David Cameron should visit Calais and stop indulging in "shallow, unstatesmanlike politics of the worst kind", Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has said.
Farron said Cameron's decision to order more fences and sniffer dogs to deal with migrants trying to reach the UK was "totally the wrong focus". He offered to take the prime minister to Calais himself to meet people who have travelled thousands of miles for a better life.
Last week Cameron was widely condemned for describing migrants in Calais as a "swarm of people" trying to reach Britain. On Tuesday Farron visited the sprawling camp where they live, nine miles from the Channel tunnel which connects France to Britain.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Farron said: "What really made me want to do it were David Cameron's remarks about people swarming here. I thought, 'No one is talking about the refugees themselves – let's go and find out about them.'
"The main conclusion from going there is: What David Cameron is reacting to is not the reality. David Cameron is reacting to the politics, and it is shallow, unstatesmanlike politics of the worst kind."
"The notion that there are thousands of people salivating at the border, trying to get across every night is just not accurate," said Farron.
Farron, who was elected Lib Dem leader in July, said it was completely wrong to portray the migrants as "money-grabbing" benefit seekers. "The significant majority in the camp are, according to the French authorities and doctors, absolutely what any reasonable person would consider a refugee fleeing from war or persecution," he said.
"So this idea they are all money-grabbing people is just rubbish. I got talking to a bunch of guys from Eritrea, from Sudan, from Libya, and these are guys who wanted to come to England. Not one of them had a clue about benefits. They wanted to come to the UK because the UK represents the good life. Not that it's a bed of roses or it's cushy; I mean a life where people aren't shooting at you, where you can be free to worship where you want to worship."
"He should go [to Calais]," said Farron of the prime minister. "I will take him. He should talk to people there and look at the reality of the situation and he should deal with the reality rather than dealing with the myth."
Farron spoke about how he met one 14-year-old from Syria, alone in the camp without family, who had broken both legs falling off a wall while trying to reach the Channel tunnel. He said doctors there were treating an array of trauma conditions caused by attempted crossings.
But he said he also had compassion for British holidaymakers whose summer breaks were being delayed or cancelled due to the crisis. "People who've worked hard, saved up for their two weeks of holiday, my heart genuinely goes out to them," he said. "And for lorry drivers, there's a humanitarian issue for their drivers who might get to the other side and might find a bunch of dead people in the back.
"So this is a situation where there aren't any winners. But we don't get fewer losers by pitting one group against others. And that 14 year-old lad's suffering is of a greater order. The suffering he's already seen and the suffering he continues to endure because he's there without parents in a fairly scary place."
On Cameron's plan of more fences and dogs to seal the border, Farron said simply: "It is totally the wrong focus. That is a sticking plaster over the wrong wound."
"What we're dealing with is a quadrupling in recent years in the number of people who have become refugees," Farron continued. "And you don't deal with that by putting up a higher fence at Calais or our side of the channel. The answer to that is conflict prevention, it's understanding that international development is not just morally right, it's actually enlightened self interest because if you invest properly in countries and develop them then people will stay there."
He said Britain should not "open the door so wide that everyone can come in", but said the country "needs to be compassionate, we need to view these people as what they are – people".
Farron isn't the only politician to have visited Calais to see the crisis up close.
Shadow justice secretary Lord Falconer visited the port on Tuesday to meet Eurotunnel officials and the Road Haulage Association. Echoing Farron, he said the situation was a "European-wide problem which needs to be dealt with on a European-wide scale".
UKIP MEP Mike Hookem took a different tack when he visited the site – by promptly scaling a fence in an attempt to prove how easy it was for migrants to get into the tunnel. He also tweeted about how his "team and I stopped more illegals getting onto the track than euro tunnel security".
Farron said Hookem's actions were not particularly helpful. "What he can't replicate is the desperation to do it," he said. "What he can't replicate is seeing your neighbors murdered in front of you, having to move your kids from what was a stable and happy place to a massively risky journey across the Mediterranean and maybe seeing a member of your family die on the way.
"I don't think any MP or MEP can recreate that. But it's good that he went and I hope he talks to the people who are trying it."
It was only when Farron was back in London on Tuesday night that the migrants' experiences really hit him. "It's no way to exist," he said. "These are bright, educated people that just want to create a life for themselves."
"Back at the camp at that time, night would have fallen and it's a different place," he said. "You already felt that the mood was changing when we left at 7pm. It's not a nice place to be. You just got a sense of what these people experienced – they had fled appalling circumstances, and now here they were cooped up for months, sometimes for years."
"I was just angry at the way their plight has been exploited to make a short-term political point. If we were in their position, if we had as much gumption as they did, we'd do what they had."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at email@example.com.
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