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The humanitarian crisis in Calais is a symptom of the EU’s biggest failure

A makeshift shelter in the Calais refugee camp known as "the Jungle" burns as French police dismantle a section of the camp.
A makeshift shelter in the Calais refugee camp known as "the Jungle" burns as French police dismantle a section of the camp.

On March 1, in the French town of Calais, just along the English Channel, French riot police, armed with tear gas and bulldozers, began to clear away a makeshift refugee camp known as "the Jungle." They destroyed a section of temporary shelters, leaving some 3,500 refugees and other unauthorized immigrants scattered and many of them homeless.

French authorities described it as a humanitarian effort, but in the days since, photos have emerged that tell a very different story: a camp school surrounded by masked and armored riot police; temporary homes in flames; Iranian refugees sewing their mouths shut in protest.

Iranian refugee protests the camp destruction
An Iranian resident of the Jungle, his lips sewn together to protest the destruction of the camp, carries a sign that reads, "Stop police."

The bishop of Dover condemned the operation for its impact on children on the camp, saying it was never acceptable "for children to be sprayed with tear gas." According to the charity Help Refugees, the French government did not construct adequate new housing, and so the operation will leave 2,000 people homeless.

French officials have defended the actions, saying that this was necessary to improve living conditions and that it will construct new housing from shipping containers. But the truth is that this crisis in Calais isn't really about housing or about refugee services, though both of those things are needed. It's not even about the conduct of French police, as appalling as it may have been.

Rather, what happened in Calais is a symptom of a much deeper problem with the European Union's migration system — one that threatens the stability of the EU itself.

The crisis in Calais exists because Europe has still not figured out how to solve the fundamental problems that make its migration system so broken. Until it solves those problems, Europe will continue to be a place of Calaises, or it will be on the path to de facto disintegration, or both.

If the EU’s asylum system worked, the camp in Calais would never have existed in the first place

An armored officer stands next to the remains of a burned shelter during the destruction of the camp
An armored officer stands next to the remains of a burned shelter during the destruction of the camp.
Rafael Yaghobzadeh/Getty Images

The key to understanding the crisis in Calais is that "the Jungle," as the camp was colloquially known, didn't spring up because refugees couldn't find housing elsewhere. Rather, people were pushed into the makeshift camp by the quirks of the EU's refugee system and British border controls.

"The first, biggest thing to know" about the crisis, Tanya Freedman of Help Refugees explained to me, "is that this is a border issue between the UK and France."

An EU rule called the Dublin Regulation requires refugees to stay in the first European country they arrive in until their asylum claims are processed. In theory, this rule is a way to prevent applicants from "orbiting" the EU by filing application after application in different countries until one of them finally gets approved. But in practice, it means that the stakes of coming out of the shadows and registering an application for asylum are very, very high: Once refugees do so, they are stuck in that country while their claim is being processed.

Because of that rule, refugees who want to seek asylum in the UK — to be reunited with family there or because they see it as their best hope for work or a better life — need to physically get there before declaring themselves to authorities. If they register their claims for asylum in France or any other EU country, they'll be stuck. But to get to the UK, they need to first get to France and then sneak across the border, which means either hitching a ride on a vehicle traveling through the Channel Tunnel or stowing away on a ferry bound for a British port.

That's where the Jungle came from: The camp is near the tunnel and the ferries. People who are trying to get to the UK arrived there as a transit point but ended up stuck, eking out an existence in the camp's freezing, muddy conditions. If they want to settle in the UK, they need to get there before France or any other EU country can officially record their arrival.

The Calais camp, then, wasn't created by refugees or migrants — not on their own, anyway. It was also created by the Dublin rule. Europe, by attempting to solve one migration problem with that rule, has created another, worse problem. It has replaced a political problem with a humanitarian crisis.

The EU is currently experiencing its worst refugee crisis since World War II, with more than a million asylum seekers arriving in Europe in 2015 alone. The Dublin rule has trapped thousands of refugees in border countries like Greece and Italy, simply because those are the easiest EU countries for unauthorized migrants to reach. That's a burden on the border countries, and it leaves refugees themselves in dire straits.

The problem, however, is that the Dublin rule is politically appealing to EU nations that don't want to accept more refugees. Countries such as the UK and Austria have exploited the current system, pushing the refugee burden onto nations like Greece and Italy.

