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Who in Their Right Mind Would Immigrate to Cold, Clammy England?

As an illegal immigrant to England I was luckier than the poor souls dying (literally) to cross the Channel from France to the promised land of fish and chips.  Currently there are about 4000 migrants in squalid, prison-camp type “jungles” in and around the port of Calais itching to find a way into the El Dorado of eel pie and Marmite.

Despite the lurid and hysterical publicity about “swarms” of “invaders” they’re only a small minority of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who currently risk drowning in the Mediterranean after being thrown overboard from leaky dhows by smugglers, on their way to European Union nations like weary Italy and economically ravaged Greece.  A huge number are escaping the Syrian civil war and Eritrea’s fascist-like regime, as well as from whole swaths of North and central Africa.

The men and women, boys and girls, hanging around Calais waiting to sneak atop an England -bound truck, are within eyesight through barbed wire of their goal the white cliffs of Dover just 30 km away.  After traveling sometimes thousands of dangerous miles across desert and over mountains and ocean – often investing their families’ life savings to bribe stonehearted smugglers, the few survivors who make it to France are a pretty hardened and what-the-hell-do-I-have-to-lose bunch.

Why do they do it?  The lure of an allegedly booming UK economy with its black market for off-the-book low wage workers, and the possibility of an education in British schools, and learning the English language that may be the open sesame to decent jobs.

Back when, I felt the same way after my visa expired in France along with a U.S. passport that Washington refused to renew for a stateless “subversive”.  My choices, as with the Calais squatters, were limited.  I’d tried Germany to get to Prague and been turned away; the Dutch didn’t want me; the Belgians are boring; and fascist Franco was still ruling Spain.   Hiding out in Paris was a nonstarter because my French was awful and the police too alert.  So, like today’s migrants, I hung around the port of Calais waiting my chance which came by sneaking aboard the Cross Channel ferry and slipping past a dozing Immigration officer at Dover.

I have a fellow feeling for the lucky few  who make it through the Chunnel to England.  For two years I was an “illegal” living partly in the open and partly in shadow.  Always eyes in the back of my head.  You learn how to step away from trouble, and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible while hunting for work on the “informal economy”.  When the Home Office police came calling I crawled out the back window of my room to hide among Nevern Square’s rooftop chimney tops.  Eventually Scotland Yard found me, but by then I’d found a respectable sponsor and was let off with a “caution”.

You develop reflexes on the run I never quite lost.   I’m amazed at the tenacity of the Calais refugees who are the victims of a confused, love-and-hate-em Euro policy ricocheting between brutality (by the notorious French CRS mobile cops) and humanitarianism.

They’re the “new Jews” who Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, with his Eton-educated clubman’s mentality, calls a threatening “swarm” about to invade the nation Hitler style.

I hate reading official reports but waded through the UN Refugee Agency’s recent  Global Trends that cited worldwide displacement of people forcibly displaced at the highest level ever recorded at almost 60 million.  A decade ago it was half that number. “Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.”  An increasing number are children and women.  (Glance at the Calais photos.)

Nobody really knows what to do.  Which is why, until the European Union gets its act together (don’t hold your breath), NGOs and rescue organizations are the best solution because at least they keep people alive day to day.

Yes, we have our own “illegal alien” problem that freaks out even Bernie Sanders whose hard line is that letting in Hispanic illegals drives down American workers’ wages.

Each of us migrants is escaping from something and wanting something better.  A surprising number of the Calais-trapped mention a desire to learn the near-universal language of business, English.  In my case I was escaping from the FBI and – more or less unconsciously – searching for a new language for a new life which I found in London streets and Yorkshire moors and Welsh valleys.

In the present bureaucratic confusion it will take something like a miracle to keep those migrants alive in time to find their own new life.  Sometimes my post gets to Europe.  If so, spare a penny for life-saving Medecins du Monde (MDM) (migrants.ndpc@medecinsdumonde.net), Secours Catholique, Auberge des Migrant or any on the spot NGO that provides food, health care and blankets because the cold weather is coming.

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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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