The Ghost of Sangatte


France is facing a new humanitarian crisis aggravated by its response to the recent rebellion by the children of North African origin.

Addressing the nation after the riots, President Jacques Chirac declared France’s resolve to fight illegal migration. France will follow a stricter migration and asylum policy, he said. The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, promised the deportation of migrants (even those with residence permit ) who played any role in the riots. A poster advertising a rally by the supporters of the leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, said, "Le Pen warned that immigration was out of controlLe Pen was right all along." Migrants are used as a scapegoat for France’s racial and ethic problems.

Fearing the rising anti-immigrant sentiments, many migrants and asylum seekers will leave France for a home elsewhere in Europe. Calais, a port city in Northern France, and only a short distance from England, is their last stop in the country. The movement has already begun.

Joining other migrants already in the port, the new arrivals sleep outdoors along the railroad tracks and on cold cement near the harbor, and wait for the opportune time to hide in trucks and trailers aboard ships leaving for England. Among them are those who fled political persecution, war, and poverty. Some traveled for years, negotiating with human smugglers, enduring beating by border guards, living in makeshift camps and safe houses, and literally risking their lives to reach France.

Calais caught the attention of the world with the opening of a refugee camp by the Red Cross in a nearby village, Sangatte. The camp opened its doors to traveling migrants in 1999. Originally designed to house refugees from the war in Kosovo, it was soon a magnet for Iranians, Iraqi Kurds, Afghans, and some Africans on the last leg of their long journey west. At its peak, an average of fifteen hundred men, women, and children slept in the camp.

Sangatte was soon a legend. From Kandahar to Kirkuk, thousands of migrants took to the road with one goal: arriving at the camp and preparing for the next stage of their journey-moving to England through the Eurotunnel. During its short life, some sixty eight thousand migrants passed through the camp. Between August 1999 and December 2000, the Eurotunnel security intercepted around twenty-nine thousand people trying to leave for England at the Coquelles terminal. The migrants were handed over to the French police. Nearly three thousand were deported. The rest were set free.

The French authorities conveniently closed their eyes to the activities in Sangatte. The camp served as a voluntary deportation center. The unwanted migrants and asylum seekers left the country after a short stay. They left on their own. The English protested and demanded the closure of Sangatte. The French resisted, and the quarrel continued. After months of negotiation and disagreement between the two countries, an agreement was reached. Sangatte was closed in November 2002. A month later, the camp was demolished.

The closure, however, failed to stop the flow of migrants who continued to arrive, albeit in smaller numbers. Now, they were dispersed in Sangatte, and elsewhere.

The number of homeless migrants sleeping in public parks in Paris swelled overnight. Newspapers wrote about the potential for a human catastrophe. In a January 12, 2003 story, an article in The Observer warned: "Hundreds of asylum-seekers, including families with small children, are now sleeping rough under the elegant bridges and in the doorways of Paris as the worst winter spell for years threatens to create a humanitarian ‘crisis’." [i] In Calais, the migrants were sleeping in public parks or makeshift shelters in bellow zero temperatures.

I visited Calais months after the closure of Sangatte. By then, many smaller Sangattes had emerged, many makeshift encampments created by the migrants. They slept on muddy ground and rough gravel, under abandoned tractors and construction machines, and out in the open without protection. Men from Iran, Afghanistan , Northern Iraq, and Sudan assembled along the railroad tracks near the dock. They camped at the border.

The dark skin migrants roamed around Calais and nearby places. For the most part, the locals resented them. Frightened and distrustful, they protested and wished them to disappear. Some defied their neighbor’s sentiments and wishes, took the homeless migrants to their homes, sheltered and fed them, gave them the protection they were denied by the government. The migrants welcomed the assistance. The French government accused them of assisting clandestine border crossing, threatened them with long-term jail sentences. Many continued to help. In 2003, Charles Frammezelle, who sheltered 21 Afghans was charged with "aiding irregular residence in an organized group." A crime normally attributed to people-smugglers, the charge carried a five-year jail penalty. [ii]

Occasionally, the police clamped down and harassed those who helped. They rounded up the migrants routinely, took them to places far away from the town, and released them by the highway. The migrants walked for hours along the highway and returned to their ‘homes’ at the border.

Away from the port, in the woods near a highway, a number of Kurds from Northern Iraq hid from the police and the public. Using plastic and cardboard, they took shelter from rain and snow. "Three people sleep here," a man in his thirties told me, standing a tent-like layers of plastic held up by sticks. Three sleeping bags and a blanket or two, shirts and pants were scattered on rough ground. "When it rains, everything gets wet and muddy," he said. Outside, there were clothes hanging on tree braches, pots and pans, a blackened teapot, and a number of empty jelly jars used as teacups and drinking glasses under a tree.

Walking a long distance to the woods, the Kurds carried water in buckets and plastic containers. They had a few pots and pans, and a small burner. The pots and glasses were laid on the ground under a tree. Ants and bugs crawled in and out. The men often burned wood and cooked on open fire. The pots were blackened from the smoke.

"Please take a picture of this," a man told me. Following him, I was in a wide and open space. A long and thick blue plastic sheet covered a broken and rusted heavy machine. "This is my home," he said. There were blankets on the ground and under the machine. "Take a picture of this. We live like animals," he said, and I photographed his home. Moving away in shame, he said, "I once had a life."

In the months that followed, the number of migrants in Calais declined. Facing the difficulties to leave for England, many stayed in Paris and applied for asylum. France received the highest number of asylum seekers among the industrialized nations after 2003. But the republic continued to reject nearly 90% of the applicants. By mid 2005, France’s reluctance to grant asylum to most of the applicants slowly gave rise to a new movement of migrants to Calais. France became, once again, a transit country, a stop on the journey to a more hospitable place in the West.

The number of migrants arriving in Calais is on the rise. And now, with the current backlash against migrants, the port is once again becoming an inhospitable home at the border for the traveling men and women from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia .

Given the general mood in the country, the migrants are the least likely candidates for help and support from the government and the public. Even the communist mayor of the port stated reservation. We cannot "provide a refuge for all the world’s misery," he said earlier this year.

The winter season is around the corner. A humanitarian crisis is in the making in Calais. Will the Republic deliver Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity to these migrants? Will it change its migration policy?

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West ( Delacorte Press). He is a professor of Economics at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Visit Yaghmaian’s website at www.yaghmaian.com. He could be reached at behzad.yaghmaian@gmail.com.

[i] Paul Webster, "Sangatte Refugees Freeze on Paris Streets," The Observer, January 12, 2003 .

[ii] Tomas Van Houtryve, "Europe ‘s Illegals Trapped in Catch," Christian Science Monitor , December 2, 2003, online edition.


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