What is the cost of the migrant crisis to the UK?

Gridlock is costing hundreds of thousands of pounds a day

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What is the cost of the migrant crisis to the UK?

Thousands are trying to stowaway on lorries at Calais to seek refuge in the UK. But how big is this problem really? Simon Wilson reports.

How much is the Calais migrant crisis costing?

The most direct economic damage is to the freight haulage industry. The overall cost of running a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) is about £1 a minute. So each time HGVs are compelled to queue for hours on the M20 and surrounding Kent roads, held up as the authorities try to deal with the migrants, it immediately adds hundreds of pounds in costs to every road trip.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) reckons the gridlock costs its members about £750,000 a day. That's before you factor in losses caused as a result of the delays – plus damage to goods by stowaways trying to reach the UK from France.

What does that add?

One major distributor of pharmaceuticals carrying drugs for NHS hospitals had to write off stock worth £2.5m after migrants broke into one of its lorries, according to the FTA. Figures from the Fresh Produce Consortium suggest at least £10m of food imports had to be thrown away in the first six months of the year due to the "contamination risk" posed by stowaways.

The Road Haulage Association estimates that 90% of road freight between Britain and mainland Europe travels through Kent, accounting for goods worth about £200bn, with as many as 10,000 loads crossing the Channel each day. They say that even if only 1% of stock is tampered with, that's an average loss of £30,000 a trailer, amounting to £3m a day or about £1bn a year.

What about other businesses?

The overall cost to the UK economy is hard to quantify, but The Sunday Times estimates that businesses affected by the chaos in Calais and Kent have suffered about £250m a day in lost trade. They include retailers and manufacturers who have not received goods in time, or not been able to deliver them. Producers of perishable foods have been hit badly.

To make things worse, many hauliers and other firms report that insurance companies are refusing to cover the damage on the grounds that the situation in Calais amounts to uninsured "civil disorder".

Why are so many coming?

They aren't. Compared to comparable EU countries, the number of people claiming asylum in Britain is more a trickle than a flood. So far this year about 179,000 refugees have applied for asylum in Germany – roughly the same figure as for the whole of 2014. The figure for the whole of this year is expected to be 400,000, the highest since the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. By contrast, Britain had 31,000 applications in 2014 – far less per capita than France (59,000), the Netherlands (28,000), Denmark (15,000) and Belgium (14,000).

Britain's exceptionally low number of asylum claims is, of course, partly explained by geography: we are on the north-west fringe of Europe surrounded by sea (though Sweden, also not easy to get to, had about three times as many asylum seekers last year, 75,000).

Are the Calais migrants 'refugees'?

Some are and some aren't – and the distinction between asylum seekers who have yet to claim asylum and 'illegal' economic migrants is in any event ambiguous and fiercely contested. Pierre Henry, a local charity worker interviewed by The Economist, estimates that about 40% of the 4,000 residents of the Calais 'Jungle' camp have a good case for asylum. (That's also about the rate for successful asylum claims in the UK, though it's far higher for people from Syria and Eritrea, for example.)

But what cannot be contested is that many thousands of people see life in the UK as so much better than the one facing them in France, that they are prepared to risk their lives to get here.

Why do they prefer the UK?

On the face of it, the differences between Britain and France aren't great: they are comparably rich countries with similar approaches to human rights and welfare (asylum seekers can't legally work while their case is assessed, but they get a room and £5 a day if they are destitute). But the people attempting to reach England from Calais are likely to have strong, specific reasons for preferring the UK. They may be English speakers, have relatives here, or simply believe they stand a better chance of either claiming asylum or finding work.

It's true that of those who apply, Britain accepts far more asylum claims than France (38.8% last year compared to 21.7% in France). This country also has far lower unemployment than France: the number of unfilled job vacancies has tripled to around 750,000 in the past two years. And there is a widespread perception that it is easier to find work in Britain "without papers", as there is no system of ID cards and a thriving 'black economy'.

How big is our black economy?

The size of a country's 'black economy' is obviously hard to gauge, as is the proportion of workers who are undocumented migrants. The most widely cited recent estimate of the former is from a 2013 study by the management consultancy AT Kearney, which put the size of the UK's black economy at 10% of GDP – the same level as France's. That's the same proportion as a report by the UK government's Migration Advisory Committee, although markedly more than an OECD survey in 2012, which put the UK's 'non-observed' economy at 2.3% of GDP (compared to 6.7% in France).

A separate 2011 OECD study reckoned that illegal immigrants accounted for just 1% of total employment in the UK (compared to 0.75% in France), suggesting they make a relatively small contribution.

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