This was probably not a contingency that “Leave” voters even considered a possibility.
The Brexit fallout contains multitudes, and there is now a good chance that thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants will soon have a far easier time making it to British soil. This could bring the Syrian refugee crisis to the UK in a way it has largely escaped until now.
To understand why you need to know a little bit about 1) geography 2) a couple of old treaties.
The French city of Calais lies directly across the Straight of Dover from the United Kingdom. It’s where the undersea “Chunnel” connects the UK to Europe.
As the refugee crisis exploded over the last few years, Calais has become a chokepoint for thousands of migrants and refugees hoping to make it to the UK. A notorious migrant camp known as “the Jungle” has sprung up on the outskirts of the city. And now, one day after the Brexit vote the mayor of Calais called for “the Jungle” to be shut down and sent across the Channel. The sentiment has since been supported by other French politicians, and even some citizens in the region.
Due to two treaties negotiated by the UK in 1994 and 2003, British border controls for ferries, boats and the Eurostar rail line currently occur in France and Belgium, the two countries directly across the Channel. This means most of the migrants trying to reach the UK are stopped before they ever reach British shores. Instead, they wind up stuck in places like Calais’s notorious Jungle and a problem for France to deal with, not the UK.
The possibility of shifting border controls back to the UK, from Calais in particular, was raised during the referendum campaign. For the French in particular, this arrangement has long seemed like a bad deal. With the possibility of the UK dramatically shifting political policy and leaving the EU, many reasoned it’s time to place the onus of immigration back on the UK. Although the Leave campaign dismissed this possibility since the bilateral treaties creating these border controls are separate from the EU, now that Brexit has been voted in it seems many in France are determined to make good on their word about this consequence.
For many of the refugees and asylum seekers at Calais, this seems to be a good deal. The reason why so many have wound up there is because they are trying to get to the UK, often to reunite with family members who are already there. Moving the border controls would help them accomplish that. It would also prevent the dangerous cat-and-mouse game that migrants and asylum seekers currently play with police as they try to infiltrate trains, trucks and car ferries bound for Dover, leading to the known deaths of dozens over the past year alone.
But because the UK has not dealt with large numbers of irregular migrants for over a decade – according to The Guardian asylum seekers arrival dropped from 80,000 in 2003 to an estimated 30,000 today – the infrastructure is not in place to handle a new influx on par with what could be expected if Calais closed.
There are also fears that it could recreate the same motivations to make a dangerous sea crossing now seen in the Mediterranean that killed at least 3,700 people last year. As French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said last week, if the border controls are moved, “we’ll need to have boats ready to save people.” In the past, the UK has opposed sea operations to rescue refugees and migrants trying to make the Mediterranean crossing, believing that search and rescue operations only served to encourage more to make the dangerous trip. This attitude, along with the lack of preparation means a new hotspot in the English Channel could have dire human consequences.
As it is, as the largest military power in the EU, the UK has a substantial role in EU and NATO operations in the Mediterranean, which includes shutting down human trafficking rings. With the UK now out, the ability of the EU to continue these operations without British ships and resources is in serious doubt.
These may be the unintended consequences for refugees when it comes to Brexit, and much of it could be avoided. But there are of course other reasons why the French may move to shift the border controls in the wake of Brexit. Many European governments are grappling with anti-EU factions of their own, and are looking for ways to discourage a possible Nexit in the Netherlands, Frexit in France or Italeave in Italy. Making the UK departure from the EU as painful as possible would help quell these calls, and with anti-immigration sentiment at the cornerstones of so many of these movements, shifting the refugee burden from Calais is a valuable way to do that.
However doing so would also encourage other European countries to shift their limited refugee burdens at a time when the European Commission is desperately trying to convince states to take on more in order to relieve the pressure on Greece and Italy. And that could have devastating ramifications of its own for the future of the EU.
There is still a lot to work out in terms of how the UK will leave the EU, or even if it ultimately will. For now, refugees inside and outside of the UK are left to wait to see what happens next. Many see the referendum as an attempt by ordinary Britons to shrug off the costs and responsibilities of globalization, with the refugee crisis and free movement of people being the easiest target of this angst. But the political rhetoric and fallout of the past week demonstrates that no country is truly an island, even an island nation like the UK. Despite a longing to return to “Little England”, that simply may not be an option when it comes to refugees.