French politicians have been busying themselves recently offering solutions to Calais’s crowded ‘jungle’ camp – and it’s good news that the Home Office has said their suggestions are all ‘non-starters’. Quite right, too. Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to set up a system for displaced people living in France to apply for asylum in the UK might sound humane. In fact, it’s a recipe for even more misery. Why? Because offering the faint hope of sanctuary to those who have suffered unimaginable terror would encourage more vulnerable people to set out on a tragic journey which has already claimed far too many lives.
Displaced people from the Middle East, in particular, have been through enough. Working for a humanitarian NGO, I spent much of the last four years travelling to the Syrian border, and also to Iraq as people fled Mosul. Every single stage of their journey has been immensely traumatic.
To start with, their home towns have been barbarically looted and their friends and neighbours killed in front of them. Many of the Syrian children I met in Jordan and Lebanon drew pictures of shootings and dead bodies. One Syrian man I spoke to in Jordan was suffering from kidney failure. Clearly not getting the medical attention he needed, he lived with his wife and three children in a threadbare, empty room. There was no food in the fridge. So why had they travelled to Jordan when he was so desperately ill? He told me:
‘I thought we couldn’t leave because I am too sick to move, and for more than a year we stayed despite the fighting. But it was when they started raping women in the streets outside our home that I knew we had to leave. I couldn’t have my children growing up there.’
But whilst people like these are desperate, it’s clear as well that they don’t want to leave the Middle East. There is a very strong sense of place there, and people feel closely linked to locations which are the basis for beliefs and traditions going back thousands of years. So why would we encourage people to extend the agony by taking an equally horrendous further journey to Europe, with only a vague hope of sanctuary?
To offer an asylum application process across the border from France to the UK would set a harmful precedent. It would also cruelly incentivise the horrors of life-threatening travel and act as a boon to people traffickers. A far more humanitarian solution is to continue to help people to stay as safe as possible in the place where they first arrive. Failing this, operating a well-managed resettlement programme, where people are matched with suitable homes and sanctuary and know which country they’re travelling to before they’ve even left the region, is a better solution than allowing migrants in Calais to apply for asylum in the UK.
Over the last year, this crisis has spread globally. And now that we’re seeing such widespread migration, the response cannot be confined just to the Middle East. Yet it’s important to remember that this is where the solution lies. Most of the Middle East’s displaced people remain in places like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and we must help them to rebuild their shattered lives as close to home as possible. They have been through enough already.