As an island on the western extremities of Europe, the United Kingdom has historically felt the insular effects of its own geography. The English Channel, known as La Manche in France, has provided a natural barrier between Britain and the continent, deterring belligerent invaders, physically preventing land armies from reaching the island.
Whilst mainland Europe grapples with the influx of migrants seeking safety from war, destruction and despotic regimes, the United Kingdom remains largely unaffected, with one eye half open to the refugees making their way across Europe. Germany has been the target destination for many of the migrants, citing Angela Merkel’s ‘open arms’ approach that has placed her at odds with a number of Eurosceptic leaders, yet there is a substantial minority that consider the United Kingdom to be the honeypot destination for refugees; and it is this notion that has divided opinions amongst the British themselves.
Connecting the port of Dover to the town of Calais on France’s nbrorthern seaboard, The Channel Tunnel remains the sole physical ‘connection’ between the two countries, encompassing a length of about 50 kilometres, or 30 miles. The area surrounding the tunnel soon began to attract migrants and refugees stuck in a stateless limbo, being denied any viable citizenship by the French authorities, yet facing rejection from British asylum applications- and thus the ‘Calais jungle’ sprouted up around a now-defunct Red Cross reception centre. Even before the European migrant crisis was in full swing over the recent summer, the Calais jungle had become a focal point in the British media for desperate migrants trying to clammer their way onto haulage lorries, or venturing into the interior of the Channel tunnel itself, with little avail. The Calais camp has grown substantially over the past few years, and this can be attributed to the ensuing Syrian Civil War, displacing millions as president Bashar Al-Assad clings into power against a medley of insurgents.
Furthermore, the incredibly fragile political situation in Afghanistan has in many cases led civilians to choose between supporting the Afghan army, or the Taliban, with dire consequences for each opposing faction. The third element of the encampment comes from a mixture of Eritreans fleeing from their despotic regime, Iraqis seeking refuge from the on-going insurgency, and sub-saharan Africans seeking economic opportunities, and it is estimated that there are up to 6,000 inhabitants living within the Calais jungle.
In assessing the refugee crisis in Europe, and the relation to the United Kingdom, an obvious paradox emerges as the focal point lies not in this country itself, but in a French coastal town. The issue for the British authorities is unique, as the stream of migrants trekking across the Balkans and eastern Europe would never occur on home soil. Moreover, as it appears most refugees are heading for more ‘migrant friendly’ countries such as Germany or Sweden, a quasi-artificial buffer zone has developed. It appears it may no longer be desirable for migrants to see the Calais jungle as an entry point into Britain.
Politics has also played an important role in the British government’s reaction to the crisis. It is not hard to forget that there was a general election here in May, and much of the debate centered around one focal point; immigration. The Conservative government under David Cameron had stated in his manifesto that he would cap immigration outside the European Union to no more than 20,700 people over the next five-year parliament, yet in order to keep this promise he would have to take an uncompassionate approach to the migrant crisis. For much of the summer, the British government remained resolute in opposing measures to assist fleeing refugees, demonstrating its ‘opt-out’ powers from a proposed European Union quota plan to evenly distribute migrants continent-wide, yet there has been a significant turning point in Britain’s policy that would appease both sides of the spectrum in regards to the immigration debate.
Found lifeless on a beach close to the Turkish resort of Bodrum, an emotive image of a deceased three year old Syrian toddler was widely circulated around the world, and this was to have a profound impact on the British public, as well as the government. The photo of the young Alan Kurdi humanised the crisis, dispelling much of the rhetorical sensationalism that sought to frighten the public, with David Cameron at one point describing the migrants as ‘swarms’. Plans were quickly drawn up by the Home Secretary Theresa May, and it was announced that Britain would have it’s own, unique solution in assisting with the refugee crisis.
Instead of encouraging the perilous passage into Europe, Britain was to use a managed approach taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees residing in Turkish and Jordanian border camps by 2020, at a rate of about 400 people a month. Theresa May justified this stance by claiming to assist the most vulnerable refugees living in war zones rather than “the ones who are strong and rich enough to come to Europe”, and this policy has been met with the general support of the British public. A weak-hearted and indecisive approach by the government had been essentially diffused, and an element of compassion had prevailed, whilst balancing the opinions on both sides of the political spectrum.
The reaction of the British public to the refugee crisis has not been as vocal compared to Germany, as the impact has not been as acute here, yet there has been grassroots activism taking place, particularly in London. On September 12th, the ‘Solidarity with Refugees rally’ took place, which attracted thousands of marchers in central London, and the significance of this march coincided with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party chief, becoming the main leader of the opposition in the British parliament. Smaller, more humble attempts have been made to assist migrants in Britain, particularly for those residing in the Calais migrant camp.
Crowdfunding has generally been used for start-ups and entrepreneurial pursuits, but a number of establishments are using the method to make life easier for the displaced. The Coach and Horses pub in Soho, London launched an initiative to raise £5000 ($7550 USD) to give Calais migrants a substantial meal during the encroaching winter months. In Scotland, Bob and Diane, a kindhearted couple in Glasgow, sought to raise funds in order to drive food and clothing to those in need at the camp, surpassing their £500 ($750 USD) target by ten-fold.
The concept of ‘British values’ lay at the heart of these operations, yet it is often debatable what to these values truly are. Does it involve compassion and solidarity, or does it imply that our borders must be secure to prevent the loss of culture and heritage? Quite frankly, the latter appears far-removed from the well connected world we live in. The United Kingdom may not want to play ball with the European Union, insisting on it’s own course of action, but the method that this country has taken in dealing with the refugee crisis denotes a compassion towards those were unable to afford the journey towards Europe: the less fortunate migrants who are living in the Turkish and Jordanian border camps.
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