The Dublin rule prevents more refugees from going to countries like the UK that currently receive very few, and it makes life politically easier for leaders in those countries. But the trade-off is that the rule effectively creates camps like the one being destroyed in Calais — as well as other humanitarian catastrophes in camps in Southern Europe.

Some European leaders, to their credit, are trying to solve this problem, to reconcile the political and humanitarian tensions in Europe's migration system. But this problem, and their efforts to fix it, is straining the European Union to the breaking point.

The Calais crisis exists because the European Union never fully sold European voters on the union

camp residents carry a sign that says "we are not terrorists so don't destroy our homes" Carl Court/Getty Images)

European leaders have come up with one idea that seems to make sense: Every EU country should have a refugee quota. This more fairly divides the burden of handling refugees, making it more politically tenable, and it ensures that refugees have someplace to go, so that they're not stuck in camps like Calais.

But this idea has proven to be tremendously unpopular with European voters, and has fueled the rise of right-wing anti-EU politicians across the continent.

And that shows another, even harder problem with Europe's migration system: Democratic nations can't really be forced to do their fair share if voters don't want to. But their refusal is more than just a problem for refugees and migrants left languishing in desperate camps — it's threatening the EU itself.

In a sense, this isn't surprising. The EU was sold to European voters as a project that would bring better roads, better food, better vacations, and fewer wars — not one in which individual countries' problems become all of Europe's problems. That has meant that Europe never developed the political capital or the political institutions to actually deal with difficult problems like the migrant crisis.

While immigration brings well-established economic benefits to both immigrants and their host countries, economists aren't exactly a decisive voting bloc. And as easy as it might be to dismiss European voters' concerns as illegitimate, it's important to acknowledge that the EU is asking a lot of them.

Large-scale immigration still brings social and political challenges. Taking in large numbers of people who do not share their new country's language, culture, and religious beliefs can be enriching and valuable. But it also requires communities to accept change — to be flexible in their idea of what it means to be part of a particular neighborhood, town, or nation, and to realize that their communities may look very different in the future than they did in the past.

That kind of change can be very, very difficult to accept. Convincing Europeans to accept it is essential to the European project. And the migrant crisis is a sign that the EU has not yet succeeded in convincing them.

The future of Europe is at risk

Residents of the camp carry signs reading "We need help! We don't want police violence!" and "Every person can choose"
Residents of the camp carry signs reading, "We need help! We don't want police violence!" and, "Every person can choose."

That is a serious problem, and it's not clear that it's one the EU will survive. The UK will hold a referendum this June on whether to leave the EU entirely — the so-called "Brexit" option — and there is a real chance that the measure will pass.

As the refugee crisis has grown, a number of EU countries have reinstated border controls to keep out migrants, undermining the core EU principle of open borders within the union and raising the prospect of an EU that exists in name only after abandoning its key aims.

The Calais camp is a symptom of that dysfunction. But it's also a reminder that there is no easy solution here. As the Calais camp was being destroyed, local and national French politicians warned Britain that "Brexit" would make their border problems worse, not better.

French Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron warned that if Britain leaves the EU, France will suspend the Le Touquet agreement that allows the UK to enforce its border on the French side of the channel. This would allow refugees and other migrants to cross the channel, gathering in Kent or Dover instead of Calais and Dunkirk.

"The day this relationship unravels, migrants will no longer be in Calais," Macron told the Financial Times on March 2. Local officials agreed, with one mayor going so far as to promise to hire ferries to send migrants from Dunkirk to England.

Those might be empty threats, of course. The Le Touquet agreement is its own treaty, not an inherent part of EU membership, and in any event it seems unlikely that local mayors will be permitted to make immigration policy themselves.

But this dispute is yet another example of Europe's core failure: It is treating refugee crises such as Calais individually, as feuds over specific borders or camps, rather than what it is: a systemic failure that will continue, along one border or another, at one camp or another, until those systemic, Europe-wide problems and contradictions are finally fixed.

The brunt of that dysfunction is falling, as it often does, not on Western European voters but on the poorest, most vulnerable people. Help Refugees' Freedman estimates there were at least 150 unaccompanied children living in the section of the camp that was destroyed this week. Their situation was desperate before, and now it is even worse. They have lost their temporary homes, and according to Freedman the French government's promises of new housing and special services for the children have so far failed to materialize. For the EU, this is a crisis. But for those children, and for millions more refugees and migrants, it is an emergency.