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IMMIGRATION

Migrants seek refuge in small Normandy port

A year after France dismantled the notorious "Jungle" migrant camp at Calais, nearly 100 Africans can be found living out in the cold in the northern port of Ouistreham.

Migrants seek refuge in small Normandy port
Photo: AFP
They survive thanks to donations from local people and despite the systematic intervention of the authorities to close down any encampment.
   
“It's hell,” says a 25-year-old man from Sudan.
   
“Last night we couldn't sleep in the woods, it rained all the time. But each time we tried to sleep somewhere in the city, the police came to tell us to leave,”  the migrant who gave his name as Badr tells AFP.
   
Behind him a group of volunteers from this  small city of 9,000 people are handing out food.
   
Every day Badr says he tries to slip onboard a ferry crossing the Channel to England.
 
The African migrants, mostly from Sudan, wander the streets of the Ouistreham port amid passengers heading for and coming from the British coast.
 
Three ferries leave daily for Portsmouth.
 
Photo: AFP   
 
Ouistreham is a far cry from Calais where 40 ferries leave each day for Britain and police say nearly 450 migrants are still holed up despite the French government closing the “jungle” camp and relocating thousands of migrants who had lived in the immense slum there.
   
But after the Calais camp was shut down, migrants began showing up in this small coastal town in Normandy.
 
In the woods
 
The migrants, all young men, seek refuge in the woods around Ouistreham.
   
One afternoon last week four of them were warming themselves around a fire amid intermittent freezing rain.
   
“It's very cold, life is very hard here. The French people are good to us but not the authorities,” says one of them named Ahmad.
   
Another man is sleeping nearby covered with a blanket and under a tarpaulin.
 
But when police and city workers arrive, the migrants scatter.
   
A dumpster leaves the woods with a pile of abandoned blankets and duvets — donations from the Ouistreham group helping migrants (CAMO).
 
Photo: AFP
 
Claims of harassment
 
For city's mayor Romain Bail, the migrants “for the most part do not pose any problem, in terms of aggression”.
   
But he says he doesn't want his city to become a magnet for migrants. He has taken steps to ensure that camps are not set up and has increased the police numbers.
 
The CAMO group has accused some police of using measures such as tear gas on the migrants — though the authorities say they intervene only to enforce the law.
 
“They (the police) take their duvet, their phone. It's harassment,” says Michel Martinez, one of the founders of CAMO.
   
“These men have known worse. They saw bodies floating in the Mediterranean, but still there is no reason” for harassing them.
 
“It's the citizens who take steps so the migrants don't freeze to death or die of hunger in the woods.”
 
While some city residents are hostile to the migrants, he adds, that nevertheless “every day around 15 to 20 cars come to my home to bring the migrants” food and clothing.
   
Near the port terminal, fish merchant Sandrine Simon says she also manages to give the migrants some help.
   
“They are looking for water to wash themselves, and electricity to charge their cellphone,” she explains.
 
By AFP's Chloé COUPEAU

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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