Monday’s violence in the refugee camps near Calais overshadows the fact that the refugees in the camps should have either found a permanent home in the European Union (EU) years ago or returned to their point of origin. It is right that the French authorities are finally trying to end the nightmare, but clearing the camps must be combined with offering the refugees continued accommodation and, eventually, they need to have a legal and final settlement to their search for a home. It is important to remember that these people are not where they are illegally, they are not criminals and they should not be treated as such.
It is a terrible stain on Europe’s conscience that thousands of refugees have been living in miserable conditions in Calais for 17 years since 1999. There was one attempt to end the scandal when Nicholas Sarkozy in 2002, then Interior Minister, closed off the camp in Sangatte, but the refugees continued to assemble in Calais in the hope of getting into the United Kingdom and finding a better life. Today, the camps hold between 4,000 and 5,500 refugees.
The answer is for the governments of France and the UK to come together and process the refugees. The UK Border Force could set up a processing centre in the camps to find out if the individuals are entitled to live in Britain. If they are, they should be allowed to move in without hindrance as if they were in Britain already. This processing should be done in tandem with the French authorities who also have a duty to either settle the people permanently or return them to where they came from.
None of this should be random or subject to any individual choice of any government official. There is a well-established legal process on how European countries handle refugees and applicants for asylum. Keeping them on the margins of civilised life tends to criminalise them.
Of course, if anyone in the camps is a criminal, that person should be subject to the law. Being a refugee does not give anyone a free pass to smuggle illegal goods, or people, nor to run prostitution rings or extortion rackets.
But neither should the presence of any such criminal in the squalid camps stigmatise the many thousands of other innocent and legal refugees who need to be found a home and end this lingering stain on Europe’s conscience.