Switch the Yorkshire accent for Queens and it’s not hard to imagine the following statement from Britain’s immigration minister Robert Goodwill coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth: “We are going to start building this big new wall very soon. We’ve done the fence; now we are doing a wall.”
As it happens, Britain may get its big, beautiful wall before America does, though France isn’t paying for it. Nicknamed “the great wall of Calais,” the $2.5 million barrier will be 13 feet high and run for about a kilometer along both sides of a road leading to the French port city, just 30 miles from Britain.
Calais has hosted a refugee camp, known as “the jungle” for almost 17 years, but the problem has become acute during the recent refugee crisis caused by violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Migrants and refugees come to Calais in hopes of sneaking onto ships, trucks, or Chunnel trains bound for Britain, where they hope to either claim asylum or find work on the black market. Britain is widely perceived as an easier place to find work than France, though this may not necessarily be the case in reality. In several cases, thousands migrants have entered the Chunnel and British–bound ships en masse.
Riot police armed with tear gas dismantled part of the camp in March, but the population has risen to more than 9,000 since then. Charities supplying food, tents, and blankets in the camp are running out of supplies amid donor fatigue.
The problem is obviously dire, but it’s not at all clear that a wall will do much to help. Increased security has already made getting onto vehicles more difficult, and at least eight people have died on the road since the beginning of this year. Advocates for migrants say the wall will only move the problem farther inland. It’s not just the nongovernmental organizations that object to the plan: An association representing British truck drivers, who are fed up with people trying to jump onto their vehicles and have demanded the camp be dismantled, says the wall is a waste of money that would be better spent on stepped-up security checks.
The wall project also comes at a time of uncertainty about Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. Several French leaders, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, candidates in next year’s presidential election, have suggested that if Britain leaves the EU, France could pull out of the treaty that allows the British to enforce border controls on the French side of the channel. (It was Sarkozy who negotiated the treaty in the first place when he was interior minister in 2003, but that would be a minor flip-flop by his standards.) This would effectively move the border to the British side—an idea that has caused the British media to warn of a new “jungle” potentially cropping up in Dover.
These may be empty election-year threats, but it would be ironic if the Brexit, which passed in part because of fears of Britain being swamped by desperate refugees, ended up causing exactly that scenario.