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IMMIGRATION

French imam gets two years in jail over Channel migrant crossings

A French court on Monday sentenced an imam from northern France to two years in prison for helping migrants try to cross the English Channel in inflatable boats.

French imam gets two years in jail over Channel migrant crossings
Illustration photo: AFP
The 39-year-old preacher, who is of Iranian origin and was granted political asylum in France, is accused of organising several crossings from northern France to England since last December.
   
A 29-year-old Senegalese man who attends the mosque in Rouen where the imam preaches also stood trial. He got nine months in jail and was banned from 
visiting the northern French regions of Nord and Pas-de-Calais for three years.     
 
The imam fainted upon hearing his sentence.
   
The men admitted providing six or seven dinghies after they were taken into custody in April, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported on Monday.
 
 
Channel migrant crossings in sharp decline: France
 
The investigation began in late March when gendarmes found life jackets, wet pullovers and a rubber dinghy on a beach in northern France.
 
Neither of the men was previously known to police, Le Figaro said.
   
Police found two boats, three outboard engines and life jackets in the imam's house. The two men confessed to buying seven boats between December 2018 and April 2019.
   
The priest told the court that he went to a shop in Deulemont, on the border with Belgium, to buy boats for a person he identified only as Kamal.
   
Both defendants said they only found out later that the boats were being used by migrants for illegal Channel crossings.
   
“When I learnt that, I thought of the children on board and I told myself there could have been deaths,” the Senegalese man told the court.  The imam for his part said he was “ashamed”.
   
Prosecutors said their explanations “did not reflect reality” and that the imam was regularly in the areas where the boats were found. 
   
For years, thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia have attempted to reach Britain from the French port of Calais, the vast majority by trying to stow away on trucks crossing the Channel.
   
But there has been a recent rise in the number of migrants attempting to cross in boats, despite the risk of strong currents, cold waters and collisions in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
   
In March, a French court jailed two Iraqis and an Iranian man for organising illegal migrant boat journeys across the Channel.
   
Britain's Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes called a spike in incidents in December “deeply concerning”, after dozens of people were rescued after 
sailing from France in an inflatable boat.
   
French interior ministry figures show 276 people successfully reached British shores last year.

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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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