The Big Question: Why is the UN setting up in Calais and can it resolve the refugee problem?

Author: By Robert Verkaik

Why are we asking this now?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is formally
establishing a full-time presence in the French port. The agency’s staff
will help migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers negotiate the French and
British immigration systems. But the focus will be on assisting those who
want to request asylum in France. The UN has had a part-time presence in
Calais since early June and, as of yesterday, that has been increased to
five days a week. The UNHCR says it is important that those people fleeing
persecution and war have free access to “unbiased” information so
that they know they can claim asylum in Calais. Part of the purpose of the
renewed mission is to protect migrants and asylum-seekers from the
misinformation given to them by traffickers.

How many refugees are living in Calais?

An estimated 1,600 refugees and migrants are camped outside Calais, a fifth of
them children. But the current situation in France is a far cry from the
Sangatte encampment, which saw 68,000 people pass through its vast halls
between 1998 and 2002. The camp was designed to hold about 900 refugees, but
the Red Cross said numbers peaked at about 2,000. Sangatte was closed in
2002 after a deal was struck by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and
his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now the President.

What are the conditions like in the camps?

Pretty squalid. There is no proper provision of even basic facilities, and
refugees scavenge or rely on charity hand-outs. On 13 June, a young Eritrean
drowned in a Calais canal after he went there to wash. Most of refugees live
in appaling conditions in a shanty town constructed in the woods near the
Channel Tunnel, commonly known as “The Jungle”. Last month, two of
the camps, which had been used by 100 migrants, were levelled by French

Who is living there?

According to the international charity Médecins Sans Frontières, the majority
arrive from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia or Palestine and are
fleeing war, violence, hunger and extreme hardship. The recent unrest in
Pakistan and Iran has also increased numbers. Many have made long and
perilous journeys. In a desperate bid to escape their plights, some have
paid money to traffickers to get them to Britain, where they may have
relatives. The traffickers often lie about the true legal position in France
and Britain.

What do locals think of the camps?

The sentiment in Calais could be best summed up as “not in my back yard”.
The local tourism industry and many businesses are opposed to the camps
because there is a strong perception that the refugee problem deters people
from visiting the French port. They blame Britain for not doing enough to
discourage asylum seekers. The UNHCR describes relations between the
refugees and the people of Calais as “tense”. Recent years have
seen protest marches about the situation.

What would happen if the French authorities were to close them?

The lesson of Sangatte shows that emptying the camps would not stop immigrants
and refugees coming to stay at the French ports. When Sangatte was shut, it
took only a few months before more refugees came back to the town to find
makeshift, alternative accommodation. Closing the camps would simply result
in a displacement of the immigrants, making it even more difficult to
monitor them. The job of policing the immigrants is made much easier by
having a designated refugee camp.

Why don’t the refugees want to stay in France?

There is a perception that the French immigration rules are much stricter than
the British ones, and so some refugees pin all their hopes on applying for
asylum in the UK. But many more refugees want to come to Britain because
they believe they have a genuine claim for asylum. Some are Iraqis or
Afghans who have worked with British forces during the occupation of their
countries and now fear persecution because they are treated as
collaborators. Others have been tortured or raped. A study by Smain Laacher,
a French sociologist, found that nearly 90 per cent of the Iraqi Kurds and
Tajiks or Pashtuns from Afghanistan were reasonably well educated and had
saved the equivalent of several years’ wages to pay for the journey. It begs
an obvious question: what terrors did they leave behind to prefer to spend
their lives in a makeshift camp with no sanitation?

What does the law say?

Under the Dublin convention, a refugee is supposed to claim asylum in the
first safe country through which he or she travels, and an EU member state
may return an asylum seeker to that country. The convention is a treaty
between EU members which came into force in September 1997. Under the
treaty, a member state is responsible for handling an asylum application if
a member of the asylum-seeker’s family has been given refugee status in that
country, or if a refugee has been granted a visa or residence permit for
that country. A member state is also responsible if the refugee has been
able to enter its territory because of poor border controls or has been
allowed to enter without a visa.

What are Britain and France doing to stop immigrants from crossing the

The two governments are currently discussing the creation of a new immigrant
holding centre within the British side of the Calais docks. This would be
more institutionalised than Sangatte and would allow both immigration
authorities to send illegal immigrants home more easily. Nearly 20,000
illegal attempts by immigrants to enter Britain were thwarted by the UK
Border Authority in Calais last year, compared with 7,500 in 2004. A further
9,000 were stopped in Coquelle, Paris and in Dunkirk, Belgium. It is not
known how many more immigrants succeeded in outwitting border guards. Phil
Woolas, the Border and Immigration minister, says: “Last year alone, UK
Border Agency staff at our French and Belgium controls not only searched
more than one million lorries but also stopped 28,000 attempts to cross the
Channel illegally. The illegal migrants in France are not queuing to get
into Britain ? they have been locked out.”

What are the alternatives to the current policies?

The options tend to fall between two extremes. One is to open up Europe’s
borders, forcing other European states taking their fair share of
immigrants, so that there is a free flow of immigrants. After several years,
migration across continents and countries might even out. In Greece, for
example, 99.9 per cent of all asylum claimants are rejected, with similarly
high rejection rates in Slovenia. With such low refugee recognition rates
across parts of southern and eastern Europe, there is little incentive for
persons who think they may have legitimate asylum claims to break off from
the people traffickers and claim asylum while en route. The other extreme
option would be to stop all immigrants from entering Britain. This would
contravene EU and international law and end Britain’s long and proud record
as a place for those seeking sanctuary from all kinds of persecution.

Would closing the camps stop illegal immigrants from entering Britain?


* The camps in northern France actually act as a magnet for illegal immigrants
from across the world who want to come to the British Isles

* Human traffickers would not be able to trawl the camps for victims

* Without anywhere to live, the immigrants would soon enough return to their


* Closure would simply displace any illegal immigrants and refugees ? the
problem would not go away

* The majority of residents in the camps are genuine asylum-seekers and not
illegal immigrants

* The best way to stop illegal immigrants is to tighten up Britain’s border

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