Hunkered down and hidden in bushes beside a ramp leading off a highway in northern France, four young Africans watch a stream of trucks heading for the Channel Tunnel and Britain. If the vehicles slow to a crawl, the men will try to jump on board, grabbing on to the cages holding spare wheels, or they may even get into the driver's cab using threats of violence or the promise of bribes. Calais, a bleak, windswept and impoverished Channel port, has become a magnet for desperate young men from as far afield as Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Somalia. It is the choke point, the final hurdle on a terrible journey to Britain: the promised land of jobs, free health care, benefits and a future.
Most don't make it to the imagined El Dorado but remain stuck in a hopeless corner of France. According to the French authorities, the migrants now total more than a thousand, many living in a squalid camp, called "the jungle," waiting for their chance. The truck drivers have taken to carrying baseball bats to fend off attacks from unwanted passengers, and the people of Calais, seeing their city transformed into a refugee camp, have had enough.
The city's mayor, Natacha Bouchart, has written to British Prime Minister David Cameron, demanding solutions, including an end to the policy of screening entry to Britain in Calais. He is unlikely to oblige; in response to the political challenge from UKIP, the nationalist, anti-immigration party, the government wants to be seen to be tough on immigration. The once-easy access to health care and benefits is being restricted and in an effort to flush out illegals, the Home Office sent a billboard across London on the side of a truck with the message: "In the U.K. illegally? Go home or face arrest."
Europe's burgeoning migration problem echoes the much larger immigration crisis facing the United States. In addition to the millions of illegal immigrants, there are some 57,000 unaccompanied minors stuck at the U.S.-Mexican border, children fleeing violence in Central American states such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in Britain range from 400,000 to 800,000, but what is clear is that the pressure on Calais is likely to increase.
With so many undocumented and illegal migrants, there is a dearth of objective evidence about the net benefit or cost to the economy of migration. There is little doubt that a city such as London could not function as a global capital and economic dynamo without armies of Polish and Baltic construction workers and decorators, French and Italian waiters, Asian and African cleaners and Filipina nannies.
What we do know is that migration is elastic; it responds to economic stimulus. Government labour market data shows a 26-per-cent rise in migrants from the new EU states of Eastern Europe in the three months to June, compared with the same period last year. The migrant population dwindled during the recession but the recent spurt of British economic growth has reversed the trend.
A confidential police report published by the French newspaper Le Figaro revealed mounting concern about a surge in migrants entering France from Italy through the Provençal and Alpine border posts. According to the French police report, 61,592 migrants landed in Italy by sea in the first half of 2014, up from 7,913 during first six months of 2013. The deaths of hundreds of migrants in a series of shipwrecks off the Sicilian coast elicited a token gesture: the Italian Prime Minister promised the dead migrants a state funeral and Jose Manuel Barrosso, the European Commission President, promised Italy a grant of €30-million ($43.7-million) for refugee assistance.
It is less than a Band-Aid. No one, not even the EU countries most affected, is prepared to admit that the pressure of economic migration from the south to the north will become relentless over the next decade. The EU's plight is potentially worse than that of the United States for several reasons. The scale of the political unrest, war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa is increasing, uprooting settled communities. Population pressure is destroying the fragile environment of Africa's drought-prone Sahel region. And then there is the dysfunctional politics of the EU, which has never been able to agree a population or migration policy, despite its continuing drive for expansion.
Europe does not even have a coherent foreign policy and the noise surrounding the EU's troubles with its currency and stagnating economy obscures the crisis at its borders. The British, keen to limit Europe to a free-trade zone and prevent further political integration, have been the most cynical, encouraging the accession of new states in the hope it will prevent deeper union. The U.K. refused to sign the Schengen agreement, which abolished border controls between member states, but even this bulwark has not saved Britain from an influx of migrants.
The big employer lobbies, such as Britain's Confederation of British Industry, protest against curbs on migration. They know the axe will fall on official immigration, the only levers available to politicians, which means more hurdles for engineering and pharmaceutical companies seeking visas for skilled workers.
While the Home Office vets student visas and mulls over skills shortages, the huddled masses of Africa and the Middle East, yearning not so much for freedom but for a roof and a job cleaning toilets, scuttle through the EU's porous borders. Sympathetic voices are few – there are no votes in being kind to immigrants.
One spoke out this week. Former Tory prime minister John Major, interviewed on the BBC, delivered an implied rebuke to the current Conservative Prime Minister, recalling his childhood living among immigrants in a poor part of London.
"They shared my house. They were my neighbours. I played with them as boys. I didn't see people who had come here just to benefit from our social system. I saw people with guts and the drive to travel halfway across the world in many cases to better themselves and their families. And I think that is a very Conservative instinct," he said.
Mr. Major's principled stand is welcome, but there is a self-interested argument in favour of migration: that dynamic economies have competitive and mobile labour markets. If migrants are undercutting wages, the answer is surely to raise and enforce minimum wages, not to shut out competition. That so many are knocking at the door is a nation's badge of economic success, not a reason to man the barricades.