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Columnists

Continental drift

Paul Vallely

Consider these two visions. One: Politicians see what the prime minister David Cameron has called a 'swarm' of migrants trying to enter Britain illegally from alien lands. The tools with which to respond are bigger fences, more sniffer dogs, increased police patrols, benefit cuts, policing by landlords etc. Two: in Calais a retired French couple who call themselves Nana and DomDom have decided to do what they can to help the migrants. Their tools are very different. Nana, an artist, at first could think of nothing to do but take the new arrivals some of her paper and pastels and inviting them to draw, which they did with zeal, pouring out their grim experiences onto her paper. Then she noticed that many of them were limping after treks of thousands of kilometres. She took oil and massaged their feet. 'They need nice people,' she said in simple English. 'We are a family together'. Domdom takes a generator every day to The Jungle, the migrants' camp. He hooks up his old hi-fi, asks the migrants where they are from, and then plays them music from their country. 'We dance with them,' he says. The generator charges the migrants' mobile phones. Domdom has been online to launch an appeal for funds to fuel the device, and buy electrical strips that can charge 500 phones at once, set up wifi, and pay for the petrol they use in their daily round-trip of 100 kilometres. Some nights they show movies to the migrants. Occasionally they take individuals home for two or three nights respite from the camp. 'Love one another,' Domdom shrugs. 'It's what we have been taught.' It is, of course, an easy contrast. The politicians have a complex reality to confront. The roads are blocked in Kent and are littered with burning tyres thanks to striking ferry workers in France. In the UK haulage firms are threatened with bankruptcy, as perishable produce is lost and other costs rack up. A modern lorry costs £1 a minute to run, even when it is standing idle in a queue. Then there is the populist alarm over immigration. David Cameron has at his back Tory dinosaurs talking about sending the British army to Calais - a territory to which they seem to have forgotten we gave up claims of sovereignty in 1558. But if Nana and DomDom constitute a counsel of perfection they nonetheless have a message for the politicians. The role of visionaries like them is not just to live with integrity in their moment but to be prophetic to the rest of us. They should alter the perspectives of the politicians, public and the poujadiste press so that we look beyond the hordes banging at the door. Our tunnel vision is creating a moral panic which in media terms has become a perfect swarm. The truth is that Calais is merely the far reaches of a movement of the people bigger than anything since the refugee crises of the Second World War. The war in Syria alone has sent 1.8 million refugees into neighbouring Turkey which has adopted an 'opendoor' policy that has cost the Turkish people £4bn over the last four years. And it is not just Syria. When a safe and prosperous region like Europe is merely a boat ride from an impoverished continent like Africa those at the bottom of the pile inevitably see migration as an option. The 5,000 migrants camping in Calais in the hope of getting into the UK should be set in the context of the 170,000 migrants who arrived in Italy last year. This year Greece - as though it did not have enough woes with its financial crisis - has taken the most of any European country with 63,000 to date. Last year Germany accepted 41,000 asylum-seekers, Sweden took 31,000 and France 15,000. The UK accepted feewer - 10,050 from all sources and by all means of entry. And yet at the last summit EU summit on how to share the burden fairly across Europe the government of David Cameron announced that Britain would take none. What the actions of Nana and DomDom tells us is that this response is rooted in a hardened collective heart. What the practical politics tells us is that it is also politically short-sighted as well as morally untenable. The old distinction between 'genuine' refugees and mere economic migrants is a questionable one. It is unclear why seeking an escape route from dire poverty is a more reprehensible motive for migration than fleeing war or persecution. But our present national stance does not even allow the old distinction to be applied to those camped in Calais. At the very least the British and French governments should be setting up joint processing centres to assess the circumstances of the Calais campers, register the migrants and offer them some status as well as basic health care while their asylum claims are be assessed. What Nana and DomDom have so vividly shown is that migrants need to be treated as people. 'My dream is to have no more migrants in Calais,' said DomDom. 'That would be ideal.' But in the meantime 'they are like my children - I love them'. So long as they are there, he says, 'we will try to transform their shitty life with moments of happiness'.