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Demonising Migrants Won't Solve Calais - We Need a Major Escalation of Diplomatic Efforts From the Government

31/07/2015 08:00 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST
Yui Mok/PA Wire

The crisis over Calais is getting worse not better. Yet far from setting out a serious plan to tackle the problem, the Prime Minister is inflaming the politics with incendiary and divisive language instead.

Faced with such troubling images from the border, the temptation for any country can be to turn inwards, to become more fearful and hostile towards all those from across the seas. And that indeed is the anxiety that David Cameron's "swarm" language seems designed to escalate.

Yet the Government has a responsibility to do the opposite. The problems at Calais and Kent are just one part of a serious and growing international crisis over migration and refugees. Rather than turning inwards, Britain needs to look across its borders for solutions. Only serious Europe wide and international intervention - and major, constructive, diplomatic engagement from the British Government is going to get to grips with this problem. Both David Cameron and Theresa May need to urgently change their approach.

No one can be in any doubt about the seriousness of the problem. Nine people have died since June trying to enter Britain from Calais - no doubt many having paid money to criminals profiting from their deaths. People - the vast majority of whom will have travelled thousands of miles - are not a "swarm,". They are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers - many desperate enough to risk their lives.

The pressure on hauliers is huge - worrying about the security of their load, the safety of their journey, as well as the disruption. Tourists and travellers are affected. So too are the people of Kent - including the police - managing with Operation Stack.

When order breaks down - as it has in Calais - a difficult situation can become desperate.

But this is also part of a far wider crisis from the Mediterranean and beyond. In Southern Europe refugee charities are calling for more support in managing the many thousands of people that have arrived in Italy and Greece. NGOs warn that more than half are refugees from Syria. Other people have travelled from parts of Africa through Libya - where the breakdown of government and order means there is little to stop the traffickers and criminal gangs. Too few people have asylum claims or immigration status assessed when they first arrive in Europe, and in the Schengen zone (without borders) it is proving easy for the trafficking gangs to take people across the continent.

Three things are now needed now.

First more needs to be done immediately in practical terms on safety and security at the border and to tackle the problems in Kent. Eurotunnel have been warning for months that separate lorry waiting areas and increased security were needed to reduce the extremely dangerous attempts to hide in or on lorries that are putting lives at risk. Yet Ministers have been far too slow to put this in place, and the new fencing promised still isn't complete. Nor are there enough security staff, not enough checks to prevent these risky and illegal journeys in the first place. Indeed the government stopped fingerprint checks of people attempting illegal passage during the last parliament.Too many of those picked up at the border are simply returned to the streets of Calais to try again the following night. The Home Secretary still needs to do more to make sure the security measures she promised are fully in place.

Kent police and the people of Kent also deserve far more support from the government. The Home Secretary should be meeting with the Chief Constable today to offer more resources and meeting with the local authorities to ensure they have what they need. The Government should ensure the people of Kent don't lose everyday policing because of the resource intensive Op Stack.

Second, and most important in solving the crisis, we need France to do far more to prevent the build up of the crisis in Calais in the first place. The French authorities need to properly assess people claiming asylum and prevent people travelling illegally.

It isn't right to abandon people to a dangerous life trying to evade capture in the tracks and roads of Calais. France must fulfil its responsibility to assess asylum claims, to assess those who may be vulnerable and to make sure proper immigration procedures are followed. Otherwise they are leaving people further victim to people traffickers or the despair faced by vulnerable refugees.

And the British Government should be exercising maximum diplomatic pressure on the French Government to do this. Instead the Home Secretary was unable to give me any details of what France was doing to assess people when I pressed her on this in Parliament. And it appears the Prime Minister has not even discussed the crisis with President Hollande this week. We need a major escalation of the diplomatic effort. Under the last government David Blunkett persuaded France to close Sangatte through determined and intensive diplomacy. We need a similar diplomatic intervention now. David Cameron needs to make sure his focus on pre-referendum negotiations with other European countries are not distracting from solving this serious border problem.

And finally, much more needs to be done across Europe and internationally to tackle the wider people smuggling and refugee crisis across the continent. That includes more EU resources to help Southern European countries assess asylum claims and the immigration status of those arriving on their shores, an EU wide plan to prevent vulnerable people and smugglers moving across the continent and especially through the Schengen area, co-ordinated action to help Syrian refugees, and to prevent people travelling in the first place.

Of course, British diplomatic engagement to get other countries to act will only be successful if we are also seen to be doing our bit to tackle the wider international problems, and if our wider engagement is constructive. Too often David Cameron and Theresa May have done the opposite.

The British assets taking part in search and rescue in the Mediterranean have been downgraded. Theresa May has been opposed to cross-European action more generally - shamefully arguing against search and rescue last summer, and dragging her feet on agreeing to EU crime and justice cooperation that is so crucial to dealing with the dangerous criminal gangs facilitating illegal travel into and through Europe - including putting more police resources in shared European crime-fighting teams.

Nor is Britain doing its bit to help with Syrian refugees - now the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation. While other European countries have offered sanctuary to many vulnerable UN refugees from Syria, Britain has refused to sign up to the UN scheme and has accepted very few people under the UK parallel programme set up under pressure from us over a year ago. The Home Secretary should urgently work with local authorities across the country, to agree more places for Syrian refugees who are fleeing persecution. Our country has a long tradition of providing humanitarian support and sanctuary for those who need it.

The crisis in Calais isn't going away. And while it may feel like a local problem that will eventually slip out of the news, the truth is it is part of a wider international humanitarian challenge that Europe is failing to grasp. Ramping up the rhetoric towards the rest of the world, demonising people or turning Britain inwards - as David Cameron seems to want to do - won't solve the problem. Instead Britain needs to work with other countries to set out a serious, practical long term plan.

Yvette Cooper is the shadow home secretary and Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford