Migrant Channel crossings not ‘crisis’ says Calais chaplain

31 December 2018

Home Secretary states his resolve to deter migrant crossings

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A Border Force boat on patrol in Dover Harbour

A Border Force boat on patrol in Dover Harbour

MIGRANTS attempting to cross the Channel in small boats do not represent a “crisis” or a “major incident”, the Church of England Chaplain and Refugee Projects Officer in Pas-de-Calais, Canon Kirrilee Reid, has said.

More than 220 people have tried to cross the Channel, the world’s busiest shipping lane, since the start of November. Since Christmas Day, at least 100 migrants have been found on beaches near Dover or rescued at sea. On Boxing Day, three were rescued and brought to shore by the Border Force. The next day, 23, including three children, were detained in Kent, eight of whom had been rescued at sea.

On Friday, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, declared the crossings a “major incident”.

Canon Reid, who took up her appointment this year (News, 21 September), said on Sunday: “The terms ‘Migrant crisis’ and ‘major incident’ are unhelpful. This situation is not new. There have been dangerous crossings for years. Many have died trying to cross the Channel by train, boat, and lorry. There has been an increase in those attempting to cross the English Channel by boat in recent weeks, and this is dangerous, but, sadly, indicative of the plight of desperate people.”

“The language used needs to be challenged,” she said. “Our language should promote compassion and understanding rather than fear.” It should be “empathetic, not reactionary”.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, told The Observer on Sunday: “It is crucial that we all remember that we are dealing with human beings here. Across the nation, we have been celebrating the season of hope and goodwill as we remember Christ’s birth — let’s not forget so soon that every person is precious.”

Mr Javid wrote in The Sunday Telegraph this week: “My priorities are clear: to safeguard life and to protect the UK’s borders. I utterly condemn the reckless acts and criminal activity which are endangering life. I and my French counterpart are clear that we must stop it.”

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He suggested that the reasons for the spike in crossings were “complicated, and in many cases — outside of our control”. They included “instability in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa”, and the existence of “organised crime gangs . . . targeting and profiteering from these vulnerable and often desperate people who want to come to the UK”.

Other factors included “changing visa routes” — between August 2017 and last October, the Serbian government granted Iranians access without visas, to boost tourism — and strengthened security, which meant that it was “increasingly difficult for stowaways to illegally enter the UK, leading to more reckless attempts by boat”.

There were “no easy answers”, he said, but he went on to outline co-operation with France to “tackle criminality at our shared border”. This had already led to “the clearance of the Calais camps and a return to order in the area back in 2015”.

The UK was also working in countries of origin, “creating jobs, tackling modern slavery, providing education, and delivering life-saving humanitarian assistance in response to conflicts and natural disasters”.

On Wednesday, the National Crime Agency confirmed that officers had arrested a British national and an Iranian national in Manchester “on suspicion of arranging the illegal movement of migrants across the English Channel into the UK”. 

Conservative MPs have called on the Home Secretary to have more boats patrolling the channel, but he has expressed concern that this could encourage more people to attempt the crossing.

“You don’t deter burglars by leaving your front door open,” the Conservative MP for Dover, Charlie Elphicke, wrote in the Daily Mail on Saturday.

David Wood, a former head of border enforcement for the Home Office, told The Daily Telegraph last week: “The answer is to return them to France as soon as they are picked up. If we did that straight away, they would realise that paying £5000 to the people smugglers would achieve nothing. . .”

Canon Reid called for caution in the discussion of smuggling and human trafficking. They were “not the same thing. . . Whilst still illegal, often those ‘smuggling’ refugees across the border are not part of criminal gangs and organised crime. Many appear to operate independently, helping two or three people at a time.

“Pushing the problem back to France is not the solution. The more difficult it is for those seeking asylum to make the crossing, the more smugglers will thrive. In Calais, migrants are pushed into the hands of smugglers or traffickers because they are so desperate. Entering the UK legally from Calais is almost impossible.”

Many asylum-seekers did not believe that they had a future in France, she said.

“They are not confident asking for asylum in France. They do not feel welcome in Calais. There is a large police presence here. Some report experiences of police aggression. As many as three times a week, their makeshift camps are currently being dismantled and possessions confiscated. There is a perception that the British system is more just. Many have family, friends, and community members in the UK already and understandably want to join them.”

Brother Johannes Maertens, from the Maria Skobtsova Catholic Worker House in Calais, has reported that refugees had said that they would rather risk their lives going to England than stay in France (News, 12 April 2018).

The Church should be “a voice for the vulnerable” and “meet the physical needs and provide pastoral support to those often suffering from trauma and an uncertain future”, Canon Reid said.

The Church could also be a prayerful presence, and “should be seeking justice and peace”, she said. “This inevitably involves asking difficult questions. I believe the Church has a role in shaping the debate by offering a reminder that this current situation is a result of a much larger ‘global crisis’ of war, and conflict and widespread poverty, that need to be addressed.”

Phil Kerton, co-director of the Christian charity Seeking Sanctuary, which continues to support rough-sleepers in northern France since the dismantling of “the Jungle” camp (News, 4 March 2016), said that traffickers were “curiously better trusted by the young adults over there, because they have had such a hard time from officials in their own countries and from police and other officials in France”.

More than half those seeking to cross had family or friends in Britain, “who tell them it is possible to make a decent life here, as indeed it is”. The use of boats, as other routes became impossible, was “a sign of perseverance and innovative skills”, he said. “They could make a useful contribution to British society because of their determination to get here.”

While the “Jungle” had been dismantled, hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers remained in Calais and its environs, he said, and those working to help them reported that the police were waking them throughout the night, seizing sleeping bags and slashing footwear. The Refugee Community Kitchen was still distributing 1200 hot meals a day.

It was a “great disappointment” that more use had not been made of legal routes to family reunion, he said. “Legal, safe routes would stop people from taking these terrible risks in small boats.

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“We really need to treat these people as individuals, as human beings, and not as some sort of plague of insects crawling towards us. The fact that you welcome them and take care of them does not mean you have to let them remain here for ever. But it does mean you treat them as human beings.”

On Friday, Leonard Doyle, of the International Organisation of Migration, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “People say that by saving lives you are creating a pull factor, but we cannot have people drowning simply as an act of policy.

“The primacy has to be save lives and of course to find alternatives: to give people legal channels to migrate if that’s what’s going to happen rather than block it off completely. . . If you offer a legal path then you reduce the impetus for people to go with the smuggler and get into these horrific situations.”

Many of those making the crossing are understood to be Iranian.

Maya Konforti, of L’Auberge des Migrants, a refugee support group in Calais, told the BBC: “Crossing by boat can only be done by people who have some money. Africans don’t have any left by the time they arrive in Calais.

“There is a new influx of Iranians arriving in Calais. They seem to be the only ones who both dare to do it and find the means to do so.”

An Iranian university lecturer told The Times that he would not stop until he made it to Britain or died. His wife and two young children had already been in Britain for two years.

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