Rescued migrants in the English Channel

Maël Galisson says the new plan for the French-British border suggests the same old recipes with disastrous human consequences

While the British authorities are ready to pay hundreds of millions of pounds in order to make the Channel between Dover and Calais “unviable” – in defiance of the rights of migrants stranded in northern France, who are considered to have “no legal right to be in the UK” – it’s important to recall some of the basic elements of what is happening at the border. This situation, generated by a pile of bilateral agreements between the UK and France, has been going on for more than 25 years. The result: violent consequences for migrants, without any solution to a situation whose roots will never be resolved by control measures.

Not all migrants blocked in Calais and in the region were attracted to the United Kingdom when they fled their country. What we see on the ground is that most migratory routes are built step by step, often in response to immobilisation measures that complicate people’s original aspirations. Their priority is to find a safe place, and this often means crossing a border when there is no such option in the country of origin. In turn, if the situation in the neighbouring countries does not allow one to live in safety and to imagine rebuilding their life, then people may decide to travel further. Most of the time, this is how migratory routes are constructed: by navigating through daily uncertainties, potential opportunities to continue the journey, family and networks abroad and available monies, among other things. Often, the measures deployed abroad in partnership with European countries, as part of an externalisation process of border control, in fact aggravate conditions and contribute to push the exiles to take the road again.

In the north of France, for example, many migrants find themselves in a ‘wandering condition’. Indeed, it is common to come across people who have been refused asylum in another European country (Sweden, Germany, France), who are taking the road again in order to avoid a potential deportation and hope to find a better future in the United Kingdom. Or they may be people who have regular residence permits in other countries but who, faced with discrimination (particularly racist) and/or economic difficulties in the country of arrival, think they will find a better situation in the UK. People might also have historical family links in the UK and simply want to be among their loved ones. In the end, it is the national migration policies that are hostile to refugees on the European continent that push some foreigners to continue their journey and try their luck in the UK.

Deterrence, a deadly political impasse

Meanwhile, border security or legislative measures aimed at preventing or dissuading migrants from crossing the border do not have the desired effect. The bilateral agreements between France and the UK signed in 2014 illustrate this very well. In 2014, the two governments decided to ‘fortify’ the port of Calais to prevent exiles from entering the port site. Kilometres of fences, barbed wire and video surveillance systems were installed. But this did not deter migrants from trying to cross the border: exiles simply changed their strategy and, instead of crossing the border hidden in trucks, tried to go through the Channel Tunnel. So, in 2015, the two governments decided in a new agreement to ‘fortify’ the Eurotunnel site.

Again, miles of barriers, barbed wire and drones were installed, forcing migrants to find another way to cross the border. As of 2015/2016, and even more after the eviction of the Calais Jungle in October 2016, the attempts to cross by sea multiplied. In fact, what is likely to happen because of one of the measures of the ‘New Plan for Immigration’, namely to facilitate the removal or tighten the conditions of access to asylum for people arriving in the UK by ‘small boats’, is that exiles turn away from boat crossings to adopt even more dangerous passage strategies.

The truth has been evident for a long time that when authorities try to close a migratory route, another one opens up, further away, more dangerous and more expensive and for which the recourse to smugglers is even more necessary. Let us remember in passing that since 1999, at least 302 migrants have died in this Franco-Belgian-British cross-border area. In short, ‘securing’ the border accentuates the deadly dimension of this territory and strengthens the hold of the smuggling networks, which the authorities claim to be fighting.

Translated by Celine Cantat

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