Cllr David Simmonds is Deputy Leader of the London Borough of Hillingdon and Deputy Chairman of the Local Government Association.
It was a baking hot August day when I visited the camp known as the Jungle on the outskirts of Calais. Talking to its residents and the Mayor of Calais was a window into the refugee and migration issues that have been the focus of attention since the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach, dominated the media a year ago. The UK’s history and global interests mean we are a key participant in resolving the crises that mean an estimated 160 million people are on the move around the world. However, while treaties and negotiations take place at the level of national governments, local and regional authorities do the work of supporting people and face the day to day consequences.
The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, is a Conservative elected after 30 years of Communist rule there. We find ourselves as local politicians dealing with the fallout from international events. My involvement in refugee issues started with the unfunded cost of supporting asylum-seeking children to Hillingdon, which has cost local taxpayers in excess of £20 million over the years. In both cases, better working with local authorities could have avoided the problem in the first place.
Councils in the UK took in more than 4,000 unaccompanied children last year, double the previous annual arrival rate. Additionally more than 25,000 refugees came to the UK, plus councils continue to support people whose asylum claim has failed but who remain in the country. Detailed costs are hard to come by for those in a grey area of legal status (grey because although the law bans them from claiming benefits, it obliges councils to support destitute persons).
However, the No Recourse to Public Funds Network (NRPF) estimates, interpreted nationally, suggest that this group alone may need in excess of £100m in council support every year. In addition, there are self-supporting refugees and others who may have gained asylum elsewhere and subsequently moved to the UK. This complex picture explains in part the rapid demographic changes we see, and why councils are determined to influence the way we deal with refugees for the better.
My visit to the Jungle was organised by Safe Passage UK, which helps people who have a valid claim to move to Britain. The camp is no place for a child under any circumstances and it is absolutely right to get them out of there as quickly as possible. This leads into some important policy questions, about the nature of the camp and the role of the UK on another country’s territory.
The Jungle is in reality two camps, the official camp housing around 1,500 people that was built by the French authorities, and the sprawling shanty town and tent city with an estimated 8,500 residents next door. Calais has prioritised children and women with children for residency in the official camp, and with plans to clear the tent city well publicised, the atmosphere is becoming very tense.
For the local authorities the response starts with a very practical one, of how to deal with 8500 people, mostly young men, in a tense and often violent confrontation. The fencing supplied by the UK has helped protect the international terminals, but the practicality of keeping that many people under any form of supervision in the wider environs of the town has clearly overwhelmed the authorities. As the Mayor explained, the contractors simply cannot recruit enough people to do the work.
The second issue is that the reason the camp is there at all is entirely down to criminal enterprise. Traffickers have a ‘rate card’ for their services, starting at €500 for access to a trafficker’s ‘turf’, essentially buying an opportunity to break into a vehicle in a defined area such as a lorry park or railway siding, enforced by beatings of anyone who has not agreed to pay. €10,000 buys a seat in a UK-plated vehicle for as many attempts as are needed to smuggle you in. Most Jungle residents are poor economic migrants and a nightly trip to gain illegal entry to a lorry, caravan or train is the main occupation. It is highly unlikely that they would meet most tests to be allowed to be resident in the UK legally so simply opening the border is not a solution, but the traffickers continue to make a fortune.
The third big question is why this is happening at all in a country like France, which has a welfare state the equal of the UK and laws to protect vulnerable people very similar to our own. The answer is the Dublin protocols, the international agreement which boils down to an obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country.
One young man told me he had been deported from the UK three times, the last after living for seven years in Tooting Broadway. He was planning to smuggle himself back. But each time he came to the attention of UK authorities, the records showed he had been in France, so back he went. This means a powerful incentive for the residents of the jungle not to get on the radar of the French authorities, because if they do and subsequently get into the UK we will send them back. It is not purely a matter of French authorities dragging their feet and reluctant to help. The system encourages the camp’s residents not to seek help, if they want to get to and stay in the UK – which is of course the main reason they are there at all.
This leads to the question of what our response should be. There are some in the Labour Party who argue that the UK should assume responsibility for refugee children across Europe, which may be well meaning but is totally impractical. It is right that our efforts are put to getting the relevant governments to fulfil their obligations which are no different to our own when it comes to unaccompanied children on their territory. Others argue that we should bring them to the UK, but our strict immigration laws mean that this will usually fail the best interests test applied by other states as their parents and family would not be allowed to join them later.
The reason that the local government response to the Syrian resettlement scheme is a success story points to the way forward. All support needs to be funded based on a realistic assessment of the costs involved; it needs to involve councils from the very start in planning as well as executing the programme; and it needs to be voluntary so that areas that take refugees do so knowing they have the capacity and the community goodwill needed.
Councils have to reconcile the views of those who want a completely open door to refugees and migrants with those who would rather send them all back, so getting a balance that is visibly fair and just is vital. I am often asked by the media “how many can we take?” and the truthful answer is, it is elastic depending on the resources available and the goodwill of the British people. In wartime we housed millions in temporary homes and we could do so again – but we can’t put them all on a council housing list and assume the problem will resolve itself.