If there is anything that sums up the UK response to the refugee crisis, it is the building of what has been dubbed the “Great Wall of Calais”.
This structure is more than a physical barrier, it is also an ideological one that aims to stop migrants from congregating near the port of Calais, hoping to get across to the UK. At the time of writing, the migrant camp known as the Jungle is in the process of being broken up, its buildings burned down and its inhabitants dispersed, while the £2 million border reinforcement is constructed like a phoenix in the ashes of migrants’ hopes (1).
This barrier is ideological in that, rather than spending on processing the individuals and allowing those eligible what they are legally entitled to, the decision to spend this vast sum of money on discouraging migrants from staying in Calais shows the very nature of our government’s relationship to those in need: our priority is not the individuals, it is making them someone else’s problem.
Although the UK has now finally accepted that it must take in some vulnerable young migrants, the media response perfectly matches the government’s previous (and current) reluctance to make this a reality. And this is no coincidence. As the right-wing press itself pushed strongly for Brexit and has to an extent goaded the population, UK politicians are aware that, should the masses decide that the Conservative approach is not harsh enough, then they could be out in a few short years, and this despite recently again refusing to reform the electoral system that skews results in its favour. We of course must not forget that hate speech and violence linked to racism and xenophobia have risen dramatically in the time since the referendum, showing how strongly many individuals feel about ‘Brexit values’(2). In an act of ironic self-preservation, the metaphorical survival of the majority government(3) and its public approval ratings are placed above the very tangible survival of the Jungle’s inhabitants, many of whom are unaccompanied minors at the greatest risk of coming to further harm.
But is this surprising? Not in the slightest. I would suggest that playing up to the country’s polarised views is the very least that we can expect. If, as we are led to believe, UK citizens are unwilling to live alongside skilled foreign workers who offer the UK a mutually beneficial relationship, it would be difficult to justify to the public the benefits of taking refugees who cannot immediately offer us tangible rewards. If anything, our step out of the EU was intended to alleviate us of this sort of responsibility. The government now allows itself to be a part of the deconstruction of the Jungle, itself so flawed in its implementation that it has been described as breaching human rights, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child(4).
Years spent in unstable and unsafe conditions, countless childhoods cut short without the education or opportunities to transition to a stable adolescence and adulthood, all so our government could win the race to the bottom. I only hope that the UK government realises the error of its ways in time to protect the most vulnerable from the further destabilisation that the changes in Calais will inevitably bring.
Rensa Gaunt is a student of modern languages and cultures at the University of Cambridge, and is EST Ambassador to England. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.