The suffering of refugees is painful – and hidden

Listening to the words of those fleeing war and persecution for a new life in Europe is instructive, writes Colin Randall

Migrants walk in the direction of the Eurotunnel terminal on August 6, 2015 in Frethun near Calais, northern France. Philippe Huguen / AFP
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To reach squalid encampments in northern France, the ragtag army of would-be settlers yearning for new lives in Britain face more danger than most see in a lifetime.

Many are Muslims escaping war, persecution or poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. They cross deserts and pay people smugglers handsomely to be shipped across the Mediterranean from Libya in overcrowded, often unseaworthy vessels.

They witness others drown or succumb to illness and even violence. After landfall in Italy, they encounter official obstruction to onward travel towards the French port of Calais.

Ten years ago, I interviewed several predecessors, young men – and a few women – living rough in woodland and derelict buildings near ferry and Eurotunnel terminals, surviving on food from charities and awaiting a chance to sneak across the Channel to England.

There were Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Eritreans and Indians. Some were economic migrants, but many had suffered. They had some useful skills; it was tempting to regard the resourcefulness already shown as an asset for any society. And the problem was not resolved then, any more than tinkering with containment policies succeeds today.

For observers in Britain and France, the agenda is dominated by how to stop such people clogging up Calais, disrupting cross-Channel traffic and undermining attempts to control immigration.

What motivates these desperate people would certainly be best addressed in their own countries, with generous help from more prosperous nations.

Among the current wave many have fled the Syrian conflict; the European Union should be devoting funds to upgrade the vast Zaatari camp in Jordan, where so many take initial refuge.

But EU policy is chaotic, placing unreasonable pressure on southern points of entry, notably Italy and Greece, with scant solidarity among member states. And the migrants have grown more ruthless, resorting to serious lawlessness – much as happens when French farmers, taxi drivers and ferry workers are angry.

No one emerges from the crisis well. The French authorities are slack in dealing with mass disorder. Britain has a thriving black economy that attracts illegal immigrants.

But the scale of the problem should not be exaggerated. The present total, maybe 5,000, could readily be assimilated into British society, ridding Calais of an unjust burden. The obvious flaw is that without other dramatic measures, this would encourage yet more to make the perilous journey.

Perhaps a mixture of carrot and stick would work, with each migrant assessed, granted asylum or deported. For future arrivals, the process could be immediate, the EU and the UN sharing the cost. Systematic deportation would return those unable to establish refugee status to countries or origin, preferably with reliable safeguards against future mistreatment. Money could be earmarked for homeland projects to make migration seem less appealing.

Tough action could be accompanied by compassion, distinguishing between genuine cases and chancers. Anyone defying the procedures and still found sleeping out in Channel ports should face summary expulsion.

But do not underestimate the misery that spurs migrants to try their luck, or the trials they willingly endure.

François Dufour, who edits French newspapers for children, has met many refugees in recent years. “During their journey, theoretically ‘from the African inferno to the European Eldorado’,” he writes, “they have been robbed, assaulted, exploited, some tortured, others raped. Without mentioning those who have drowned.”

Two youths had fled chaos in Somalia, an Eritrean teenager had refused to be forced “into the dictator's army” and a Nigerian girl had been sold by her uncle. “After hearing their stories,” Dufour ends, “I always say to myself: in their shoes, I too would have fled towards the Mediterranean.”

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National