Co-operation is needed in Calais, not anti-migrant fences

The proposed NATO fence in Calais will not stop the flow of illegal immigrants.

The proposed NATO fence in Calais will not stop the flow of illegal immigrants

Over the last week we have seen the failure of inter-governmental migration policy enacted out in Calais. Group of migrants have attempted to breach the ferry port security, and there have been violence between rival national groups.

Yet the recent events are just the latest in a long line of incidents that have taken place over the last 15 years, not just in Calais, but to a lesser extent in other channel ports.

Today there are about 1,000 migrants living in the camps in the scrubland around Calais, sheltering in makeshift dwellings in what has become known as the ‘jungle’.

The first of these shanties were erected in the mid-1990s, when migrants started arriving in Calais, in the hope of reaching friends and family in the UK. At this time the migrants included many Kosovars, as well as those from West Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

At any given period, the camps dwellers represent a microcosm of the world’s poverty-stricken and disordered regimes; today the largest groups of residents are Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and Nigerians, including unaccompanied children.

As numbers grew, the death of a baby and pressures from Calais residents led the French Red Cross to open a shelter for the migrants. The Sangatte centre opened in 1999 in a converted warehouse.

While it offered food and healthcare, conditions inside were grim and there was continued tension between different groups of migrants. Smugglers’ agents operated inside Sangatte and attempts to enter the UK continued.

Moreover, Sangatte became the subject of disagreement between the French and British governments – in London politicians believed that the camp acted as a magnet and accused the French Government of washing its hands of this issue.

Following negotiations, David Blunkett, then home secretary, signed an agreement with the French in late 2002. Sangatte was closed and in return the UK took Afghans who had relatives in the UK. Nearly 1,000 Iraqi nationals were also given work permits and admitted to the UK as part of the deal.

Soon after, another Anglo-French agreement enabled UK immigration officers to work alongside the French at Calais, in juxtaposed border controls.

For a few months there were no migrants in Calais, but slowly numbers grew again, not only outside this town, but in other French and Belgian seaports. In 2009, interior minister, Nicholas Sarkozy, ordered the police to break up the camps. Most migrants disappeared – some turning up in Paris. A number of Afghan children were taken into the care of French social services, although many of them absconded.

Within a month or so, migrant camps again appeared outside Calais, a situation that persists today.

Those who live in the ‘jungle’ are – in technical terms – a mixed migration flow. They include those fleeing armed conflict and persecution who could potentially be granted refugee status, as well as those whose reasons for migration are primarily economic.

Ideally, French immigration authorities, assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, should enable those fleeing persecution to claim asylum in France. But the French authorities have been reluctant to assert their authority – they do not want asylum-seekers.

Moreover, many potential asylum-seekers want to come to the UK: they speak English, have friends and relatives here and have been sold the story – sometimes by people smugglers – that jobs are easy to find in the UK. They fear than applying for asylum in France risks them being trapped there or removed.

The problem goes back further than France. For many camp residents their point of entry into the EU was Italy or Greece. But those fleeing persecution who have family in northern Europe rarely apply for asylum in Italy or Greece, as their perception is that the Dublin Treaty will mean they will sent back to where they entered the EU.

Not that it is easy to apply for asylum in Italy or Greece. In the latter country there is only a tiny UNHCR office at which to claim asylum. Our own government deemed the Greek asylum system so dysfunctional that in 2011 it suspended Dublin removals to Greece.

So what are the solutions for Calais? The proposed NATO fence around the port will not stop the problem. Rather, it will shift if elsewhere. Instead, UNHCR and the European Commission needs to work with the Greek, Italian and Bulgarian governments to ensure their asylum systems are fit for purpose. This will require financial support from richer EU countries.

There also needs to be a more effective sharing of responsibility for refugees across the EU. At present, the Italian government is bearing the burden of clandestine entrants who arrive by sea from north Africa, with asylum applications per head of population roughly three time the level of the UK.

Such a sharing of responsibility will require cash transfers from countries such as the UK, or agreeing to take a proportion of refugees.

The 2014 Dublin 3 regulation, the most recent version of this inter-governmental treaty, provides opportunities for family reunion. Where an asylum application is lodged in Greece, but the applicant has close family ties, for example, in Germany, it should be possible to transfer the case to Germany.

However, this is not understood by migrants who instead evade the authorities for fear of jeopardising the chance of family reunion.

For those who do not qualify for asylum or legal migration routes, dignified and legal removal from the EU is required. At a European level there needs to be debate about Schengen open borders.

At present there is little discussion about the convenience of open borders and the disadvantages of clandestine migration.

The government also needs to give greater consideration to it might better prevent clandestine migration. To date, its approach has been mostly reactive.

In contrast, the Spanish government has taken a more pro-active line. It offers legal migration routes for nationals of some countries who might otherwise become irregular migrants. It recruits seasonal agricultural workers from Morocco through a programme allowing married women with children to work legally for short periods of time in Spain.

This programme was based on evidence that women with children were more likely to return to their country of origin than those who were male or childless.

The solutions to Calais are complex and involve measures focussed on asylum and others targeted at undocumented migration. These all require political will and money. But if our governments are serious about this clandestine migration, co-operation, not fences, are needed.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and has visited Calais a number of times over the last 15 years

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