England’s Humanitarian Crisis

Postcard from London

By John Martin

An estimated 5,000 migrants camped in appalling conditions at the Channel Tunnel entrance near the French port of Calais is the biggest story in the British media this month. Desperate attempts by people to storm passenger trains or climb aboard vehicles is causing huge transport disruptions and queues of hundreds of trucks. Nine people have died in attempts to jump aboard vehicles or trains.

Critics have called Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to solve the crisis by deploying extra security guards and fences inadequate. The United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees has said the French government should use empty army camps for temporary accommodation.

The Rt. Rev. Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover in the Diocese of Canterbury, has criticised David Cameron for using the word swarm to describe the would-be immigrants.

“We’ve become an increasingly harsh world, and when we become harsh with each other and forget our humanity then we end up in these standoff positions,” Willmott told the Observer. “We need to rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters.”

It is the kind of situation that brings out a typically British subversive sense of fair play. People are using bargain train tickets to make day trips to Calais and try to deliver food parcels. Photos of an Ethiopian shanty church topped by a cross have achieved huge press exposure and gone viral on social media.

In a move that irritated conservative newspapers and further ignited debate about the BBC’s compulsory license fee, Songs of Praise, the network’s flagship religious program, announced it had filmed a segment in the camp. Presenter Sally Magnusson and crew filmed on Aug. 8 and the Songs of Praise special is scheduled for broadcast Aug. 16.

Songs of Praise is accustomed to courting controversy. It once broadcast from Strangeways Prison, scene of a riot in 1982, and a year later from the Falkland Islands. A BBC spokesman said: “The story of the migrants and asylum seekers is of interest to our core audience and beyond.”

The migrants involved with the filming traveled across Africa from Ethiopia to Libya and arrived in Calais via Italy. The BBC crew met up with the Rev. Hagos Kesete, 31, who evades police close to the Channel Tunnel entrance to visit the camp every night. A camp congregation meets in a structure made with planks of wood and tarpaulin.

The Rev. Giles Fraser, who arranged a press photo while visiting the camp, opined in his Guardian column: “Cameron is happy to call this a Christian country when there is electoral advantage to be had out of it. But he is a fair-weather friend who refuses to make the connection with Christian migrants when there is not.”

He added, “They aren’t illegal immigrants, yet. I’m a Christian, so I have a special connection for fellow Christians. But the crisis here is not religious: it is humanitarian.”

Image: “Zone portuaire calais phare” by Romainberth, via Wikimedia Commons

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