmist calls for military intervention, an ethical response to refugees is possible and within our reach. It is essential for us to reach this, so that refugees themselves are able to reach the safety and security that, as human beings, they are morally entitled to.