‘UK must understand the burden on France’

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.”

‘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

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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French police cause misery for migrants in Calais

French police are inflicting misery on migrants in the northern port of Calais, routinely tearing down their tents and forcing them to wander the streets as part of a deterrence policy, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on Thursday.

French police cause misery for migrants in Calais
A migrant camp is evacuated by police forces in Calais in February 2019. Photo: Philippe HUGUEN / AFP.

The 75-page report documents methods used by authorities to prevent the emergence of another major migrant settlement in Calais, five years after the demolition of the sprawling “Jungle” camp which housed up to 10,000 people at its peak.

Calais has for years been a rallying point for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa trying to sneak across the English Channel to Britain.

Faced with growing public anti-migrant sentiment, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has waged a campaign to prevent new camps emerging.

Police tactics include systematically tearing down migrants’ tents in the woods, on wasteland or under bridges, regularly confiscating their belongings and harassing NGOs trying to provide them with aid, according to New York-based HRW.

“The authorities carry out these abusive practices with the primary purposes of forcing people to move elsewhere, without resolving their
migration status or lack of housing, or of deterring new arrivals,” it said in the report entitled “Enforced Misery: The Degrading Treatment of Migrant Children and Adults in Northern France”.

‘Harass and abuse’

NGOs estimate the number of migrants currently living around Calais at between 1,500 and 2,000, including numerous families. Local authorities estimate that only 500 remain in the area.

Last week, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered the eviction of a camp housing 400 migrants near a hospital in Calais, which was presented as a danger to the hospital’s patients and staff.

On that occasion the migrants were taken to temporary shelters but often they are left to wander the streets.

“When the police arrive, we have five minutes to get out of the tent before they destroy everything,” a Kurdish woman from Iraq told HRW.

The interior ministry did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on the report.

The government argues that the camps are havens for people smugglers, who command extortionate fees to help migrants cross to Britain, either in a small boat crossing the Channel in the dead of night or stowed away on a truck crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.

NGOs argue that the tactics do nothing more than make migrants already difficult lives even more miserable.

The report quoted the Calais-based Human Rights Observers group as saying that in some cases cleaning crews cut migrants’ tents while people are still inside, in order to force them out.

“If the aim is to discourage migrants from gathering in northern France, these policies are a manifest failure and result in serious harm,” Benedicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch, said.

French authorities “need a new approach to help people, not repeatedly harass and abuse them,” she added.

A total of 15,400 people attempted to cross the Channel in the first eight months of this year, a increase of 50 percent over the figure for the whole of 2020, according to French coast guard statistics.

“Exiles aren’t travelling to northern France because they’ve heard they can camp in the woods or stay under a bridge…They come because that’s where the border is,” Charlotte Kwantes, national coordinator of the Utopia 56 charity was quoted in the report as saying.