Of Crises and Men

A small vignette from the British summer:

A perfect sunny morning in the Kentish countryside. The garden of England is alive with light and fragrance, birds chirping and trees softly waving in the breeze as the golden sunlight spills and flows over the rolling hills.

There is a click and a rustle as the front door of the cottage nestling beneath a small copse eases open. A man steps out, dressing gown tied loosely over a comfortable waist, feet snugly ensconced in slippers. He takes a deep breath of the morning air. Honeysuckle… freshly mown grass… the hint of crisp dew on the wind that freshens in his chest. A perfect Saturday.

There is a slight crinkling, crackling noise from his feet. He looks down and sees his newspaper, pages wafting benignly on the doorstep.

He bends to pick it up. Flips it over absently, frowns at the sport and purses his lips. Those bloody colonials. There must be one good spinner in England, for heaven’s sake. He half turns to go back inside, easing the paper back over in his hand. He sees the front page.

His face is suddenly as off-grey as the page before him. His hand shakes, and the tremors echo in a teasingly innocuous crumpling of the paper in his hands. The birds twitter mockingly. He looks up. The woods looming over his house, the valley it is concealed in, the gentle pastoral grass that could hide a man, all close in.

“Deirdre!” he screams frantically. “Deirdre!”

“What?” Comes a sleepy murmur from somewhere inside the house.

“Call the children! Tell them to lock their doors, grab their valuables and meet me at the old fort!”

“What? John are you-”

“And pack up everything we want to keep! The emergency bag like I told you. Get my gun, I’ll be loading the car with food and water.”

“John, what’s happened?”

“They’re coming, Deirdre. A marauding swarm of migrants has broken loose and they’re coming for us.”

***

Unfortunately, lacking a concrete plan in case of migrapocalypse, such as a weapon with which to fend off the mindless hordes or an emergency supply of canned food, it would seem most of us are destined to be swallowed up in the great migrant crisis. Or at least, so the media and the politicians would seem to be encouraging us to believe.

Some context: there has been an increase in the number of people living in an informal migrant camp in Calais known as the Jungle, which could be driven by French ferry workers striking, and a concomitant increase in attempts to cross the UK border. It is now estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 migrants are living in Calais, and at their peak, up to 2,000 border crossing attempts were made nightly.  Most of these attempts involve passing through the Channel Tunnel in some form, causing British media to wildly overreact and speculate about an invasion of Britain by rapacious, violent foreigners.

The Prime Minister describing thousands of desperate people as a swarm; the Foreign Secretary complaining of migrants marauding across Europe and harming our living standards; the ‘migrant crisis’ that seems to be the accepted headline for every major news outlet; all of it combines to create a feeling of panicked desperation, a sense that drastic measures must be taken to remedy a terrifying problem.

The drawback to this breathless doomsaying is that there is no crisis. The impression that one exists is created by the empty unreality of the media echo chamber, a constant feedback loop of cognitive dissonance.

One source reports on the situation in Calais using facts and figures. Another uses those facts and figures to suggest a problem. The first reports that the situation has been described as a problem. The second then reports on the problem, and the issue becomes inextricably problematised. The narrative is framed that a crisis exists, and that something must be done.

Since we are now in crisis, politicians step in to grandstand about their ability or efforts to do something. Another upsurge in meaningless rhetoric follows as these promises are shouted into the void, and the whole constructed process of threat escalation continues apace. Now the media can report on what people think about the crisis, confirming that a crisis exists in the first place, and can pontificate about the practical or moral failings of whatever political group they care to.

Basically, migration has been framed as a crisis because people say it’s a crisis. A look at the facts, though, stepping away from the frantic, bug-eyed prophecies of Britain being stripped bare, shows that like all migration issues the ‘jungle’ in Calais is an intractably complex nexus that can’t be boiled down to tabloid headlines.

