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Why 67% of Brits want to deploy the army to France to stop migrants

Migrants walk toward the ferry port of Calais in June 2015.
Migrants walk toward the ferry port of Calais in June 2015.
(PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

"The Jungle," a ramshackle camp that serves as a temporary home to a few thousand people in the coastal French town of Calais, is making the once-great kingdom of Great Britain collectively lose its shit.

If you were to idly browse British coverage of the situation, you could be forgiven for thinking that the camp must be home to an army of fearsome mercenaries bent upon stealing the crown jewels from the Tower of London, or perhaps an unstoppable strain of killer bees desperate to sink their stingers into tender British flesh.

But it isn't. The camp's residents are actually a group of desperate refugees and unauthorized migrants who are trying to cross the English Channel to find safety and a better life in Britain. There are a few thousand of them in total, and only a fraction of those have made it to the UK. Many appear to be refugees from Syria and Eritrea who have legitimate claims to asylum protection under international and British law.

So why does a vast majority of the British public support deploying the army to France to keep them out?

The answer is that this "crisis" is not really about the desperate residents of the Jungle at all. The British people aren't demanding that the army be deployed to Calais to keep out a few thousand poor and hungry people in despair. They're demanding that the military keep out the future — that it protect the Britain of today from becoming a different Britain of tomorrow.

Spoiler: It isn't going to work.

What's actually happening in Calais

Calais migrant praying

A migrant prays at a makeshift church in the Jungle camp in Calais. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

The French entrance to the 50-kilometer Channel Tunnel is in Calais, and it is also a ferry port, so it has always been a popular transit point for unauthorized migrants trying to make it to Britain. Many people try to cross the tunnel by stowing away on trains, hiding in the backs of semi trucks, or even walking, despite the dangerous traffic and choking clouds of vehicle exhaust.

This current crisis has been slowly building over the course of the summer. Europe is experiencing an unprecedented influx of refugees and immigrants who are crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety, and opportunities. Many of them are fleeing from persecution and conflict in the Middle East and Africa, including from Syria's devastating civil war and Eritrea's brutal dictatorship. A tiny fraction of their number — a few thousand people — have made their way to Calais, where they live temporarily in the camp that is nicknamed the Jungle.

Every night, residents of the camp try to make it to England through the tunnel. France has deployed riot police to try to stop them, and every night they prevent many people from making the crossing. But they can't stop everyone. There are no official statistics on how many people have made it across, but estimates suggest that at least several hundred people, and perhaps several thousand, have gotten through. For instance, the Telegraph reports that in five weeks between early June and early July of this year, British police discovered more than 400 people hidden away inside vehicles or trains that crossed the channel. And according to the BBC, local authorities in Kent are now caring for more than 600 children who came to the UK on their own.

This is really about British anxiety over migration that can't be controlled

Put into any kind of context, this isn't actually a particularly severe crisis. The Calais camp is reportedly home to about 5,000 people — not even enough to sell out a professional soccer match, much less threaten a nation. Nor do its residents even make up a significant fraction of the total number of unauthorized migrants who have come to Europe this summer. But to the British public, and British politicians, this isn't about the few hundred people who have made it to England, or even the few thousand more who are waiting in Calais. It's about the idea that migration is taking Britain toward a frightening future, and that no one can stop it.

As the British polling outfit YouGov concluded recently, "When we think of immigration as an issue, we link it to government failure, economic insecurity and Britain’s decline from greatness."

That helps explain UK Prime Minister David Cameron's chillingly insensitive response when he was asked about the Calais crisis several weeks ago. Speaking to British news station ITV, Cameron describe migrants crossing the Mediterranean as a "swarm" of people who wanted to come to Britain to get jobs and a better life. He also told the BBC that "everything that can be done will be done to make sure our borders are secure and make sure that British holidaymakers are able to go on their holidays." Cameron's dehumanization of immigrants was striking: In his characterization, they weren't people in need of protection, but rather an insect-like swarm whose most salient characteristic was that they threatened Britain's borders and beach vacations.

And last week, UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond claimed that migrants from Africa were a threat to Europe's "standard of living and social infrastructure," and that the "marauding" migrants in Calais were therefore part of a much bigger problem.

But the real issue here is not immigration itself. Rather, in the minds of the British public, immigration feels emblematic of a much bigger problem: the sense that the country is headed toward a future that its citizens do not want, and that no one can stop it.

"Dislike of immigration," the YouGov pollsters found, "is strongest among those groups who feel least secure and most pessimistic about the years ahead." And 63 percent of respondents said that the government had little or no control over immigration.

Viewed through that lens, it makes sense that British politicians would respond to the Calais crisis with such overheated rhetoric, and that 67 percent of the British public apparently supports deploying the army to France to keep out migrants. In regaining control of a ragged camp in northern France, they hope to regain control over Britain's future, and to regain the power to ensure that the country does not change in ways they find frightening.

But the truth is that they are right to conclude that halting that change is impossible: that no government or party can end immigration or freeze Britain in the status quo. Immigration isn't going to stop, and Britain isn't going to remain the same. Integration into the EU has opened its borders to European citizens, London's financial industry is a magnet for international talent as well as international money, and its world-class universities attract students from around the globe.

And, more relevantly to the Calais crisis, the civil wars in Syria and Libya have created a global refugee crisis, and there is no reason for Britain to expect that will remain someone else's problem. Britain is hoping France will keep out migrants, but France has the same hope for Italy. Greece is desperate for the rest of Europe to help shoulder the burden of the thousands of migrants who have survived the treacherous journey to its shores this summer, but just over its border is Turkey, which is now home to the largest refugee population on Earth.

The world isn't just changing — it has already changed.