The announcement this week by French PM Manuel Valls that a new camp will be built in Calais to house 1, 500 migrants was met with a certain degree of anger by opposition politicians as well as bitter disappointment by aid agencies working on the ground.
French authorities have long resisted building any kind of official lodgings for the thousands of migrants and refugees who have been living in squalid conditions in the northern port town of Calais, from where they hope to reach the UK.
Authorities fear a new camp will become a point of convergence for migrants so Valls’s apparent U-turn on Monday prompted confusion and criticism given that memories of the disastrous Sangatte immigration detention centre are still fresh.
Housed in a former hangar and run by the French Red Cross, Sangatte was opened in 1999, mainly to house the growing number of refugees fleeing war-torn Kosovo.
(The old hangar that housed thee Sangatte detention centre, before it was pulled down. AFP)
It was initially designed to cater for a few hundred migrants but ended up being home to nearly 2,000 from around the world who lived in desperate conditions.
Aid groups said the centre ended up being run by mafia trafficking gangs and violence was common between different ethnic groups.
In the end, the-then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy closed the centre in 2002, under pressure from both local authorities and the British government, who accused the French of creating a launch pad from where migrants could take their chance on getting to the UK.
(Sarkozy signs deal with former UK Home Secretary David Blunkett to close Sangatte. AFP)
Once closed the number of migrants heading to Calais dramatically reduced.
Many opposition politicians and critics, including the far-right Marine Le Pen, fear a new camp, due to open in 2016, will once again act as a focal point for migrants and refugees.
Le Pen said it was a “spectacular move backwards, more than ten years after the closure of Sangatte”.
Meanwhile, in a strongly worded opinion piece in the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper, lawyer and Professor Alexis Theas said the decision was “incomprehensible”.
“Valls is repeating the same errors… that lead to the disaster of Sangatte,” he writes.
(Migrants and refugees at Sangatte closely watched by police after outbreaks of violence. AFP)
Former justice minister Rachida Dati said the creation of the camp would mean 'Valls is complicit with the people smugglers because it would be an open-invitation for immigrants.”
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve however insists the new camp, which is likely to consist of scores of tents rather than a fixed building, will be nothing like its predecessor.
“Sangatte was a centre that was not subject to any kind of control by the state or organizations and it was not part of an implementation of any policy favouring asylum, nor a firm deportation policy of all those who were illegal immigrants,” Cazeneuve said this week.
Anger and disappointment among aid agencies
For their part humanitarian organisations, who have long been demanding the French government act, have been left bitterly disappointed by Valls' “half measure”.
“We had hoped the French government would show a willingness to lead the way in Europe on this issue,” Vincent de Coninck of aid organisation Secours Catholiques told The Local.
“This camp will not resolve the problem. There's already 3,000 migrants in Calais, do they think 1,500 are just going to go away?”
De Coninck dismissed the fears among some opponents that a new camp will only encourage more migrants to head to Calais, insisting the vast majority are simply fleeing war rather than being attracted by the prospect of camping out in Calais.
“It is what happens in their country of origin that propels them to leave. They are not just going to come to Calais because there's a new place to stay,” he said.
The new camp looks set to be on the site of the infamous semi-slum known as the “New Jungle” or “Sangatte without a roof”, which has been described as the “worst refugee camp in Europe”.
Thierry Benlahsen, responsible for the emergency response for the aid organization Solidarités Internationales told The Local the French government is not being “transparent” and agreed a new camp will not solve the problem in Calais.
“Who will run it? Who will provide health services and distribute food?” he said.
“I don’t understand why it will take four months to put up tents,” said Benlahsen. “Winter is around the corner and the migrants are already cold and the new arrivals are less and less prepared to spend long periods outside.”
De Coninck adds: “Why does it take France four months when Germany were able to organize lodging for 2,000 in two days?”
Organizations like Solidarités International and Secours Catholiques would rather see migrants redistributed around fixed lodgings across the country than packed in to one camp measuring two square kilometres.
Responding to those who fear conditions in any new camp will degenerate to the state of the old Sangatte, aid organizations insist things are already as bad than they can be.
Benlahsen says the situation in Calais has become critical, saying migrants were living in conditions as bad and as “inhumane” as in any refugee camp around the world.
“We have reached the limit of humane standards that are unacceptable not just in places like France and Britain, but in the likes of Jordan and Darfur,” he said.
Asked to respond to France’s decision to build a new camp, the Home Office in Britain simply said they would not be offering any funding towards the construction.