26 October 2016

The Calais Jungle exposes our myths about refugees


The response of much of the Western media to the demolition of the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais has been a symphony of sympathy.

There have been heart-tugging pieces about the desperate refugees who were forced to accept this pallid substitute for a home, and have now lost even that. There have been stories of children, bewildered and alone, queuing for the chance of an uncertain future in the UK. And, underneath it all, the discordant notes of Trump-style suspicion at the idea of these child migrants turning out to be terrorists-in-training.

The problem is that this coverage gives us a drastically distorted view of refugees, for a host of reasons.

Most refugees aren’t trying to reach Britain – they’re trying to reach safety

It’s flattering to think of the Jungle as proof that Britain is the promised land, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But as Heaven Crawley points out on The Conversation, the numbers in the Jungle were just 0.07 per cent of those seeking sanctuary in Europe. Research showed that most of the refugees, while obviously eager to work, had been fleeing persecution rather than seeking better lives. Also, only a tiny proportion of the refugees polled had a particular country in mind.

Most refugees aren’t in the West (yet)

As the United Nations says, there are now 43 million displaced people around the world – the highest level since the mid-1990s. But as they also say, four fifths of those people are in the developing world, in countries which are worst placed to cope.

This is why Britain’s response to the Syrian migrant crisis, though castigated as heartless, was actually most sensible – sending aid and support to those in the camps bordering Syria itself, both to support the individuals fleeing from the crisis and to bolster the countries hosting them, which were (as I wrote for CapX at the time) on the verge of becoming overwhelmed.

Most refugees aren’t in camps

As the UN also points out, the majority of refugees (roughly 60 per cent) aren’t gathered together under canvas, but living in towns and cities. While it has its own problems, it is a better option than tents because it enables the refugees to take advantage of pre-existing infrastructure and public services – and to become part of their host countries’ economies rather than remaining apart.

Most refugees aren’t going anywhere

We tend to think of the refugee problem as a crisis of mobility. But actually, it’s a crisis of stasis.

Recently, I reviewed a deeply moving book called City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence, based on his experiences in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. The Somalis there, who had fled al-Shabaab and other warlords, weren’t in danger – except when the militants briefly brought their war to the camp. They were just trapped: a whole generation that had everything the United Nations could offer, except hope.

A few made it through the resettlement lottery; others became a (precarious) part of Kenya’s black economy; still others joined up with the warlords, or made the long and hazardous trip north to Europe. But most just stayed.

Most refugee camps aren’t temporary

About two thirds of all refugees have been away from home for more than five years. Many, including millions of Palestinians (statistically the world’s largest refugee population), have lived their entire lives there.

That means that the camps which house them are permanent too: places with histories and feuds and increasingly complex economies and ecologies. In many cases – even most – these are walled away from the formal economy: in Kenya, all formal occupations are reserved for Kenyans, with Somali refugees a despised underclass.

Inside Dadaab itself, the economy revolves around the UN ration of rice and wheat flour. Inexorably, the camp had become enmeshed into the economy of the region, its trade routes and sugar smuggling networks. But none of it was on the books.

Most refugees aren’t helpless

When we hear about refugees, they’re mostly depicted as passive, pitiful creatures, living somewhere outside the borders of civilised society – just think of that word “Jungle”, or the way that “squalor” and “squalid” crop up again and again in the recent coverage, as if to reinforce the sense that this is a place without order as well as without hope.

In fact, places like the Calais Jungle – with its “makeshift shops” – and Dadaab are an object lesson in how people, whoever they are and wherever they end up, want to control their own lives, and to improve them. The latter started out as a set of tents perched on barren land surrounded by thorns; inexorably, it grew into an actual community.

But there’s a limit to what people can do when they’re deprived of resources, capital and services, and subject to the whims of those above them: that as why, as Paul Collier pointed out in the Spectator, so many of those in the camps choose penury and freedom in the cities rather than a comfortable but meaningless life on the UN’s dole.

The most humane and economically sensible solution would be to allow the refugees to integrate with the economies around them – but that is often anathema to the authorities, because it is considered tantamount to granting asylum (as well as acting as a pull factor to entice more people to come).

If we are to have any hope of solving the refugee crisis in the medium term, and of ameliorating the suffering of those who are displaced, we need to square this circle.

Collier’s suggestion is to put the refugees not in camps, but industrial or enterprise zones: still cordoned off from the rest of society, but behind barriers that are economically permeable. The idea would be for the refugees to create businesses amid derelict industrial areas, which could then be transferred to their homelands or perhaps absorbed into the host economy. Because ultimately, what refugees crave most isn’t handouts, or even visas. It’s a future.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX.