Naive politicians created this migrant crisis; we must take radical action to stem the flow.
The chaos in Calais is of mounting concern to the British public, not least in Kent, which has suffered gridlock for weeks, and for the haulage industry whose losses are mounting. Indeed, mass assaults on the terminals in Calais mark a new stage in the immigration debate. Civil order in the Calais region is clearly a matter for the French authorities but they blame us for the weaknesses of our immigration system that make the UK so attractive. As Philippe Mignonet, the deputy mayor of Calais, put it: “Calais is the route, but Britain is the magnet.” He is right. The pressures we now face are the culmination of many years in which the credibility of our immigration system has been allowed to atrophy. Phil Woolas, a former Labour immigration minister, has blamed the Calais crisis on “years of soft-minded liberalism” and “utter naivety” towards immigrants.
That is putting it strongly but it is certainly true that the abolition of exit checks, by the Conservatives in 1994 to EU destinations and by Labour in 1998 to the rest of the world, has meant that for the past 20 years we have had no idea who is still in this country. Labour then quadrupled net migration with no thought as to strengthening enforcement measures in parallel. Even today enforced departures of illegal immigrants total less than 5,000 a year — a trivial number compared with an inflow from outside the EU of some 300,000 legal migrants and eight million visitors last year. This greatly undermines the credibility of the whole immigration system, which depends, of course, on the ability to remove those who no longer have any right to be here.
The migrants in Calais are well aware of this weakness. Those who are genuinely in need of asylum are already in a safe country and are free to make a claim in France. The rest have a clear objective — to get into Britain, find work, probably illegally, and send money home. They know that, even if they are detected, they may well be released a few days later. If not, they can claim asylum and receive accommodation, a small cash allowance and free health care while their cases are being heard — a process that can take many months.
Nowadays half of all asylum claims are made only on discovery. About 40 per cent of all claimants are granted some form of protection (twice the level in France) but only half of those who fail are removed. The upshot is that those who claim asylum, have a 75 per cent chance of staying in Britain, illegally or otherwise. No wonder migrants are so keen to get here in whatever way they can. They believe that, once in Britain, they are most unlikely to be deported; rather, they will have the prospect of a far better life than in their own countries.
As one migrant put it to a Times journalist: “The police have to be lucky every time; we only have to succeed once and we will fulfil our dream.” It is this perception that needs to be changed by radical action that will be felt immediately in the camps around Calais and further back down the chain.
I propose, therefore, that there should be a full search of trucks as they arrive at Dover, and that migrants discovered there (or subsequently at motorway service stations) should be taken to detention centres near by. These centres should be “one stop shops” that consider any asylum claims rapidly and on site; those who fail should be held until they can be removed. If this requires changes in the present law then so be it. Further, our huge aid programme should be used as a carrot and, if necessary, as a stick to achieve return agreements with source countries. Such an approach would need a good deal of man power if lengthy delays at Dover are to be avoided. If the Border Force cannot provide it, the government should certainly not rule out the use of the armed forces in aid of the civil administration. Indeed, ministers should set in hand contingency planning straightaway.
In the longer term, ID cards are essential. It was a terrible mistake by the coalition government to abandon Labour’s plans for their issue. Meanwhile, decisive action is now urgently needed to reverse the widespread perception that Britain is indeed a “soft touch”. This might even permit a more generous response to the needs of very vulnerable Syrians in UN camps.