Calais: Statistics and facts matter. So do people.

Unguided PhilosophyUnguided PhilosophyMonday, 3 August 2015 – 

I will start by clearly defining the parameters of this post: This post is regarding asylum seekers, and specifically the events that are unfolding in Calais, it is not about economic migrants, it is about people who have migrated because they feel they have no other option.

Statistics and facts matter. So do people.

The Huffington Post published a brilliant article at the end of last month by Robin Lustig titled “Is It Time for Some Facts about Those Migrants?” (You can read it here). In it Mr. Lustig attempts to dispel some of the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric through a very simple tactic: the use of facts. This can be shocking to those who wish to postulate based solely on some populist rhetoric based in the fear of Britain no longer being Great. In this post I want to provide a brief overview of the arguments presented in the article as well as expand on them to include the reasons why much of the reasoning we hear to why we shouldn’t help others is dangerous and based in a false notion of us and them. 
Facts, Figures and Facing the Truth
The following points provide a run-down of the major facts presented in Mr. Lustig’s article:
  1. Not all migrants want to enter the UK: Sweden and Germany are the main recipient countries, based on processed asylum applications. Those currently at Calais (which is cited as being no more than 3,000) represent a small fraction of the 175,000 asylum seekers that have entered the EU thus far this year (the source is not actively cited but the assumption is that this represents the total number of official and processed applications).
  2. Mr. Lustig claims that there isn’t an all-time high in the number of applications using data from 1992, a time when there were only 15 EU member states, as proof. Although Mr. Lustig claims it is not an all time (i.e. historic) high, in comparison to 2004, 2014 saw more than twice the number of applications processed by the UK (Source: here).
  3. The UK’s peak number of applications was in 2002 with 84,132, last year there were only 25,020 processed applications.
  4. There is little to no way of telling where many of the migrants have come from due to their lack of documentation. However, it is estimated that one-fifth are Syrian. Syria’s neighbours are carrying the full brunt with 2.2 million registered refugees located in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, as well as another 1.7 million in Turkey (source: here). Remember, there are currently approximately 3,000 waiting in Calais.
  5. The other main countries of origin of recent processed applications in the UK are Afghanistan, Kosovo and Eritrea.
  6. The number of applications processed by Italy and Hungary doubled last year (this is in response to the “Why don’t they apply for asylum in the first country they reach?” argument, and demonstrates the strain on these two countries from the increased number of migrants that have crossed the Mediterranean and entered the EU from Turkey, respectively).
  7. Non-EU migrants aren’t entitled to welfare in the “initial years” after arriving in the UK, and asylum-seekers aren’t entitled to welfare whilst their claims are pending (Source: here).
The statistics used dispel much of the belief that the UK does so much internationally and that there is an open door policy where migrants come to the UK and drain resources that should be for deserving Brits. The points are important, and they should be learnt by anyone who wishes to debate either for or against migration. However, there is something more sinister than the presentation of fact based arguments: the way we discuss those who have been displaced.
Not Quite on the Mark…
David Cameron, the leading politician of our nation, a representative of the United Kingdom on the world stage, and a man with the mandate to rule those great islands, recently referred to the migrants at Calais as a “swarm“. Something that he has been rightly criticised for due to its dehumanising connotations. I intend to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt on this and assume it wasn’t intended to be derogatory, but, discussing those who are attempting to enter the UK as a ‘swarm’, nefarious intentions aside, is counterproductive to a real understanding of the situation. This lack of understanding is not only because history has taught us that when political language describes places a group of people as different to the major demographics (‘othering’) tensions have the possibility to rise to terrifying and catastrophic levels.
The use of swarm is just one representation of why the continued language use surrounding asylum, and migration in general, is worrying.
A swarm can be defined as:
  1. A large number of insects or other small organisms, especially when in motion.
  2. A group of bees, social wasps, or ants, when migrating with a queen to establish a new colony.
  3. An aggregation of persons or animals, especially when in turmoil or moving in mass: A swarm of friends congratulated him.
  4. A number of similar geologic phenomena or features occurring closely within a given period or place: a swarm of earthquakes. (
The second and fourth definitions are very specific, and natural occurrences, there is nothing natural about people fleeing for their lives in the 21st Century and unless Cameron is an avid entomologist or geologist, reasonable doubt dictates that he wasn’t aware of these definitions. The first and third are far more likely to be the intended meaning just by way of popular usage. However, if we give Cameron the benefit of the doubt (not something those of a certain political persuasion do too often) and assume that he wasn’t referring to a group of individual humans with individual needs, minds, knowledge and consciousness in the same terms as “insects or other small organisms” then we are left with the third definition: “an aggregation of persons or animals”. Taking this definition also removes the assumption that Cameron was attempting to be nefarious.

