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‘UK must understand the burden on France'

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‘UK must understand the burden on France'
Syrian refugees protest at Calais, demanding free passage to the UK, and a meeting with British PM David Cameron. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP
11:02 CET+01:00
Outspoken French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has lamented an “impasse” in the way the UK works with France on immigration, particularly at the port of Calais, asking the British to “understand the burden on France.”

Valls was speaking on Thursday at the northern French port of Calais, a flashpoint from which would-be migrants to the UK attempt to cross the English Channel illegally.

“We need full and complete cooperation between all parties. We will also, no doubt, need to flesh out and renegotiate certain agreements, in order to reinforce France’s cooperation with Britain and Europe,” he said.

Successive French governments have been criticized for failing to come up with a definitive solution to the problem of migrant camps at the port and in the town of Calais.

French border police have been accused of being lax in allowing desperate migrants to make dangerous crossings of the Channel, after which they become a burden and headache to British authorities.

“Our British friends must realize the burden, the weight, which is on France. At the time [bilateral migration agreements were made], the idea was that the UK would evolve and develop its immigration policy,” said Valls, who described Franco-British relations on the issue as “at an impasse.”

Perhaps in order to demonstrate  the severity of the burden placed on French law enforcement, Valls also said on Thursday that he had asked British Home Secretary Teresa May to personally come to Calais, a visit he mooted for some time “in the first few months of 2014.”

For its part, the UK Home Office did not respond directly on Friday to Valls’ comments, and would not address the possibility of a visit by May to Calais.

Instead, a Home Office spokesperson told The Local: "Border Force has staff in Northern France to stop individuals before they reach the UK and in the year to April 2013, 11,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally were prevented.

"Border Force works collaboratively and successfully with the French authorities to combat cross-channel illegal migration and the organised criminality behind it.”

Between 300 and 500 undocumented migrants currently live in semi-permanent camps at Calais, according to AFP.

That number is a sharp drop from just a few years ago, however, when a notorious wooded area known locally as “The Jungle” was home to some 2,000 – largely Afghan – migrants.

The camps were dramatically cleared out during a dawn raid by French CRS riot police, in September 2009.

There was something of a diplomatic row between France and Britain in the early 2000s over a controversial Red Cross refugee camp at nearby Sangatte, from which hundreds of immigrants attempted to use the Channel Tunnel to enter the UK.

The camp was cleared and dismantled in 2002 by then Interior Minister, and future French President Nicolas Sarkozy, after rioting.

The Socialist-led government of President François Hollande has also been under pressure in recent months from locals in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.

On Thursday, centre-right UMP Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart was left disappointed after Valls unveiled a plan to hand over a contingent of CRS riot police to the control of the Pas-de-Calais department's public safety administration. 

The mayor had insisted that the town of Calais and surrounding areas must become a Priority Security Zone (ZSP) - an official designation which entails significant added resources and police numbers. 

In October, Bouchart caused controversy by calling, via her Facebook page, for residents to start notifying local police about the presence and location of “squats” occupied by migrants.

Earlier that month, a group of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria went on hunger strike and occupied a gangway at the ferry terminal of Calais, demanding free passage and asylum in the UK, and a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The arrival of 50 French riot police, and a threat by two Syrian men to commit suicide, looked likely to escalate the episode into a major incident.

In the end, however, the demonstrators backed down, after British border police present in Calais ruled out their entry into the UK.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius promised to fast track any applications for asylum in France, but some of the Syrians – many of whom claimed to have family in the UK – rejected the offer.

"We thought that France was the country where human rights are respected," said Tarik, a 19-year old from the southern Syrian city of Deraa near the border with Jordan.

"But we live outside like dogs, hunted down by the police, we see we are not welcome, how can we seek asylum here?" he said.

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