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IMMIGRATION

Hundreds of migrants in Calais braced for winter without shelter

Despite the Jungle camp in Calais being torn down over a year ago hundreds of migrants are still sleeping rough in the port town braced for another cold and wet winter. This time they have no tents to sleep in.

Hundreds of migrants in Calais braced for winter without shelter
Photo: AFP

When the squalid Jungle camp near Calais was demolished last year, France hoped it was the last time migrants trying to reach Britain would be sleeping in tents and makeshift shacks outside the port city.

But just over a year later, as another winter sets in, there are still hundreds of migrants bracing for the cold, desperate to cross the Channel and to make a fresh start in Britain.

This time, however, they do not have a camp or even tents to sleep in, and a pledge by authorities to provide shelter will kick in only when daytime temperatures fall below minus five Celsius (23 Fahrenheit) and minus 10 (14 Fahrenheit) at night.

“My birthday is in a few days, but I don't think I'll be celebrating,” said Mohammad, a 23-year-old from Syria, as he and several other migrants gathered at a community kitchen run by the Auberge des Migrants NGO.

(AFP

Even though the harshest winter weather has not yet hit, most are already exhausted as they battle the cold and the lack of sleep.

Having been here just four days, Mohammad tries to look on the bright side as he warms his hands over a portable heater.

“It's tough, it's really cold. But me? I've no problems with clothing and I've got a sleeping bag,” he says.

Another Syrian, who is also named Mohammad and is seven years older, doesn't have it so good.

“I need some better shoes,” he says, pointing to the holes in the ones he is wearing.

“I ask every day” if local associations might have some — but so far in vain.

Shoe confiscations

Proper footwear is a major issue for many of the migrants. Some associations blame the local authorities for confiscating the meagre possessions that the asylum seekers do possess — sometimes even their shoes.

“Belongings are confiscated and destroyed systematically, from sleeping bags to tents, shoes and personal items,” says Franck Esnee, regional coordinator from the NGO Medecins du Monde.

“We have to distribute every week, or even more often,” says Sylvain Marty of the Auberge des Migrants, pointing to shelves of sleeping bags in storage.

“The refugees don't understand why one guy brings them blankets and then another takes them away the next day,” he says.

Contacted by AFP, a spokeswoman at the local prefect's office, which represents the French state in the Calais area, confirmed that “dismantling operations have taken place.”

But she added that “migrants are always invited to keep their personal effects” — assuming they are present.

But those who are not — who may have gone to a food distribution point, for instance — will see their belongings taken away.

(An aerial view of what the wasteland where t he Jungle camp used to stand. AFP)

Cold '24 hours a day'

“I've been here for four months, I sleep in the street,” says Girmoy, a 42-year-old Eritrean, as he heads for the food queue.

“I'm alone, I'm cold 24 hours a day.”

About 40 police officers arrived at the start of the week, swelling the ranks of a 1,130-member force in the region, of whom 440 are charged with what the authorities call the “migration problem”.

“The state must understand the solution is not to act as if the migrants are invisible,” Esnee said, calling the authorities' plans to deal with the problem “not good enough”.

Esnee adds that migrants who fill the 300 spaces available at four reception centres the government has opened across the region leave after just a night or two, with most having no intention of claiming asylum in France.

Given the extreme conditions they face, some take to drinking to blot out the cold.

Natacha Bouchart, the conservative mayor of Calais, last month denounced migrants who she said “drink a lot, down litres of vodka and get into fights”.

The alleged rape of a local woman by a 22-year-old Eritrean some days later added to the tensions.

Marty of the Auberge des Migrants said he had helped to organise meetings with some of the migrants “to tell them to go easy on the alcohol, which they have done.”

But the cold and alcohol are both proving hazardous, sometimes jointly.

“One morning I picked up someone suffering from hypothermia. He couldn't wake up after drinking the previous day and had to spend two days in hospital.”

by AFP's Baptiste Becquart

 

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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