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Data Shows Why Building A Wall In Calais Is Bound To Fail

21/09/2016 17:31
DIMITAR DILKOFF via Getty Images

The UK Home Office has begun working on its latest measure intended to stem the flow of immigrants to its shores. This time, it takes the form of a "big new wall". The concrete construction, which will stretch one kilometre along the motorway from the Calais port, is to be equipped with cameras and a lighting system - specifically designed to stop refugees and displaced people in their tracks. "We've done the fence, now we're doing the wall," immigration minister Robert Goodwill confirmed.

It was an odd statement. Primarily because Goodwill appeared to be acknowledging that the fence - roughly £7million of metal and razor wire - hasn't worked. Throwing yet another £1.9million at the same old strategy seems equally unlikely to provide a sustainable solution to the ongoing problem. In fact, it has become increasingly clear that, if the UK and France are to resolve the humanitarian crisis on their doorsteps, a fresh approach is needed.

Since January, the Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) has been collecting data among refugee communities in northern France. Its findings are striking, and they shed light on what steps the British and French governments could take to ease the situation - reducing the number of people trying to enter the UK illegally, while abiding by universal humanitarian standards.

The wall won't work

Goodwill's plans underestimate the sheer determination displayed by the 10,000-plus refugees and displaced people currently residing in northern France. During the course of RRDP's research in July and August, 27.5% of respondents in the Calais camp said they had been living in the settlement for at least six months - 12.7% for a year or more.

That means a quarter of the camp's residents stayed put despite the French authorities' forceful eviction of the southern part of the camp in March. Regardless of the winter's unforgiving weather conditions, 60.4% lived in leaky shelters and 68% relied solely on blankets or burning rubbish to keep warm.

Almost half of those surveyed had experienced violence from citizens, and three quarters from police in Calais. They had been exposed to verbal abuse, tear gas, beatings and attacks by aggressive dogs - both while trying to travel to the UK illegally, and while getting on with their day-to-day lives in and around the camp. Meanwhile, 76.7% experienced health problems - predominately as a result of the camp's unsanitary environment.

Despite these dire conditions, many residents said they would never stop trying to reach their goal. Some 86.4% said they would stay in Calais, sleep in the street, move to the nearby Dunkirk camp, or admitted they didn't know what they would do if the camp was destroyed. Building a new wall is unlikely to change these existing dynamics. It'll simply shift the problem further from the port, or encourage refugees and displaced people - often coerced by people smugglers - to take even riskier measures in their attempts to cross the Channel.

It's time for some fresh thinking

If building barriers isn't working, what else can be done? RRDP found that providing refugees and displaced people with the advice they need to make informed decisions about their future would be a good place to start.

A third of people interviewed in the Calais camp said they wanted to know why it's so difficult to go to the UK, while 46.7% said the most important information for them was how to make the journey legally. Three quarters said they had no information about European immigration rules. This suggests that with adequate guidance, many may choose another destination or seek a legal entry route.

In this context, it is alarming that there is no government-funded information provided in the camp. A few smaller voluntary organisations work tirelessly to fill this gap, including the Refugee Info Bus which provides free immigration advice from the back of a revamped horse box. However, given the huge demand for information, these groups are under-resourced and over-worked. As a result, many residents end up taking the law into their own hands and striving to reach the UK by any means possible.

The British and French governments' plan to build a wall demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of these issues, leading - once again - to the misallocation of resources intended to tackle the problem. Rather than spending public money on a symbolic but largely ineffectual wall, they should instead establish information points in northern France. This would provide refugees and displaced people with the tools they need to bust myths picked up along their journeys, identify which countries would be best to seek asylum given their own specific circumstances, and kick start this lengthy legal process.

Meanwhile, the UK also needs to step up and honour its own legal obligations. Earlier this month, legal group Safe Passage identified 178 children in Calais who were eligible to be reunited with family members in the UK under the Dublin III regulation. Another 209 should be provided sanctuary under the 'Dubs amendment' to the Immigration Bill as agreed by MPs in May. So far, not a single child has been relocated under the new rule.

If policymakers are serious about resolving the crisis in Calais, they need to take immediate steps to fix this broken system. It has become clear that no progress will be made until funds are invested in educating and empowering the camp's residents, rather than continuing to segregate and dehumanise them.

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