If describing those in Calais as an aggregation was the intended meaning (and much leniency has been given to argue it was), then it doesn’t appear too nefarious on the surface, the migrants waiting in Calais have become a group, in numerical terms, of people who due to some turmoil are moving, it is the in a mass part of the definition, where the term becomes dangerous.

What is the collective noun of a group of migrants? It certainly isn’t a swarm
The idea that the migrants in Calais are moving in a mass inherently assumes that they are moving as one. This assumption removes the individual stories of those in the group, the personal reasons for wanting (although could it ever be argued that anyone would want to start such an undertaking?!) to migrate, every horror seen, and the pain of every tragedy experienced of those in the collective. Lustig touches on this when he writes:
 …[those migrants at Calais include] a huge mix of nationalities, most of whom have a particular reason for wanting to get to the UK: they may have relatives or friends who are already here, they may be English-speakers who believe they’re more likely to find work here, or they may have heard that there’s already a substantial number of others from their home country who have already settled here.
Using a collective noun of any sort for those currently situated in Calais also presents a very clear way in which many in the UK see migrants of all types. From those of an anti-EU persuasion it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the number of Eastern Europeans “taking our jobs” which threatens the personal development of those born within our isles, or to see Islamaphobes (here’s looking at you Britain First and the EDL) stating in a matter of fact way that Muslims wish to introduce Sharia Law and do away with centuries of British law making, or experience wide exclamations that homosexual marriage will threaten the sanctity of heterosexual ones… or *insert any group of people and a non-factual perceived threat to you the majority to incite fear and hatred*.
Prejudice and the politics of fear in today’s world is built on two central pillars: Firstly, you have to be afraid, if you are not afraid then you can’t be angry at people you are meant to dislike; and secondly, there must be the hetereogenisation of those you are meant to be afraid of. We must believe that all of those people who fall into the group of the ‘other’ due to a singular defining characteristic must be the same because they all share that characteristic. This characteristic can be nationality, religion, sexual orientation, race, eye colour or level of education, even political persuasion. It doesn’t matter what, but it must not be dominant in society. By grouping everyone who share that singular characteristic together, you can fear them as a collective and remove the individual from the equation.
Right now, that characteristic is that these people all happen to be in Calais and seeking asylum seekers at the same time. The fear is that they will flood the UK and native Brits will be negatively impacted.

Lustig does not go far enough in dispelling this collectivism, he does not go far enough in dividing the collective into the sum of its parts, despite the efforts as quoted above. Lustig provides a handful of reasons to why 3,000 people want to get into the UK, but not why people are individually migrating in the first place. If we want to remove this herding mentality that is often perpetuated (Daily Mail I’m now looking at you) then we first need to understand why people are in that position, who would choose to risk life and limb for a new life. I would start by asking a simple question that is anything but simple: “What would you have to be fleeing from to leave your friends, family, possessions, and livelihood behind to embark on a journey where the destination is death at worst and social exclusion at best?”

