The French newspapers of late have reported clashes in Calais between different nationalities of ‘refugees’ camping there, preparatory to illegal entry into Britain. The French offer them advice as to how to claim asylum in France, but they are not interested in doing so. They want to get to England, their ‘promised land,’ according to the newspapers.
According to my admittedly limited understanding of international law, this makes them not refugees but migrants. Refugees have the right to refugee status only in the first country that can and will offer them safe haven, and by the time they have reached Calais, the ‘refugees’ have passed through several such countries. When my grandparents were refugees, real refugees, they went to China, not from choice but because China was the only country that would have them: and they were glad enough to go.
But it is flattering, in a way, that England should be regarded as a ‘promised land’ for this mixture of Sudanese, Eritrean and Yemenis. The question is why.
I do not think it can be because of more generous social provisions in England, better schools or hospitals than elsewhere. Our schools and hospitals are not better than elsewhere: I think rather the reverse. Nor are we more generous with monetary subventions.
I think there are two main reasons. The first is the English language. Many of the refugees will have some knowledge of it already, and some will be fluent in it; those who don’t speak it will be more eager to learn it than a less global language. Mastery of English opens vistas beyond the capacity of all other languages.
The second reason is the relatively liberal labour laws of Britain, which make it easier to find work there. The migrants in Calais are overwhelmingly young men – not surprisingly, because their passage to Europe has often been a rough one – and they are eager to work. There will be no work in the rest of Europe for them, thanks to protective labour laws. If they reach England and claim refugee-status, however, they will specifically forbidden from seeking work, though the more spirited among them will ignore the prohibition.
Their eagerness to work (borne out by my experience of such young male ‘refugees’ does not mean that they will be an asset to the country, especially if they can subsequently claim the right to family reunification. The latter has had disastrous effects everywhere it has been granted.