20 miles to heaven

Ciężarówka wjeżdżająca na pociąg w Eurotunelu
Eurotunnel freight train terminal

Mariusz “Pudzian” Pudzianowski, a former strongman champion and MMA fighter owns a transport company. Annoyed by the situation in which migrants in Calais try get past that last 20 miles that separate them from Great Britain by breaking into the lorries and by the fact that hauliers are left to face the consequences (including a hefty fines from the UK government for every person found stowed in the back of their truck), he posted an emotional message on his facebook page declaring that he’s ready to fight those migrants with his baseball bat. Thanks to Pudzian popularity, the issue of the migrants disturbing the transport at Calais came into a scope of Polish media attention.

This is a godsend for all xenophobic keyboard warriors. “Are these supposed to be those poor women and children refugees?” – they ask. “Look, this is how Europe will look like if we let any more Arab people in!” they claim. But the fact it, that situation in Calais is nothing new and (although the refugee crisis of course has contributed to it) it’s wrong to put an equals mark between them and people fleeing wars in the Middle East.

I know it for the fact – in 2010, during my gap year at the university, I started to work as a long distance courier and I became a regular user of Euro Tunnel freight services and ferries between Dover and Calais. The problem was already there, and it was nothing new. Actually, people trying get into Britain via this route by illegal means are a regular occurrence for decades. Remember how many Polish people were going to London to wash dishes and to remove asbestos in the 80’s and 90’s? Majority of them weren’t there on official working visa…

In 1985 year two young boys from Poland decided to escape to the West hidden under the trailer of the international truck. After getting to Sweden, Zieliński brothers were granted an asylum, put in the foster family, received some pocket money from the Swedish government and given first class education – enough to say that one of them is now a renown engineer and university lecturer. Highly acclaimed Polish-Danish 1989 movie “300 mil do nieba” tells their story and you can watch it for free on youtube:

Ok, you might say, this is not the same, they weren’t breaking the padlocks or throwing stones on the lorry windscreens. True that, but still what they did was against the law. So now let’s imagine that they would be treated as “defenders of European values” would like to treat immigrants today: They would be perceived as “young men, who cowardly declined to get to arms and fight against communist oppressor and have chosen instead to enjoy an easy life at the expense of Swedish taxpayer”. They would be dragged from under the trailer, badly beaten and then delivered to the police. Then, they would be instantly fined and deported back to Poland at their parent’s expense. After all, there was no war or anything in 1985 Poland, so they could not really claim a refugee status… Actually communist government was doing everything to get them back, as kids who escaped their country in search of the better life was a huge propaganda blow for them. But if they were returned to Poland, the communist would do everything to prove to them, that they were right trying to escape…

So is there really a difference between Zieliński brothers and all those young men in Calais? Most of the latter, judging from their appearance, seems to come from African countries. Surely they escape from much bigger poverty that even crisis-struck 1985 communist Poland has seen. Many of them flee from the countries in war, that was in many cases started by no one else but Britain. Among them you can find even a former British Army interpreter from Afghanistan, who was left behind after the army has withdrawn despite that he is now perceived as a traitor by a Taliban regime – if even Daily Mail writes about this then you can know that there is really something to it… Yes, one can say again “They should stay at home and fight” – but the same could be said to Poles or Czechs escaping from behind Iron Curtain. Or to tens of thousands of 17th century Scots, who were fleeing to Poland to escape famine and wars in their own country of this time. Obviously not everyone is born to follow steps of William Wallace, especially that there are little chances that peace can be achieved by military means in their lifetime…

Therefore, while I am far from approving breaking into the lorries and burning tires on the Autoroute des Estuaires, I do understand where all those people come from. And it’s easy to say “they are in France already, it’s not war-striken country, why they just don’t get a job there”. But it’s easy to say only. Who will give a job in today’s France to an  immigrant without language,  work permit and qualifications? The generous benefit system of Britain seems to be the only option and no wonder, that for many migrants it sounds like the land of milk and honey. The British benefit system is so absurd, that I once met a Europe-educated doctor from one of Central African countries who was dying to get even some simple job, but he was not allowed to do so until the proceeding confirming his refuge status were finished. UK would rather give him a council flat and pay couple of hundred pounds per week than allow him to take a job as a cleaner (not to mention use his skills in the NHS)… But even if Cameron will decide to drastically cut benefits to non-EU migrants overnight, the legend would live on.

Because this is one more reason why there is nothing new about those people in Calais. Before the news about this amazingly generous country that lies on the island on the opposite side of Europe gets to some African village, they get very distorted, as in children game of Chinese whispers. As a result, people there hear more what they would like to hear than what the reality is. And even if they will be disappointed after finally reaching the white cliffs of Dover, they would not listen to someone who tells them that the reality is different until they see for themselves. Would Spanish Conquistadors listen when someone would tell them, that there is no El Dorado? Would all those wannabe millionaires, so colourfully described in Jack London’s books, believe if they were told, that in Yukon they will most likely be killed or die of frost and hunger and only a handful of them will get rich during Gold Rush?

Therefore apart from being nothing new, the problems faced by the truckers in Calais will not be solved by banning all refugees from coming to Europe. This is a problem that requires much more complicated solutions than Mariusz Pudzianowski’s baseball bat…