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Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Calais calamity

For 20 years Calais, France has seen turmoil as thousands of persons have sought to enter the UK. Call those persons migrants, the undocumented, refugees, asylum-seekers, opportunists, or what you will; they keep coming. Most of them begin their journeys in troubled but populous regions of north and east Africa, the Middle East, and southwest Asia. They reach the Schengen Area of Europe by boat across the Mediterranean or on foot into southeastern Europe where border enforcement is leaky. Some migrants are smuggled in for profit. Travel conditions are horrible, but so are living conditions in the areas they flee.

Every European nation accepts some of these persons. As the largest, most central, and wealthiest nation in Europe, Germany takes the highest number. But the presence of migrants in Calais is conspicuous because of their very limited options to cross the English Channel. Even though the UK is the most daunting destination for migrants in terms of logistics, it is an attractive destination because it too is prosperous, 100 years of immigration from former British colonies and dependencies has made the UK multicultural already, and migrants are more likely to know a little English than any German, French, or other language of Europe. They pile up in Calais.

Now there are recriminations between European nations and within European nations about the number of migrants that should be let in, whether the boundary of the Schengen Area should be better patrolled, and whether Schengen should even be dismantled (e.g., border checks reinstated between France and Germany). The EU was already under economic stress, and the migrant situation is intensifying this stress. Meanwhile humanitarian and religious voices call for compassion not closure of borders.

Most Americans don't know how desparate the situation in Calais is, unless they happen to be traveling between the UK and France on holiday by ferry or through the Chunnel and suffer a disruption. Our history with immigration from Mexico and other nations in Latin America and the Caribbean such as Haiti has been diffuse in comparison. Some of the debates are the same, of course, but at present in the US we don't see daily photos of dying or dead people at the Mexican border.

I'm not optimistic about the situation in Calais because I'm not optimistic about the situations in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. If you lived there, you'd want to get the hell out of town too — just like my ancestors were determined to flee Switzerland in the 1730s, even if it meant a perilous voyage to the Royal Colony of South Carolina. Pressure on Europe from migrants won't fall until they can imagine decent lives for themselves in their homelands.