Calais crisis: Why it's dishonest to single out human trafficking as the root cause

Calais crisis: Why it's dishonest to single out human trafficking as the root cause
The true villains behind the Calais crisis are not smugglers, rather they are the French and British decision-makers, with their hostile and restrictive policies against refugees and migrants, writes Sophia Akram.
6 min read
03 Dec, 2021
A migrant sits next to a railway line after being evicted from the Grande-Synthe migrant camp as police break up the camp in the latest attempt to disperse migrants from gathering along the French coast on 30 November 2021in Grande-Synthe, France. [Getty]

The recent deaths of 31 people off the coast of France after attempting to cross the Channel to reach the UK has forced strong statements from Priti Patel. We are used to the Home Office's Secretary of State aiming her vitriol towards those journeying to seek asylum, but this time Patel is also fixated on another villain: Smugglers.

As much as smugglers need to be taken down – there is no sympathy for this antagonist – they are not the root cause of the problem. The experiences faced by refugees, the irresponsible policy established against migration and the political rabble-rousing led to this latest disaster, and a continuation of the tunnel vision approach will not prevent further deaths at sea.

There will always be other actors who emerge to fill a need that simply is not going away.

The incident that occurred on 24 November involved the most deaths ever recorded on the migration route to Britain since it became a concern. The numbers attempting the journey have tripled from less than 10,000 in 2020 to more than 25,000 this year so far.

"As much as smugglers need to be taken down – there is no sympathy for this antagonist – they are not the root cause of the problem"

This increase has occurred despite the ever-increasing hostile environment in the UK and France against migrants, with both enacting restrictive policy, including the recent Home Office proposals to offshore the processing of asylum seekers and forcibly return boats filled with people to France.

Humanitarian responses to migrant and refugee needs must replace counter-migration measures such as the discussion on tightening the border and other harsh policies that was happening not long prior to the incident.

Smugglers are no innocent parties in this issue. They demand thousands of Euros for perilous passage to Britain, and while law enforcement efforts may successfully dismantle a significant portion of these networks, where there is a demand, supply will be sure to follow.

Moreover, smuggling routes adapt to changing circumstances, and when the task is made more difficult causing the risks to be greater, it only pushes up the fees for desperate people on the move. So, singularly focusing on enforcement seems to only heighten the potential for exploitation.

It is funny then that Patel only talks about pull factors of migration to Britain – meaning the motivating force behind those seeking Dover's shores. But what about the push factors (the conditions in peoples' home countries that compel them to leave)? Clearly, lost in the narrative coming out of the UK government is the refugees' own experiences.

The migrants who died that Wednesday are widely thought to be from Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, where economic conditions or the political situation are precarious. These migrants cannot ask for asylum in France, and French officials regularly subject people living in the migrant encampments around Calais to degrading treatment.

The misery imposed on them through mass eviction operations, police harassment and restricted access to humanitarian assistance make it difficult to stay. These practices are deliberate attempts, says Human Rights Watch, at forcing people to move on without providing solutions to their migration or housing status.

Many migrants and refugees have also had their fingerprints taken in another EU country. According to the Dublin Regulation, it would mandate responsibility to that country for their asylum claims, making France a nonstarter for the process.

While the UK policy environment is not the warmest welcome for migrants and refugees, the language and family links allow some hope to those trying to build a home away from home. However, the number of asylum claims in Britain have not necessarily increased over the years. More people are using the Channel route because, despite the dangers in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, it is deemed more successful due to now stringent checks on trucks and lorries by road.

Blaming the smugglers is, however, one thing the UK and France have agreed upon amid a political spat between them that is escalating to the extent that sensible policy discussions have been replaced by political point-scoring. For example, so upset was French president Emmanuel Macron at the UK Prime Minister's public letter to him, via Twitter, expressing what Macron should be doing on the matter, that the French uninvited the UK to a meeting of European Ministers is discuss how to crack down on the problem.

The UK has been no better with Boris Johnson who seems to be looking to scapegoat France to help detract from the Conservative leader's own political woes at home as various Tory MPs are reportedly filing letters of no confidence in their leader.

Still, the party's line on immigration is likely to be the same whether Johnson delivers on it or does not. The idea of lowering numbers of migrats coming into the UK are unfortunately more appealing to voters, and it is also a sentiment not lost on Macron either for French elections coming up next year.

Nevertheless, the current trajectory will likely only see more people attempting to cross the Channel, and if the UK and France wants to figure out ways to solve that issue, they have to start changing their politics and embrace more responsible messages about migration and expanding legal pathways for migrants and refugees that allows them to settle legally in the lands.

There are many ways policymakers can do this.

Simply allow people to apply for asylum from overseas embassies, widen the family reunification rules, and improve internal asylum application processing.  These small measures go a long way. And it is notable that, for example, the Afghan Resettlement Scheme promised by the UK in the wake of Afghanistan's Taliban takeover is still not underway.

"the true villians in this story are not merely the smugglers giving people wretched boat; they are the decision-makers making that boat their only choice"

However, such initiatives are never popular among present-day governments when they are aware that immigration is a major hot button issue to sway voters.

It is imperative that politicians and officials must help change the rhetoric on migration and support people to see that bringing in economic migrants and allowing refugees to work in an ageing nation like the UK is actually very good for the economy. It certainly serves us better than creating impossible conditions for refugees and migrants to thrive, let alone survive.

Without a radical shift in the approach on migration, the true villians in this story are not merely the smugglers giving people wretched boat; they are the decision-makers making that boat their only choice.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.