Calais migrants are not invading: they’re just a small part of a global refugee crisis

A tiny part of a much bigger picture. Yoan Valat/EPA

Much of the media coverage and political rhetoric of recent weeks has implied that the UK is undergoing an uncontrollable invasion by migrants attempting to jump on moving lorries in Calais.

To put this “crisis” in some perspective, it is useful to consider where most of residents of the “new jungle” at Calais come from and how they reached continental Europe. Many of the inhabitants of the new migrant camp in Calais are survivors of those dangerous Mediterranean boat journeys that until a few weeks ago seemed so distant from Dover.

They come mostly from countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq devastated by years of civil war, repressive and dictatorial regimes, with no future to offer for their youth. This growing mobility across the Med is not surprising given we are witnessing the most severe refugee crisis since World War II, according to Amnesty International. But these incidents also indicate the scarcity of regular and safer migration routes in the region.

Increased military and humanitarian presence at sea since April this year has meant that the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has been significantly reduced, perhaps evidence that many of those deaths were avoidable if EU political will had been quicker to coalesce. A side effect of this otherwise positive result has been the reduction of public solidarity in the UK, and to different extent across Europe, for boat migrants. There has been a robust return of the “migrant invasion” rhetoric with its corollary of “swamp”, “swarm” and “tidal wave”.

Compare the 500 daily attempts to jump on the back of lorries to the 137,000 migrants who reached Italy and Greece in the first half of 2015, and the numbers are far from huge. It is worth considering that they are often multiple attempts by the same people. While certainly enough to disrupt the Eurotunnel operation – combined with current disruption caused by prolonged strikes by ferry workers in France – these incidents and the surrounding rhetoric of invasion bolstered by journalists’ easy access to Calais should not let us lose sense of the broader picture. Calais is not a local issue. It is one manifestation of the global refugee crisis, but not one of the acutest.

Behind the numbers

Circular and seasonal migrations in the region have a very long history, arguably as old as Western civilisation. However, much of the coverage in recent months has been about the irregular crossings of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach the EU.

Rescued migrants arriving in Palermo, Sicily in July. Mike Palazzotto/EPA

Traditional and social media have certainly played a central role in framing coverage of recent migration, but so have those who provided the figures that validate the invasion talk. One of the main sources is Frontex, the EU Border Agency. Leaving aside the consideration that Frontex resources in many ways depend upon the number of migrants that the agency is able to intercept and count, which may highlight a potential vested interest, there is a more structural point here. The organisation’s budget has rocketed from €6.3m (£4.4m) in 2005, to nearly €42m in 2007, topping €115m by 2015. Frontext figures, often repackaged by other agencies, count migrants that have been intercepted at sea or at land borders.

The more resources and capacities to intercept Frontex has, the more migrants may be intercepted and counted by Frontex. In turn, if there are fewer Frontex officers patrolling a land crossing that means fewer migrants are likely to be intercepted. In other words, while hard to prove unequivocally, it may be at least useful to think that the “invasion” we are told about may be as much the result of the global refugee crisis as of the number of border officers we send to patrol specific stretches of the EU border.

Not ‘typical’ undocumented migrants

The migrants living in the new jungle in Calais are one of the most visible parts of the global refugee crisis. Yet of 625,000 asylum applications in the EU in 2014, 65,000 were lodged in France and 32,000 in the UK. While it can be argued that a country such as Italy is a port of entry and a place of transit, this is less so for France and most people who apply there are likely to wait for the decision of their case in France. It may be obvious for any readers outside the UK, but not all migrants and refugees in France want to come to the UK: taking the views of the minority of migrants who reside in the new jungle as representative of the views and intentions of all asylum seekers and migrants in France is misleading and only stirs public hysteria.

To reassure the British public, new jungle residents contribute only in small part to the undocumented migrants in the UK. My own research shows that only a minority of undocumented migrants in the UK entered the country illegally – for example on the back of a lorry. Most undocumented migrants enter the country legally and overstay their visa. Despite the high profile accorded to Calais migrants, the “typical” undocumented migrant in the UK is more likely to be a white Australian, or a young Brazilian.

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