Fraying Asylums and Great Migrations

Though immigration, and the UK’s economic dependence on it, is a main concern in this month’s election, it does not extend to the safety of clandestine migrants trying to enter and cross Europe, or the long-term future of European asylum and refugee legislation. Rhetoric on migration is dominated by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), with its campaign to severely restrict all immigration and leave the European Union. There are already tighter border checks, more security and associated violence, with EU and French authorities implementing Britain’s frontline controls. Such measures will increase, whoever wins the election.

Although, after over 1,000 migrant deaths last month, the UK government may reconsider its responsibility for saving lives at sea (1), it believes the EU should police its Mediterranean borders; and British politicians insist it is France’s job to repel migrants congregating en route to the UK.

Calais is 30km from Dover, barely an hour by Eurostar train from London. Around its desolate quaysides, local authorities and police have reinforced a security-driven policy to deter migrants over the past six months, as two of Europe’s richest states improvise new ways to “manage” those fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In March, migrants around Calais seeking to enter the UK and claim political asylum there were yet again expelled from their precarious dwellings; soon after, Pierre Henry, head of the NGO France Terre d’Asile, watched, appalled, as hundreds of migrants scrabbled to construct bivouacs from the debris on a wasteland east of the port. He said: “We’re witnessing the birth of a new concept, the quasi-camp, the first ever in Europe; because we can’t think constructively about forced migration, we’ve lurched into an impasse” (2).

There has been a persistent bottleneck of migrants seeking to enter the UK clandestinely via Calais and northern France for over 20 years; at present they are mostly Sudanese, Afghans, Eritreans and Syrians. The UK government maintains their presence is France’s problem. The only policy solutions UK and French interior ministries are willing to countenance are higher barriers and tighter surveillance, ignoring the possibility that border regulations or EU-wide asylum procedures might be reformed in the interests of all. This explains the current drive to make life in and around Calais dangerous and unpleasant for would-be asylum seekers, in the forlorn hope it will deter newcomers. There is little evidence that such policies will work. Their cost, in migrants’ lives and wasted potential, as well as embattled French solidarity in the face of a resurgent Front National, suggest new ideas are needed.

UK government policy rests on the contradictions between two EU agreements. Under the 1999 Dublin convention, those seeking protection must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter, logging their fingerprints in an EU-wide database. The UK is a signatory to Dublin and insists other EU states abide by it. But the UK is not party to the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement within the EU. It retains national border controls, which since 2003 have been enforced in Calais rather than Dover, and obliges the French authorities to prevent illegal entry into the Calais ferry port and Eurotunnel zones.

Arrests and expulsions

Last summer unprecedented numbers gathered, notably young Eritreans arriving via Libya, Sicily and Lampedusa, to try to reach the UK. On 3 July riot police swooped on the many sleeping rough around the quayside soup kitchens; determined to dislodge migrant camps from the city centre, police detained 600, issuing expulsion orders to 205 Eritreans, Sudanese and Afghans. Five days later all charges were dropped — there is a pattern of brandishing legal threats to evict and dissuade. The orders were quietly declared illegal, and the local authorities were censured by both France’s Conseil d’Etat and the European Court of Human Rights for overriding legal procedures.

Two months of instability ensued; the migrants sought new refuges on the outskirts of town while fresh arrivals, particularly Eritreans, struggled for space. Rather than infiltrate lorries, they forced entry into the port, targeting ferries packed with holidaymakers. By September, with increased surveillance and CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) riot police activity, around 2,500 migrants were sleeping rough around Calais, despite a steady outward flow to the UK most nights. By day, most dossed in a vacant industrial hangar in town, or woods and a sports field under the Tioxide fertilizer plant, which overshadows the ferry terminal.

The sense of acute crisis and long-term policy contradictions on both sides of the channel were underscored in a report in October by France Terre d’Asile that surveys 15 years of policies around Calais (3). The authors call for a comprehensive rethink of migrant and asylum strategies in the UK, France and the EU. They argue that that the EU’s asylum policies are fraying. The idea of equitable “burden sharing” among members is ignored, not least in the UK largely, for electoral reasons (4).

Across northern France

The closure in 2002 of the Sangatte camp, which had been run by the Red Cross to provide basic shelter and sustenance, did not deter migrants trying to enter the UK as stowaways on trucks entering the Calais port and Eurotunnel (5). Over the past five years, migrants heading for the UK have dispersed more widely across northern France, their makeshift shelters a permanent feature of villages close to motorway rest areas: Norrent-Fontes, Steenvoorde, Tatingham and others all host transient migrant communities.

Violence around Calais in September led to a cross-channel clash; the Calais mayor, Natacha Bouchart of the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), threatened to close the port unless there was more UK finance and border assistance. On 20 September French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve signed an agreement with Theresa May of the UK Home Office to “ensure that all measures taken will deter illegal migrants from congregating in and around Calais.” The UK will provide £4m a year for three years to enhance port security, with a 5 metre-high barbed wire fence around the ferry port motorway approaches.

