2015 ends with the news that one million migrants have come to Europe over the past 12 months. Germany and Sweden in particular are making a monumental effort to cope with huge numbers of arrivals. But closer to home there is a refugee story at risk of being forgotten.
Just across the English Channel in Calais, in the camp known as the Jungle, several thousand people live in tents in the mud. In terms of Europe’s overall refugee issue it is a small number, but the humanitarian issue is very real as is the challenge of how to deal with the situation.
On a private visit with Tessa Jowell just before Christmas I talked to a number of refugees from Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some fled war. Some fled lawlessness. Some fled Daesh and all who mentioned that organisation made the throat slitting gesture with their finger. Their stories made it graphically clear what they were running from.
The Jungle is supported by a group of committed mainly British volunteers, organised more through Facebook and informal networks than large national or international charities. Some stay for months. Others come at weekends, making the short trip across the Channel. They give their time, energy and commitment sorting through donated clothes, cooking food, providing tents and shelter and doing everything they can to try to make life in the camp bearable.
The camp itself is a mixture of misery and hope. The conditions are appalling. Little water or shelter, poor sanitation, mud everywhere. This is no place for families to be living. Yet there is also evidence of the strength of the human spirit. Shops have emerged in flimsy canvass structures. You can buy a lunch of tea, rice and beans for a few Euros. A makeshift church has been built, another in the process. Several mosques too.
We cannot simply ignore a camp of several thousand people perched on the French coast. Alongside the immediate humanitarian need lies the longer term question of what to do about the existence of the camp and the immigration status of those living in it. Many there want to come to the UK but our immigration system cannot operate simply on the basis of desire or the ability to get to Calais. There have to be rules, properly applied, to distinguish between those who may have a claim to come to the UK and those who do not. So how are the claims to be processed and decided?
For example, we met one man from Iraq who told us he had worked helping the British Army to spot roadside mines and bombs, putting his family’s life at risk in the process. He was desperate to tell his story to military sources in the UK. If his story is true, most people would agree that people in his position, or who have served as interpreters for our armed forces and who find themselves in danger because of this work have a strong claim to seek refuge in the UK.
We also met a number of refugees who said they had family links in the UK, including spouses and children. It is important that these claims are tested and verified.
Others will not have a valid claim but here too it is important for a quick verdict to be reached. My experience as a constituency MP dealing with many immigration and asylum claims over the years is that it is not in the interests of either taxpayers or asylum claimants for people to be left in limbo for a long time. Speedy resolution of claims one way or the other is best for everyone. If people do not have a valid claim to come to the UK they should be told that as soon as practicable.
One feature of the situation is the close co-operation between British and French authorities. We need more of this. The Jungle camp may be in Calais but it affects both our countries. By definition, today’s refugee issues do not fit neatly into national borders. Retreat within ourselves may be tempting for some but like most big issues of today, the leadership task calls for more co-operation and more co-ordination, not less. The camp at Calais cannot simply be a problem no one wants to own.