Per the UNHCR, in 2014 there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of these, 19.5 million were refugees, and 1.8 million were asylum seekers. More than 5.9 million refugees resided in countries where the GDP per capita was under 5,000 US Dollars (the UK’s is around 40,000) and 86% of refugees resided in developing regions. The countries hosting the largest number of refugees were, in order, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.

The 28 EU Member States received, as a whole, 626,000 asylum applications in 2014. The UK, through the year ending March 2015, received 25,020 of those. In 2014, Germany issued 48,000 positive decisions on applications for international protection, Sweden 33,000, and France and Italy 21,000 each. Again, the number of migrants in Calais is estimated to be between 2,000 and 5,000.

Even if everyone in Calais was entitled to international protection, the entire camp would still comprise at most 0.026% of the total worldwide refugee population. To say that letting 5,000 people into the UK would somehow overwhelm the country is nonsensical. If anything, the figures suggest that the global rich should be doing far more.

In reality, the vast majority of irregular migration to the UK is from people arriving legally on limited term visas, such as for holidays or study, and simply never leaving. For instance, it was estimated in 2009 that the total irregular migrant population of the UK was between 417,000 and 863,000 people, a figure that 5,000 people either way doesn’t have much of an effect on. However, there is no talk of a crackdown on airports or tourists.

Moreover, the idea that people will be drawn to Europe for a forgiving asylum system and generous welfare provisions is a delusion. The vast majority of refugees flee conflict with nothing, and are forced into inhumane living conditions in one of the vast UNHCR camps. They have no money and no home, and have nowhere else to turn. The largest refugee camp in the world is in Dadaab, Kenya, near the Sudanese border, which hosts around 350,000 people. Yarmouk camp, in Syria, houses around 18,000 refugees and has been overrun by Islamic State. Only a tiny percentage of refugees can even afford the passage to Europe, let alone actively pursue it.

Some of the rhetoric has focused on tightening up controls and being less forgiving, deterring the tiny proportion of people who can attempt to come to the UK from doing so. The idea is that Britain has been ‘mythologised’, that refugees view it as a promised land of state-provided milk and honey, and that making the rules much harsher will lead to fewer people wanting to come here. In turn, this will ‘solve the crisis’.

Apart from ignoring the fact that Germany and Sweden are far more popular destinations for asylum seekers, this analysis is blind. Comprehensive research has suggested that restrictive, deterrent policies simply do not work – the more restrictive policies are, the more people seek to get around them. Unsurprisingly, a person seeking to escape the Syrian civil war doesn’t simply stop at the border of Europe because they can’t get an entry visa. Refugees will seek to come to Europe, and to Britain, irrespective of how uninviting the government attempts to make it, simply because the UK is preferable to Darfur. Thinking that a government can completely shut down the borders of a modern, globalised state is fantasy.

So, the number of people in Calais is comparatively miniscule, clandestine entrants to the UK comprise a negligible proportion of the total irregular migrant population, and the strictness of border controls is of relatively little importance. Calais is not a crisis.

What might be more deserving of hyperbole is what the crisis narrative could lead to. Over the past couple of decades, discourses of migration as a threat have abounded in Europe, framing migration and migrants as dangerous to ‘our’ security and way of life. The idea that Britain is facing an unprecedented crisis adds to the perception, and justifies drastic measures to combat the threat. Tightening border controls and making Britain less attractive for migrants becomes an acceptable policy base.

The crisis isn’t one of migrants. It’s one of government wielding extreme, unprecedented power, slashing welfare provisions and militarising borders, turning the country into a fortified police state where everyone who makes it past the towering walls is constantly monitored for compliance. It’s cuts to benefits for young British people. It’s biometric ID cards, all-seeing CCTV, government casually reading your email.

It’s a crisis of justification. If we persist in accepting that migration is a crisis, that refugees are a problem to be solved, then we lend legitimacy to any efforts to do so. And when those policies inevitably result in our being constantly watched and tagged, well, we’ll feel that something’s being done about our ongoing migration crisis.

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