Cazeneuve deployed an extra 70 gendarmes and 150 CRS riot police to Calais, bringing the total French security services “managing” the migrants to 400. After much hesitation, Bouchart and Cazeneuve reversed previous policy and reluctantly agreed to the state opening a rudimentary facility for migrants bound for the UK. This angered UK politicians and press, hostile to a “second Sangatte”. Bouchart appeared before the UK’s Home Affairs select committee in October, claiming “the real magnet is not the city of Calais but the benefits migrants receive in Great Britain,” and calling the UK welfare system anEl Dorado (6). But discussions with migrants suggest their determination to reach the UK has little to do with benefits. Family and linguistic ties to communities now well established in the UK are key. More importantly, all are aware that, compared with France, the UK has far speedier political asylum procedures, which also ensure interim accommodation.

Harsh conditions are exacerbated by constant violence. Stowing away by breaking into slow-moving trucks in the dark is dangerous; in 2014 at least 18, mostly young Africans, were killed on the approach roads to Calais (7).

Since September’s agreement, reports of violence targeted at migrants, particularly by the CRS, have escalated. In January 2015 Human Rights Watch documented extensive police violence against migrants, drawing on 44 testimonies; their findings corroborate frequent reports to journalists of fractures from batons and pepper-spray attacks in the camps and squats (8).

Networks of solidarity

The brutal violence and extortion most migrants experience crossing Libya mean that, however bad the conditions in France, most are adept at relying on their instincts and fellow travellers for survival. And over many years, networks of local activists, and individual acts of charity and solidarity, have also taken root throughout Pas-de-Calais. Last winter, soup kitchens dispensed up to a thousand meals a night on the Quai de la Moselle, funded and staffed entirely by groupings of citizens, among them Salaam, Auberge des Migrants and Calais Ouverture et Humanité. Winter clothing, tents, tarpaulins, ropes and blankets were all donated; and the Tioxide bivouacs — the most extensive such settlements in northern Europe — required frequent repairs during the winter winds and freezing temperatures. Even so, the settlement stabilised, with communal kitchens, a flourishing Orthodox church, mosques and classes teaching basic French.

The NGO Secours Catholique provides an overstretched drop-in legal advice centre. In Calais, charity networks co-exist with direct action activists, particularly those linked to the No Borders network. Under the banner of “Calais Migrant Solidarity”, anarchists from across Europe were instrumental in the opening of squats in mid-2014. While denouncing police violence against migrants, they and allied activists have also tactically used legal threats to cajole public authorities into action.

In March, the migrants, including those who have already applied for asylum, were forced to regroup 4km east of Calais. A newly appointed préfète, Fabienne Buccio, oversaw the emptying of the squats around Tioxide and the Eurotunnel. In a “self-expulsion”, eviction orders and sustained police pressure shifted migrants to wasteland beside the barbed wire and ferry port approach roads. Here migrant movements can be monitored and controlled more easily, and interaction with local sympathisers and media is far harder. This April, the Jules Ferry day centre, a run-down children’s camp beyond the eastern fringe of the city, partially opened to provide one basic hot meal a day paid for by the state, and power to charge mobile phones, but no accommodation for male migrants, who sleep outside in the dunes. Women and children have been removed from their makeshift hostel and re-housed in prefabs. Showers are promised. Solidarity groups and NGOs have denounced conditions in the “quasi-camp”.

Calais is a test for Cazeneuve’s “balanced migration policy”. While encouraging migrants to apply for asylum in France rather than try for the UK illegally, in a memo leaked to the press by Le Figaro on 3 April (“Immigration clandestine: les préfets sous pression”), Cazeneuve also urged local governments to be far tougher on illegal migration and trafficking.

Anthropologist Ruben Andersson argues persuasively that simultaneous policies of criminalising and managing “clandestine” migration are contradictory; shambolic policies in Calais, lacking in humanity or coherence, epitomise “the strange mix of visibility and invisibility, of neglect and attention, of humanitarianism and violence that define Europe’s anti-migration efforts” (9). You can see Dover’s cliffs through the barbed wire of the approach roads to Calais. What you can’t see is constructive policy for those migrants who are determined to reach the UK.

David Styan lectures in the department of politics, Birkbeck College, London University.


(1) In October 2014 the UK had opposed the renewal of Italy’s Mare Nostrum Mediterranean rescue mission. But on 23 April 2015, at an emergency EU summit, the government pledged naval assets for stronger maritime controls.

(2) Maryline Baumard, “Le bidonville de Calais, ‘Sangatte sans toit’ ”, Le Monde, Paris, 4 April 2015.

(3) France Terre D’Asile, “Les Migrants et le Calaisis: 1999-2014; quelle sortie de crise?” (PDF), October 2014.

(4) In October UKIP gained its first ever MP in a by-election in Clacton: the party’s target voters live in similar coastal constituencies in Essex and Kent. See James Meek, “In Farageland”, London Review of Books, 9 October 2014.

(5) Between 1999 and December 2002, the International Committee of the Red Cross ran a facility at Sangatte, 3km from the Eurotunnel entrance. See Henri Courau, “De Sangatte aux projets de portails d’immigration”, Olivier le Cour Grandmaison et al (eds), Le retour des camps?, Editions Autrement, 2007.

(6) “Migrants ‘ready to die to reach UK”, Daily Mail, London, 29 October 2014.

(7) Philippe Wannesson’s excellent blog narrates the hopes, lives, and deaths, of exiles in Calais.

(8) Human Rights Watch, “France: Migrants, Asylum Seekers Abused and Destitute”, 20 January 2015.

(9) Ruben Andersson, Illegality, Inc: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe, University of California Press, 2014.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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