Calais: New migrant camp ‘is not the answer’

The news that France will build an official camp in Calais to house 1,500 migrants has been met with anger by aid groups while politicians claim it will end up like the infamous Sangatte detention centre that had to be closed in 2002.

Calais: New migrant camp 'is not the answer'
The squalid camp known as "Sangatte without a roof" will replaced by what some critics are saying will be a new Sangatte. Photo: AFP

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.

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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.