In recent weeks the media has been dominated by the crisis in Calais. Every day there are new stories about the threat posed by migrants trying to enter the UK. The hysterical reporting of the problem is matched by the response from politicians. Cameron spoke of 'a swarm' of migrants trying to get to the UK. Phil Hammond referred to desperate migrants 'marauding' across Europe, and warned of millions more on their way from Africa. I decided to see the problem for myself, so on Thursday morning I boarded a train to Calais.
Entering The Jungle is a surreal experience. It takes less than an hour to travel there from Folkestone, but has more in common with a Syrian refugee camp than anywhere in Western Europe. The conditions are appalling. A sprawling slum consisting of hundreds of temporary shelters made from pallets and covered in tarpaulin, estimates of the number of people living there range from 3000 to 4000. At first it is an intimidating place to walk around - it is so alien that it is difficult to judge whether it is dangerous or not. I interrupted a young French man who was assisting in the building of a shelter, and asked him the way to the school I'd read about. He offered to show me around. I asked him if there was much crime in The Jungle. 'We had an incident between an Afghani and a Sudanese man over a stolen phone', he said, 'on 15 June.'
Talking to those in The Jungle there is a sense of disbelief that people are allowed to live in such dire circumstances in Europe. 'Animals shouldn't live like this', one man tells me, gesturing towards the piles of rubbish and make-shift latrines. 'Do you think I would live here if I had a choice?' another asks, 'I just want to be safe.' The stories that followed were without exception tales of people persecuted by brutal dictatorships or terrorized by war. The largest groups in the camp are from Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria, and all have endured epic and often deadly journeys from their home countries in their attempt to seek refuge.
Phil Hammond would have us believe that millions of people seek asylum in Europe, and that the UK is the destination of choice. The truth is that less than 15% of refugees come to Europe - the vast majority are in developing countries. Another myth perpetuated by the press is that the UK is seen by migrants as an easy touch. Sweden, Germany and France all grant asylum to far more people than the UK. Those who seek asylum in the UK usually do so because they speak English, or have family here. Only about half of those living in The Jungle want to come to the UK, the rest have applied for asylum in France and are awaiting a decision. The people who do want to come here are educated, speak English fluently, and are eager to work. Amongst them I met graduates in engineering, psychology and architecture.
What no one in the mainstream press is reporting is that it is impossible to apply for asylum in the UK from outside the country. In effect this means that refugees who have a legitimate claim to asylum cannot be considered unless they undertake the perilous and often deadly trip across the channel. There is no other way. The British government is directly responsible for the scenes of desperate migrants jumping on moving trains, trying to rush the tunnel, or clinging to the underside of lorries. The solution is simple, and it is not wasting seven million pounds on fences, sending hundreds of sniffer dogs, or using the army to prevent people from crossing. If we allowed migrants to apply for asylum from Calais, the problem would disappear overnight. Those with a legitimate claim could be admitted to the UK safely, and those without one could be turned away before risking their lives to find out.
It is not uncommon to see people in The Jungle with arms or legs in plaster, the result of unsuccessful attempts to cross the channel. I collected one boy from hospital, his arm broken after falling from a moving train. I asked him if he would be trying again. 'Of course,' he replied, 'I have nowhere else to go.' He showed me photographs of the inflatable boats that he had been smuggled from Libya to Italy on, a trip he had undertaken with 600 others. 'Was it dangerous?' I asked. 'Very', he replied and pointed to one of the boats, 'that one capsized. 200 people died.' On Sunday morning a Sudanese man I'd had coffee with the previous day asked me to take his friend to hospital. He had been impaled on one of the new fences during the night.
Saying goodbye to the people I'd met in The Jungle, I wondered how many of them would successfully make the trip to the UK, and if any of them would die trying. The boy with the broken arm took me to one side. 'Tell people at home what you have learnt,' he pleaded', 'we are not dangerous. We are in danger.' He asked me if I would come back. I told him I planned to visit again in September. 'Good,' he smiled, 'God willing I will see you then'. A part of me hoped that by then he would have made it to the UK, and been able to apply for asylum.
Heading home amongst hundreds of British holidaymakers, I wondered how many of them were aware of the desperate and squalid conditions only a few miles away. I believe that anyone who visited The Jungle would be ashamed to be British. I am. If David Cameron bothered to see for himself what was really going on, perhaps he would have the humanity to reconsider his position. There is a deadly humanitarian crisis on our doorstep, and our current approach is compounding the problem. If the people in The Jungle were white Europeans, I have no doubt that we do everything possible to help them. Instead, we allow desperate people to exist in appalling conditions, and build fences to ensure they stay there. If I were a more courageous man, I would have brought someone back with me.Suggest a correction