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INTERVIEW - CALAIS MIGRANTS

IMMIGRATION

Calais: ‘People will be killed if nothing is done’

With migrants fighting running street battles in the port of Calais, The Local speaks to Jean-François Corty from the humanitarian group Medecins du Monde, who says the crisis is worsening and it's only a matter of time before people are killed.

Calais: 'People will be killed if nothing is done'
Migrants argue together during a food distribution in Calais, northern France. Aid agencies say there will be people killed if nothing is done. Photo: Francois Lo Presti/AFP

Just how bad is the situation in Calais?

I’ve been working in Calais for the last seven years and this is the worst we have had to face. 

What has caused the outbreaks of violence between migrants?

Basically there’s so many people trying to get onto the trucks [to get to across the Channel to the UK] they are fighting over the best places to do that and there’s so few of them. This is not ethnic violence. There are huge numbers of migrants living in the same place and the pressure builds up. They have nothing to lose. It’s a very worrying situation. We will see more fights and we will have deaths. That is a certainty.

Why has the situation deteriorated so badly?

In the last few weeks there has been has been a large increase in the number of refugees coming here, mostly from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan. Currently there’s around 1,000 to 1,500 refugees living on the streets of Calais. Every week we see 200 – 300 more. There’s huge pressure because of the restrictions on where they can live. Camps have been dismantled by police but there is no alternative accommodation provided for them.

What is the situation like for the migrants?

We face a situation at the moment where families, pregnant women and children are living on the streets without any assistance from authorities. They have problems even accessing clean water, because a few water pumps which were open just two months ago have now been turned off. They also have problems finding food. There’s currently around three to four big camps that have been set up on industrial estates, near chemical plants, close to the sea.

What are the French authorities doing to ease the crisis?

They don’t want to provide help because they don’t want to send out the message to the world that this place is a place where people can come. They are only focussed on stopping crime and are not responding to basic needs. The police have the means to destroy camps but they are not responding to the reality of the needs on the ground. Organisations like ours are trying to do what we can, like provide sleeping bags, clean water and basic health treatment, but it’s impossible to cover all the needs. It’s become more and more difficult to provide assistance.  

What needs to be done?

The message needs to be given to the migrants that they can have rights in France, because most of them think they can have better access to rights in the UK.  The authorities here do not tell them about how to access rights in France. It would also be a good idea for the French authorities to ask the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] to come to Calais and take a look. They have experience in these matters and it would be good to get their assessment. I’m not saying they need to build a refugee camp, but just to make some recommendations. The authorities also need to work with the UK and with Italy, where most migrants arrive, to find a solution in the long term. They need to accept that the wars and unrest in East Africa will not stop in the short term.

SEE ALSO: Calais Migrants – France needs a new policy

What about building a new centre like Sangatte?

The problem with Sangatte was that it was difficult to manage because of the mafia and criminals there. It would be possible to manage a refugee centre on a smaller scale, that would prioritise young women and children and young boys who need a rest after travelling across Europe. At the moment the situation doesn’t work. There’s not enough lodgings available to refugees in France. When the camps are destroyed the are sent to temporary detention centres around France, but after two or three days they are released and return to Calais.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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