‘Unacceptable’ scenes in Calais: whose fault is that, Mr Cameron?

Men in Calais see their chance. EPA/Etienne Laurent

The crisis in Calais is nothing new, even if it takes a strike by ferry workers for the British press to notice it. For years, people hoping to travel to the UK have clustered at the entrance to the Channel tunnel in the hope of stowing away on lorries and trains.

Now they have seen an opportunity in a strike on the French side. Hundreds of people have been pictured climbing into the backed up vehicles in scenes UK prime minister David Cameron has described as “unacceptable”.

But the situation has been unacceptable for some time now, and the British government shoulders no small part of the blame for that. Cameron’s position betrays the exact problem – the British government ignores what is happening in Calais until pressured to respond.

I wrote last September that the status quo and then stand-off should not be allowed to continue. This has clearly not happened and the situation is even worse.

Last September, French riot police stepped up efforts to close illegal camps housing up to 2,000 migrants hoping to enter Britain. French officials estimated that at least 35 migrants succeeded in crossing the Channel every day despite their efforts. About 19,000 illegally attempted to enter the UK from Calais in 2014 alone.

Facing pressure to act, Cameron has said more can, and will, be done. The UK will ensure better security at Calais in cooperation with French authorities. Cameron says he will also continue to make Britain a “less easy place for illegal migrants to come to and work in”. This is hardly a plan for success.

The strike has left vehicles vulnerable. EPA/Etienne Laurent

At the heart of this problem is the fact that the UK blames France. The British government requires immigration checks to take place in Calais and says it is the responsibility of the French authorities to police the camps. Essentially, if the camps are in France, they are a French problem. But tightening border controls and shutting down camps may actually have been making the situation more dangerous by inflaming tensions rather than addressing them.

The UK needs to start working with France instead of turning a blind eye and then huffing and puffing when the tensions flare. The two countries need to agree on a common plan for managing migration and improve access to and from Calais. That may entail compromises on both sides. If the UK wants to conduct migration checks outside its borders, then it should acknowledge the burdens this places on the French authorities and contribute to their resolution.

This is not about letting people in. Nor need it require lessening restrictions, but it does require new thinking about how these restrictions work and the costs imposed on all sides. France should also do more to curb the growth of illegal camps and potential damage to Anglo-French trade because of the continuing Calais crisis.

Cameron’s remarks suggest British immigration policy is driven more by gimmicks than clear thinking. Making it harder to work legally in the open market does not appear to be any deterrent to the many who are desperate enough to risk life and limb crossing the Channel in dangerous conditions. To be deterred, they must know such restrictions exist – and they must be effective, not avoided by entering work through the black market.

It’s time there was greater engagement with the French authorities about how the Calais crisis might be ended to the satisfaction of both parties. These ugly scenes are not helpful for either.

It is possible to end this crisis. But vague assurances about cooperation without substance and micro-policies that might only encourage illegal migrants to engage in illegal work is not the way forward.