A Way Out of the Calais Jungle

There's only so much police can do.

Photographer: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

European leaders tend to have one of two responses to undocumented migrants: disdain or indifference. Neither attitude is helpful, as the grim crisis on the French side of the Chunnel makes clear, and both are unrealistic. Europe can do better.

As long as war, famine and corruption exist, people will try to escape them. For many of the Sudanese, Afghans, Syrians and others gathered in the Calais "jungle," even the most heavy-handed French gendarme is preferable to the (often torturous) official treatment they would face at home. Occasionally, a single instance of suffering will spotlight the common plight, as happened Wednesday when a young Sudanese migrant was crushed and killed by a truck.

The nightly attempts at Calais to cross into the U.K. are costly and unsettling, in both economic and human terms. (Calais is Europe's second busiest port for travelers after Dover, and more than 43 million tonnes of freight passed through it last year.) And both the U.K. and French governments have been slow to secure the area. French authorities looked odd accusing Eurotunnel -- which has spent 13 million euros in the first six months of this year on security patrols, CCTV, motion detectors and so on -- of not throwing enough resources at the problem. Britain, until recently, acted as if the problem was one for French security and mainly sent money.

Calls for British police help sound sensible, though simply trashing the camps and beating back those who attempt to get through will not be enough. Together, French and British authorities will have to work out how to secure the port and deal humanely but effectively with those camped there.

Beyond that, both countries will have to find new ways to build a consensus that is both public-spirited and self-interested. Using language that perpetuates stereotypes and feeds a sense of fear -- as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron did when he referred to African migrants as "a swarm" -- does not help.

Besides which -- in numerical terms as much as human ones -- it's inaccurate. Compared with the overall migrant population in Europe, the migrants in Calais are hardly a swarm. There are some 3,000 there, many camped under tarpaulins in muddy fields: a fraction of the 40,000 asylum seekers in Greece and Italy that the EU is trying to move to elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, the idea that Britain faces a torrent of migrants doesn't square with the numbers. Britain is currently seventh among recipients of first-time asylum seekers in Europe, with only 4 percent of the European Union's total applicants (compared with 39.6 percent for Germany). France has slightly more, at 8 percent.

QuickTake Political Asylum

Sweden, in contrast, takes in the most number of refugees per capita in the EU. While not without its detractors, the policy seems to have broad support. One Swedish county announced this week it is offering free bus passes to asylum seekers to help them venture out and integrate with society. The U.K. is not Sweden, of course -- as Swedes and Brits alike will attest -- but its experience shows at least the possibility that a more humane approach can also be popular.

There are no easy solutions to the individual stories of tragedy that led thousands to brave squalid conditions and extreme danger in Calais. But people, like goods and capital, seek safe harbor and opportunity regardless of international borders. It is the role of government not just to police borders but to manage public expectations.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.