The reason that answering this question is important is because there is no answer that can be provided that won’t involve necessity; humans are inherently rational when it comes to self-preservation. Walter Bradford Cannon wrote about the fight or flight response in 1932, this is still accepted as the basis of our survival instinct. When the conditions in your home country are so severe thatflight is your only option. When the rational survival tactic is to flee and fleeing includes taking a journey that may include rickety boats across the Mediterranean, attempting to beat a high speed train beneath the English Channel, climbing upon the underneath of a lorry, travelling for days, weeks, and even months (years also aren’t unreasonable) without the security of knowing you will receive food, drink or shelter during the trip or at your final destination, can there be doubt that necessity wasn’t involved?
Once we understand the necessity of people’s actions, we can begin to humanise.
Much of this negative type of discourse surrounding migrants and asylum seekers, not only in the UK but elsewhere in Europe as evidenced by the number of “anti-everyone else” (Geert Wilders of the Dutch PVV, here’s a shout out to a person of whom the BBC asked whether or not he was Europe’s Most Dangerous Man) nationalist parties and those employing right wing populist politics coming to the fore, depends on those migrating being spoken about in generic statements and mass groupings. At a rational level this ignores a myriad of ethnic, cultural, national, religious, political and social histories and characteristics furthermore, it (where or not people are aware of this) is situated in the belief that their humanity is not of the individual, instead it is the humanity of us and of them. A humanity based on where we/they were born.
Why should we help them?
If you (although I would strongly recommend not to) read the comments section on any newspaper article remotely surrounding the topic of any form of migration it is easy to see the same arguments repeated over, and over, with the only difference between the person saying them and the reason they believe this to be true. These arguments can feel like a mantra based upon a lack of compassion, justified with an unfair rationale.

I would like to address the mantras and, with the individual in mind, counter them.

