The free movement of people, we keep being told, is a fundamental principle of the EU. Its definition has been stretched to cover benefits claims, subsidised university places and voting entitlements. But it plainly doesn’t cover the actual free movement of people – at least, not of British people wishing to move freely through Calais.
The migration crisis has been bubbling away for years around the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. Now, though, it is spreading chaos through Kent. It’s not just holidaymakers who are affected. All those who need to use the M20 are suffering. Small businesses across my constituency, especially those which import supplies from the Continent, are losing money. None expects compensation.
Strikes by French transport workers are as much a British summer variable as rain. The present crisis, though, is of a different scale. Hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and the Levant aim to enter Britain through Europe.
It’s worth pausing to ask why they are so desperate to come here rather than Italy or France. After all, a refugee is someone who is trying to get out of a particular country, not into a particular country. For years, anti-cuts campaigners have been telling us what a mean and miserable welfare system we have. Why this determination to leave socialist France for “austerity Britain”?
The explanations are clear enough. Migrants prefer to go to places where they know someone – and, as a result of the massive influx of people under the last Labour government, people from every part of the world have compatriots here. We have a growing economy and plenty of jobs. We have no identity cards, deport few illicit entrants and speak English.
The young men washing up on the shores of Spain and Italy have little intention of staying in those countries, afflicted as they are by the euro crisis. Shakespeare has words for this, as for every, situation: “And then to Calais; and to England then: where ne’er from France arrived more happy men”.
If the migrants are happy, the people of Calais are not. They complain of rising crime and disruption and, in an unfocused but intense way, they blame the British. Their mayor recently suggested that the whole crisis had somehow been got up by David Cameron.
Seriously? A sans-papier enters France unimpeded, travels from the Italian border to Calais without once being detained, and is allowed to roam about near that city without arrest. How is this Britain’s fault?
In truth, the fault here lies with the EU’s rules on immigration, which have not only created a border-free-zone across the Continent, but which make it impossible to return sea-borne migrants to their ports of origin. Under the current rules, if you are picked up by an Italian vessel a hundred yards outside Libyan territorial waters, you must be landed in Italy. Understandably, hundreds of thousands of people are tempted into such journeys, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Australia faced a similar challenge of sea-borne migration, and solved it by processing all refugee claims offshore. Since that change of policy, there has not been a single death by drowning.
At this stage, all sorts of people like to signal their virtue by saying that offshore processing would be far too harsh and that we’re dealing with human beings (as if anyone disputed it). But consider the logic of what they’re saying. Once we start allowing the Mediterranean migrants to remain in Europe, we contract out our immigration policy to people smugglers. Instead of giving places to those who have applied properly, or to those judged to be genuine refugees, we allow gangsters in Tripoli to determine who gets to jump the queue – assuming they survive the journey.
No one denies that there are individual tragedies. Next month, I’ll be working with a team of Centre-Right MPs from around Europe in some of the camps in Sicily where the boat people are housed on their arrival. If you’d like to help, there are plenty of charities operating there and, indeed, in the countries of origin. There are things we can do, both to ease the plight of those who have already made the crossing and to stabilise some of the places from which they are fleeing. But the single most helpful thing is to stop holding out the prospect of entering Britain. As long as people hope to make it across the English Channel, the horrors in the Mediterranean will continue.