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IMMIGRATION

French police clear out huge migrant camp in northern Channel port

French police began clearing around 1,000 migrants from a gymnasium near the northern port of Dunkirk on Tuesday after a court ruled it was a health and security hazard.

French police clear out huge migrant camp in northern Channel port
Photo: AFP

The mayor of Grande-Synthe in December 2018 opened up the sports hall to migrant families seeking shelter from the cold. 

Since then, it has grown into a makeshift camp with around 800 people sleeping in tents pitched around the crammed gymnasium where some 170 people, mostly Iraqi Kurds hoping to reach Britain, had been sheltering.

Tuesday's clearance operation began shortly after 8:00 am (0600 GMT).

Young men travelling alone were the first to board buses that will take them to shelters around the region, where they can apply for asylum.

AFP

Families were to be moved later.

Northern France has long been a magnet for people seeking to smuggle themselves to Britain in the tens of thousands of trucks and cars that travel daily between the countries on ferries and trains.

The area around Grande-Synthe has traditionally drawn Iraqi Kurds and has been repeatedly cleared in recent years. 

A court in the regional city of Lille ordered the gymnasium shut on September 4 following complaints from local authorities and residents about violence, garbage and the presence of people-smugglers among the migrants.

French authorities have had a policy of trying to prevent migrants forming camps since 2016 when they razed a notorious illegal squat nicknamed the “Jungle” near the port of Calais which was home to 10,000 people at its height.

AFP

But rights groups have criticised police tactics and migrants have begun taking every greater risks to try reach Britain, including trying to cross the Channel — the world's busiest shipping lane — in small boats.

In December, the country's human rights ombudsman denounced the “extreme destitution” suffered by people camping out or sleeping under bridges in the Calais area.

The ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, accused the authorities of “trying to make (migrants) invisible” by regularly tearing down their camps without providing them with viable alternatives.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to speed up the asylum claims process for people deemed to be bona fide refugees, while vowing to accelerate the deportation of so-called economic migrants.

On Monday, he told his ministers that the government needed to tackle the issue of immigration head on, warning that “by claiming to be humanist, sometimes we are too laxist.”

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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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