HASAN fled Syria across the Turkish border in March, the night before his young son’s birthday. A brush with people close to the authorities had convinced the 38-year-old that his days as a free man were numbered. An open boat took him from Turkey to Greece, where he acquired false papers. He made his way to Germany and then to France, arriving three months later in the northern port of Calais.
For the past four weeks he has been sleeping on dirt under plastic in the migrants’ encampment in the dunes known as “the Jungle” as he tries to travel the final 20 miles (32 kilometres) to England. His hands bear the scars of daily failed attempts to scramble onto trains and lorries. But at least he lived to try again. On July 7th French authorities announced the second death in as many weeks in or near the Eurotunnel that runs under the English Channel. On July 13th, three migrants received severe electric shocks there.
Is the journey really worth it? France and Britain are comparably rich countries with broadly similar approaches to human rights and welfare. Yet charities say more than 1,000 people have made the risky crossing in recent weeks. French police figures show 3,600 attempts to cross illegally were foiled in June, up from a usual maximum of about 500 per month. More boats crossing the Mediterranean swell the numbers. “Every time a boatload arrives in Italy, 5-10% of them reach Calais eight days later,” says a charity worker. Hasan is in no doubt about where he wants to end up. “England is the dream of us all,” he says.
This other Eden
Tensions run high in the Jungle. Scores were wounded in June in an outbreak of violence between Eritreans and Sudanese. The camp is also full of people not fleeing for their lives but just wanting to improve them. Only about 40% of the 4,000 residents of the turd-strewn 18 hectares (44 acres) of sand and scrub have a good case for asylum, says Pierre Henry, of France-Terre d’Asile, a charity. The line is increasingly blurred between refugees and economic migrants.
Even as the numbers swell, the British government is implementing new measures to keep them out. On July 14th it announced the construction of a new “secure zone” at Calais, with room for 230 lorries, removing them from the open road where illegal immigrants can climb aboard.
Each has different reasons for stowing away. Hasan speaks English, ran a small business in Syria and is sure he could prosper in Britain. Above all, he has heard that Britain processes asylum applications quickly, which would enable him to bring his family from Syria soon. In Calais, appointments simply to register for asylum in France are being given for October and later. Perhaps one-third of the camp’s occupants will seek to stay in France, reckons Maya Konforti of L’Auberge des Migrants, a local migrant charity. But most will push on for Britain even if that means risking injury or death.
Britain’s attractiveness is in contrast to its accessibility. Apart from the moat of the English Channel, the sceptred isle is buffered from less happier lands by not having signed the Schengen agreement. This allows free movement between its member states, which include most western European countries. Schengen is one reason why Britain receives fewer asylum applications than other countries. More than 625,000 people applied for refugee status last year in the 28 countries of the EU (Syrians made up one-fifth of them). Only 31,745 of them applied in Britain, half the number for France and one-sixth that of Germany.
Most arrive in Britain by plane, sometimes on fake documents. The few thousand who come through the Eurotunnel are merely the most visible part of a much bigger phenomenon, says Zoe Gardner of Asylum Aid, a charity. Perhaps 600,000 (some say 1m) migrants who are not applying for asylum live illegally in Britain. As the government has tightened the criteria for legal migration, charity workers say some people who would have applied for migrant visas are now seeking asylum.
Many are disappointed when they arrive. The 2014 Immigration Act, which gave landlords and banks new responsibilities to check applicants’ migration status, has made it harder for undocumented migrants to live and work. And the benefits for asylum seekers are very similar to those in France. “If the streets are not paved with gold for you in France, they will not be here, either,” Ms Gardner says.
Once they have lodged an appeal, single asylum seekers are given £36.95 ($58) per week, roughly the same as in France. In both countries they are offered housing, but cannot choose where. In neither are they eligible for many other benefits, although health care and some education are available. Both countries allow those with refugee status to bring their families, and both aim to give a first decision on asylum applications within six months—which often stretches to as long as 18.
Contrary to what Hasan and others believe, the British process is not much quicker than the French. The prospects of being granted asylum, however, seem to be somewhat brighter in Britain. Last year 39% of applicants were granted some form of asylum in the first instance. In France the rate was 22%.
The black economies of the two countries are reckoned to be about the same size. A.T. Kearney, a consultancy, estimated that each was equivalent to about a tenth of GDP in 2013. Yet the widespread perception is that casual jobs are easier to find north of the Channel. Britain has no identity cards and fewer workplace inspections than Europe’s more regulated economies. And there are certainly more jobs to be had in general: unemployment, at 5.6%, is a little over half what it is in France.
The application process is complicated by Britain’s semi-detached relationship with the EU. Ahmed, a Syrian who arrived in the back of a lorry nearly two years ago, says he came to Britain simply because everyone in his hometown knew someone who had. He spent a year and £16,000 getting to London with the help of smugglers. His brother arrived a few months later. But whereas his brother has already been approved for asylum, Ahmed’s application still languishes.
Though it keeps migrants out by not being a member of the Schengen group, Britain is a signatory of the Dublin Regulation, under which it is allowed to return asylum-seekers to the country where they first set foot in Europe. Because Ahmed was detained and fingerprinted in Hungary, Britain is trying to send him back there. With its own growing backlog of asylum applications, Hungary has been trying its hardest not to receive people like Ahmed. On June 23rd Hungary said it would no longer abide by the Dublin Regulation, though it reversed the decision the following day. Officials in Italy and Greece sometimes do not fingerprint migrants, for the same reason. Meanwhile, Ahmed has been in limbo for 18 months.
The flow of migrants to Calais continues, part of a bigger flood of uprooted people for whom any hardship is preferable to the dangers they have fled. A French government report released on July 1st recommended more humanitarian assistance for asylum seekers and a faster asylum procedure. The French are also increasingly testy about an arrangement that allows Britain to vet migrants before they leave French soil, rather than on arrival, penning thousands in Calais. If Britain leaves the EU, says Emmanuel Agius, the deputy mayor of Calais, David Cameron “will have to pick up his border and take it back to Britain where it belongs”.
Ms Gardner of Asylum Aid also says Britain needs to do more, not least beefing up its official immigration programmes, including resettlement for Syrians, so that more immigrants can be brought in safely through formal channels. But she admits that popular opinion and political will are flowing in the opposite direction, so the battles at Calais will continue. For the likes of Hasan, it will still be Britain or bust. Source: The Economist