The migrant crisis at Calais has highlighted a genuinely dramatic and compelling story, but at the cost of distorting the realities facing the thousands of people directly involved and obscuring the wider context – a massive displacement of peoples in the Middle East and Africa and their efforts to come to Europe.
Television images of migrants trying to get on lorries and trains going to England, of huge queues and delays for commercial and tourist vehicles, and of politicians scrambling to offer solutions have produced a classic media frenzy but cast too little light on the real issues at stake.
The 2,000 people trying to get to England and the 4,000-plus camped in primitive conditions semi permanently at Calais are a small proportion of the overall flow into Europe. Some 214,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 and to the end of June this year the number stands at 137,000 – not counting the tens of thousands who died in the attempt. Most are fleeing persecution, civil war and poverty in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia and risk their own and their families’ lives in the effort to escape.
According to United Nations figures 59.5 million people are forcibly displaced throughout the world this year, the highest number since 1945 and an increase of 8.3 million on 2014.
European responses to these humanitarian catastrophes have been fitful, ungenerous and incoherent compared to the burden borne by immediate neighbours. The rank order for hosting refugees lists Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan and Ethiopia – all well ahead of European states.
The United Kingdom is particularly ill-positioned to complain. Refugee applications there last year were 24,000 compared to 174,000 in Germany. The UK has an opt-out from the European Union’s justice and home affairs regime and has refused to participate in the latest EU plan to take in 40,000 refugees, in the beginning of a more coherent collective response.