  • Why should the UK take these people in, why don’t they find asylum in the first country they arrive in? Lustig addresses this, as had already been pointed out above, but I believe it is a point that should be expanded upon. If you were to land in a foreign country and know there was no life for you there (having already risked your life, left everything behind) but you knew that a community was already established elsewhere, somewhere that you could find support and charity. Would you not to end up there? If your desired final destination could provide you with some security would that not justify the last leg of that journey? Language is also a factor, how many people go to a foreign country on holiday and don’t bother to learn the most basic of phrases in that country’s language? With regards to those in Calais, a safe country has been reached, it may not be where individuals want to start their life, for many may not speak French, take those from Eritrea where English is an official language, for them it may be worth the final risk to ensure that are able to start their life again.  I see this even as an immigrant myself, although where I live, I am an ‘expat’. Many ‘expats’ want to live in ‘expat’ communities, they want their children to go to school where they can speak English rather than the national language, they want the security that there are already people likethem in that neighbourhood, because those people will offer support, they will offer guidance, and they will offer their own experiences of how to function in the new surroundings. Should the asylum claims of those individuals in Calais be reasonable then shouldn’t the UK carry the weight of this international crises? (Let’s also not forget the UK’s role in creating the administration of Eritrea). The people who state that the first safe land should be the final destination are correct, those migrants are now safe. However, safety alone cannot rebuild a life. Furthermore, the spill overs of those neighbouring countries will cause further problems. The burden of this emergency then it carried by those whose man made borders, especially in a part of the world that was carved up by Europeans, happen to be in relative geographic proximity, regardless of their capability to care for and provide refuge. Italy’s Mezzogiorno region is one of the poorest in Europe with high unemployment and crime rates, but yet many would argue that it was the first safe geographic location that asylum seekers arrived in and thus they should stay there.
  • The UK has enough people living under the poverty line, and starving we should help them first! True, there is social injustice in the UK, however, there is also a social welfare system in the UK that no matter how difficult a life people lead, they should have access to (but then again people continue to vote for austerity). The British system needs to be changed, social inequality needs to be eradicated. However, using the pot-luck of where you were born to claim that those born within a nation’s (most arbitrary, an Island Nation is of course slightly different) borders are more deserving that those born elsewhere is a worrying mentality. Furthermore, stating that those who need help don’t deserve it because others also need it is reductive, and if the criteria for who to help is based on where that person was born, then it isn’t too long before the echoes of racism, xenophobia and prejudice can be heard. Helping those who need it, regardless of nationality, requires an understanding that needs are inherent to all (human rights, anyone?), and to a large degree supporting everyone who needs it will require a political shift that goes beyond the topic of this blog post. If the second largest economy in the EU, after Germany (Source), can’t afford to look after its own people and a small percentage of individual asylum seekers per year, then there is something seriously flawed with the country. The estimated 3,000 people currently at Calais would represent only 1.7% of the total number of asylum applications processed to date this year by the EU.
  • Any argument that follows the lines of tax contributions, obtaining free healthcare or stretched resources: Until asylum claims are decided, asylum seekers are unable to work in the UK. Thus, until their claim is determined and asylum is granted, they are unable to contribute to society. This can take months. Free healthcare is available, but isn’t that why we have the NHS? So that those who need healthcare can obtain it without fear of financial instability. Once asylum claims are decided, and if there is a positive outcome of that application, then there is no evidence that those who obtain asylum do not contribute to the British economy any less than their native counterparts (Source: City of Sanctuary). 
What can we do?
Lustig closes his article with the following:
Do I have the answer to the global migration crisis? No, but here are some suggestions that might help: set up proper, EU-run processing centres at the main entry points: southern Italy, Greece, Hungary. Genuine refugees should be offered asylum according to an agreed quota calculated according to population and GDP. Those deemed non-eligible for asylum would be offered a choice: wait in a camp until your number comes up, and then go where you’re sent — or go home.
The tragedy is that so many people are so desperate that they’re prepared to die in an attempt to find a safe place to live. And our response is so blinkered that all we can think of is building higher fences.
I agree with these conclusions. But again it does not go far enough.
Changing public discourse around migration is key. We need to stop discussing total numbers, economic contribution, and move to create an understanding that the problem is not waves or swarms of people wanting to come into the UK, but individuals seeking sanctuary away from social unrest, war, and persecution. Individual cases need to be heard, no country can take in each and every displaced person. That would be a socialist dream but a logistical nightmare. Instead countries need to understand that their role in the global community. It is a community of ever increasing linkages and providing asylum or refuge should become another.
Instilling fair and equal quotas between countries will allow the most desperate cases to be dealt with first and ensure that all countries that gain so positively through international trade, migrant labour and advancements in globalisation also give back. The quotas and the requirements need to be set internationally at the EU level. This is not to take sovereignty away from individual countries but to ensure that each case it dealt with in the same manner and human rights are placed as priority number 1.
It may seem counter-intuitive to the general tone of this post to say that each case needs to be assessed for some form of worth, but there is no way that everyone can be assisted in one go. Even those of us on the political left need to be pragmatic and rational about the undertaking at hand. Proper facilities to care for those migrants need to be created, each person may be an individual, but there are basic human rights that we all need. These facilities should be placed at the main points of entry. Here those arrivals registered and their application for asylum can be submitted. At this point a preference can be given to where the preferred destination country can be provided and applications can be assessed on linguistic ability, familial linkages and established communities and support networks. This will help with ensuring integration into the new society and ensure that lives are rebuilt. These facilities and their administrative as well as the humanitarian capabilities will then ensure that the processing of applications is effective and more efficient whilst ensuring that those with an alternative final destination do not continue to risk their lives through dangerous modes of travel to get there. Individuals are then considered. The budget for these activities should not be funded solely by the nation where the point of entry happens to fall, but the EU as a whole. Economically, the EU is the largest economic block in the world (Source). The creation of facilities for those who have arrived, must also be complemented by increased and continuous efforts to stop people from exploiting others by taking them on dangerous journeys, such as those tragedies seen in the Mediterranean in the recent months. How you help those who genuinely have a right to asylum but are not yet in transit however is for a greater mind than mine.
To conclude, by adopting a public discourse where we discuss those in Calais (and other parts of the world) as individuals we can humanise those people. By understanding that those people are individuals we can stop seeing the tragedy that is unfolding in Calais as an inconvenience but as a desperate cry for help. Help that is clearly desperately needed, because I ask again, “What would you have to be fleeing from to leave your friends, family, possessions, and livelihood behind to embark on a journey where the destination is death at worst and social exclusion at best?”