Migrant crisis alarms Britain … but fears clash with facts

They are not flocking to places like Leysdown-on-Sea, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the migrant camps at Calais

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This summer, Britain's headlines have been dominated by one story - thousands of migrants massing in France, aiming to get to England through the Channel Tunnel. Britain's jingoistic tabloids say it's an invasion. Prime Minister David Cameron has called the Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and others “a swarm” headed for British shores.

They are not flocking to places like Leysdown-on-Sea, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the migrant camps at Calais.

In fact, there are hardly any migrants to be seen in this faded seaside town, with its pubs, chip shops and amusement arcades that seem scarcely to have changed since the 1970s. It's a poor corner of England where good jobs are hard to come by even for the locals.

But that does not stop many people here having strong opinions about the migrants, and an increasingly isolationist view of Britain's place in the world.

“Make England an island and get rid of that poxy tunnel,” said Eve Fitzgerald. “Brick it up,” said Lesley Mansfield, sitting outside a seafront pub. Her friend Jacqueline Prime had a more dramatic - if not wholly serious - idea: “Bomb it in the middle.”

The fortress mentality is fueled by reports of nightly clashes as French police try to stop the travelers, many of whom have made perilous journeys across the Mediterranean before heading north across Europe. Several people have died as would-be stowaways tried to board trucks and freight trains through the tunnel.

The reality, however, is that the vast majority of Calais migrants never set foot in this town on the marshy Isle of Sheppey, or in any of the towns and cities on the economically battered coastal fringe of eastern England, where anti-immigrant and anti-European sentiments are on the rise.

The right-wing U.K. Independence Party has gained support in the region among voters who feel immigration and European Union membership have brought economic adversity and unwanted social change.

There is no doubting that parts of Britain have been transformed over the past decade by migration, but it has mostly been by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of legal newcomers from eastern Europe, adding to previous waves of immigration. Many Britons embrace the country's growing multiculturalism, which has made London one of the most diverse and dynamic cities on Earth.

And contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that migrants are “stealing” British jobs: In March, Britain's unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent - the lowest rate in seven years.

And despite the dramatic scenes in Calais, the U.N. refugee agency's director for Europe noted on Friday that “most of the asylum seekers in the U.K. do not arrive through the Channel.”

“Two-thirds of the asylum seekers in the U.K. have come legally to the U.K., with visas,” said Vincent Cochetel. “There is not a significant wave of people coming to the U.K. ... I know the images on TV of those people trying to go through the Channel are quite amazing, but we should not think that this is an unmanageable situation.”

Insular feeling on the Isle of Sheppey is at odds with census data that indicates the population is overwhelmingly U.K.-born. Not many of the migrants who make it across the Channel see any point staying in such an isolated, economically depressed area.

“There are a few, but they disappear quick out of here,” said Stuart O'Brien, a 73-year-old retiree. “There's nothing here for them - there's nothing here for the locals.”

But whether it's based on fact or fiction, Britain's rising anti-immigrant mood could make it harder for Cameron to persuade voters to remain in the 28-nation EU in a referendum that will be held by the end of 2017. The scenes in Calais - and a perception that French authorities are doing little about the situation - are fuel for those who want Britain to go it alone.

Rob McNeil of the Migration Observatory, an Oxford University think tank, said the “very visible bottleneck” at Calais is feeding public perceptions that Britain faces a tide of migrants.

But the U.K. is far from Europe's top destination for refugees. The U.N. refugee agency says Britain received just over 31,000 asylum claims in 2014 - a fraction of the 173,000 refugees who went to Germany, and fewer than Sweden, Italy, France or Hungary.

Cameron has vowed to curb welfare benefits for asylum-seekers in an effort to make Britain a less attractive destination for migrants. But two of the biggest pull factors are Britain's relatively vibrant economy and the global dominance of the English language - not things any government would want to change.

“Politicians are in an extremely difficult situation,” said McNeil. “There is much pressure from the press and the public for them to be seen to be resolving this situation.

“It's not an easy problem to solve. People are there because there are major crises unfolding around the borders of Europe.”

And not everyone in Leysdown lacks sympathy for the migrants. John Edward Williams, a retiree vacationing from his home in the nearby county of Essex, worries about migrants who “put nothing in the kitty” and receive benefits. But he said he has no problems with immigrants who work and pay taxes.

“If these people are going to dice with death to get to this country,” he said, “then wherever they come from must be a terrible place.”

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