On​ 23 May, the day after he called a general election, Rishi Sunak said in a radio interview that his government’s flagship Rwanda deportation scheme will only go ahead if the Tories are re-elected on 4 July. This admission came as a surprise: many had assumed that part of the rationale for calling an early election was to get a campaign boost as the flights got underway. For anyone basing their vote on a concern about illegal immigration, Sunak said, ‘the choice here is clear.’

In February, as the Rwanda bill was struggling through the House of Lords, I was volunteering with a British refugee charity in Calais. One of the people I met, Ibrahim, had been sleeping rough for two months. He was from Sudan and spoke a bit of English, enough to tell me that he had trained as a barber in Darfur, that he had left shortly before the outbreak of civil war in April 2023 and that it had taken him the best part of a year to reach France. Life in Calais was terrible, he said, but when he made it to London things would get better. I tried to explain that the British government was trying to make it even more difficult for him to reach safety. Ibrahim looked confused, then took out his phone. Its background was a Union Jack. He opened Google Translate, spoke a few words into the microphone, and showed me the result. ‘London,’ it read, ‘is the only important thing.’

The Calais jungle – a shanty town comprising living quarters, places of worship, shops, bars and restaurants – was home to more than eight thousand people at its peak. It was razed with much fanfare in 2016, but despite the claims of the French and British governments, the jungle wasn’t destroyed but dispersed. Refugees continue to use the term to refer to the makeshift settlements dotted along the coast. The individual camps tend to be divided along national lines: the Sudanese jungle, the Eritrean jungle, the Afghan jungle. If you spend any time there, you pick up some slang, largely derived from Arabic. A veteran of the jungle is known as a ‘machina’ (‘Because we try to get the boats, which are machines,’ someone told me), while a newcomer might be called a ‘satrak’ (perhaps from the Arabic satara, ‘to cover or hide’).

After the demolition of the original site, the French government introduced a ‘zéro point de fixation’ policy, which requires police to uproot known camps within 48 hours. Sometimes the raids are rationalised on spurious hygiene-related grounds – the local council has repeatedly refused to provide refugee camps with adequate waste disposal facilities – but most of the time they are carried out without explanation, in the early hours of the morning. The policy, which is designed above all to intimidate and inconvenience, often results in absurd scenes: a huddle of teenage boys, flanked by a convoy of ten or more police vans, will drag their tents a few metres down the road, wait for the police to leave and then drag everything back again. During full-scale evictions, which happen every month or so, police will seize and destroy belongings, slash tents and smash mobile phones. Refugees are sometimes forced onto buses and driven away from the coast – to Lille, Paris, Marseille, or as far as the Italian border. Over the past eight years there have been hundreds of reports of unlawful violence: tear gas, dog attacks, beatings. Each time there is an eviction, NGOs distribute emergency equipment and provisions, an arrangement accepted by France and the UK, and to some degree integrated into the French policing model. Neither government wants the bad publicity associated with refugees starving or freezing to death at the border. They just want to force them to go somewhere else.

Policing the border is expensive. In 2019, the UK contributed £1.7 million to the French border force; in 2023, it was £17.4 million, or around 10 per cent of the force’s total budget. The increased funding, approved by Theresa May’s government in 2018, has been used to buy helicopters, quad bikes, a horse brigade, drones, hunting cameras and other surveillance gear. Life in the jungle has become even more hellish, but it’s not clear that anyone has been deterred from coming to Calais. Figures released at the start of January showed that crossings in 2023 were down by a third on the previous year, which the government claimed was ‘testament to the tough measures we have introduced’. But the British border force only records successful crossings. Poor weather last year meant there were fewer attempts and those that launched were less likely to succeed.

When five people, including a seven-year-old girl, were killed on an overcrowded dinghy in April, Sunak said that the incident was a ‘reminder’ of why the Rwanda scheme is ‘so important’. ‘There’s a certain element of compassion about everything that we’re doing,’ he claimed. As the election gets closer, the government is likely to continue to adjust its rhetoric from blaming refugees to blaming people smugglers, in the hope of courting both the stridently anti-immigration Tory base and any moderates who might have been put off by the chaos of the Rwanda plan. Labour is pursuing a similar line: Keir Starmer has pledged to scrap the Rwanda plan and to divert £75 million to a new ‘anti-smuggling force’, which will have the surveillance and seizure powers usually allotted to counter-terrorism units. The aim is clearly to shift the police focus from asylum seekers to smugglers. But who will count as a ‘smuggler’? Refugees themselves are being forced to crew the boats. The economic advantages to the gangs are obvious. A professional smuggler will expect to be paid around £2000 for a Channel crossing; a refugee can pay for their journey by agreeing to steer the boat. As improvements in thermal sensor technology make it more difficult for people to stow away on lorries – once the preferred option for those who couldn’t afford the sea crossing – the poorest refugees, usually young Africans, have little choice: risk being indicted for smuggling (or worse) or remain stranded in Calais. Earlier this year, Ibrahima Bah, a young refugee from Senegal, was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison for gross negligence manslaughter after piloting a boat whose collapse led to the deaths of at least four people.* A 17-year-old I met in Calais, who left South Sudan alone three years ago and has been trying to reach the UK ever since, told me that his best option was to pilot a boat; his next best option, he said, was to try to claim asylum in Russia, which seemed preferable to France.

As NGOs and human rights organisations have pointed out for years, there is only one way to end the criminality and danger associated with illegal crossings: to establish safe and legal routes for those fleeing conflict to claim asylum in the UK. Currently, to apply for asylum in the UK, you have to be in the UK. The only exceptions are Refugee Family Reunion, which allows the families of refugees (usually women and children) to join them in the UK, but has been drastically limited in scope since 2022, and the United Nations refugee resettlement scheme, from which the UK accepts only a small number of people. But the government has shown that another way is possible: Ukrainians travelling through Calais were put up in hostels and provided with Eurostar tickets once they had a sponsor in the UK. Labour’s plan for ‘secure borders’ includes a pledge to ‘tackle humanitarian crises at source, helping refugees in their region’, but they haven’t gone so far as to pledge safe routes for those fleeing these crises.

When the Rwanda plan was first proposed in April 2022, NGO workers in Calais began handing out leaflets explaining the situation; they stopped when the policy started to founder, worried that they were only making a complicated immigration process even more confusing. When the Home Office began arresting the asylum seekers intended to make up the first cohort of deportees, the mood in Calais was bleak. But few refugees are put off by the prospect of removal to Rwanda. Refugees who get this far are desperate and deserving – as the Home Office’s own figures attest. Most of those who manage to cross the Channel are eventually granted asylum; for refugees fleeing Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria the rate is almost 100 per cent. (Most of those slated for deportation to Rwanda come from those four countries.) They have travelled to Calais because the UK is where they have friends or family; because English is the only European language they speak; or because they have been unable to claim asylum elsewhere. Many believe that Britain has a fair asylum process and a good track record on human rights.

One English slang term that has survived from the original jungle is ‘the game’, used to refer to crossing attempts. (‘Does anyone here have shoes?’ a barefoot man asked me. ‘I’ve just been at the game.’) Without a legal route of entry, refugees focus on reaching a place from where they can progress to the next level, taking ever more extreme risks along the way. Everyone who arrives in Calais has already faced serious hardship. They are likely to have crossed several borders without documents and passed through multiple warzones. The Rwanda scheme was just one more obstacle in the game.

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