The UK has a history of a ‘deterrence first’ asylum policy. It’s true that we are the world’s second largest foreign aid donor, and this is welcome. But, increasingly, giving financial aid centres on keeping refugees out of the UK for poorer countries to handle. Around 1.3 million asylum applications were lodged in the EU in 2015 – just 32,414 people applied for protection in the UK. The situation we’ve seen in Calais is a symbol of this protracted failure. I first visited refugees in Sangatte in Northern France around 15 years ago. Successive UK and French governments have tried to clear the informal camps and stop Calais being a destination for people moving through Europe. But more people have come, and the conditions have become more appalling and dangerous.
It is particularly intolerable to think of children living in such a place, cared for by volunteers, not the authorities. Children have gone missing each time the makeshift Calais camp has been destroyed. An estimated 10,000 refugee children have disappeared over the last year in the EU as a whole.
Time will tell if the Calais camp has closed definitively this time. I hope this time the closure does marks a turning point towards an ongoing humane and dignified approach to asylum.
Rather than repelling people, the authorities need to help those who wish to apply for asylum by supporting them to access the system and rapidly providing information and advice in a language they understand. Safe, sanitary accommodation and healthcare should be provided for all. As the actions of the Green Mayor of Grande-Synthe show, it is possible to do this with the support of your community.
Across Europe, we need a more flexible and welcoming approach to people desperately seeking safety and a chance to live. Importantly, asylum seekers’ preferences as to which member state they want to claim asylum in should be considered. Without taking people’s valid reasons for wanting to be in a certain country (such as family, community links or language skills) into consideration, the system will not work effectively. This is something the Greens in the European Parliament are pushing for at the moment.
I believe the UK can be a generous and welcoming country. People want to help. We need government to match this compassion.