Border stories

Frances Webber investigates the tabloid fantasies and desperate realities surrounding migrants in Calais

October 1, 2009
4 min read

In the June/July issue of Red Pepper, Alex Clarke from Bristol No Borders reported on the plight of the migrants living in makeshift settlements around Calais. Since then the threats facing these migrants have escalated, from scabies and malnutrition to the imminent destruction of camps by the French police and an increased risk of arrest and forced deportation to war zones.

By the time you read this, the area of wooded dunes near Calais may have been cleared of the shanties that are home to over a thousand migrants and would-be asylum seekers. They come from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, all seeking security in the UK.

In July, French immigration minister Eric Besson denied that the bulldozing of the camps was imminent and pledged that humanitarian organisations would be fully involved in any clearance plan. Calais deputy prefect Gerard Gavory immediately contradicted him, emphasising that the operation was to take place soon, that no notice would be given to the organisations providing humanitarian assistance, and that those in the camps would be forcibly deported if necessary.

Both the French and the British authorities want to get rid of the camps, considering them an embarrassing eyesore for tourists, and an emblem of the ‘disorderly’ movement of non-Europeans who insist on ignoring national borders in search of safety. Proposals include setting up a new detention centre for migrants in the British-controlled part of Calais docks to make control and removal easier.

In July, Gordon Brown announced that £15 million would be spent on more detection devices to search lorries leaving French ports for the UK, and in return French premier Nicolas Sarkozy promised to speed up the removal of undocumented migrants. Efforts have also been made to persuade those seeking asylum to claim in France rather than the UK.

The UN High Commission for Refugees full-time representative in Calais, along with NGOs such as France Terre d’Asile, has tried to disabuse the migrants of their hopeful fantasies about life in Britain; and in May the French authorities made it possible to claim asylum in Calais, instead of in Arras, 100 kilometres away. But the presence of relatives and friends, the enduring belief in British fairness and the Dublin Regulation laying down EU member-states’ responsibility for asylum claims all deter claims in France. The last allows removal to the migrants’ point of entry into Europe – generally Greece. Here await inhuman conditions, a refusal rate of 99.9 per cent and deportations to torturing states.

Whether or not the expected bulldozing happens, the migrants have more immediate problems. Apart from the ever-present threat of arrest and deportation, and the reality of frequent police round-ups and attacks with tear gas, they have to contend with living in utter destitution (since if they don’t claim asylum they are ineligible for any welfare benefits). For shelter, most have dwellings of plastic sheeting, cardboard and ply. There is no running water and no sanitation. In June a 32-year-old Eritrean drowned while trying to wash himself in the canal, and recently the insanitary conditions have led to an outbreak of scabies.

Salam, the main voluntary group working with the migrants, distributes food daily at seven coastal sites as well as providing legal advice and help. It has negotiated with the local authority to allow the provision of showers by a Catholic aid organisation, but no one knows when they will start or what conditions will be attached.

Most of the hostility to the encamped migrants comes from this side of the Channel. The Daily Mail, for example, has run scare stories about human chains of asylum seekers across Calais motorways carrying out knifepoint robberies of British tourists. But these stories have no basis in fact. The border police at Coquelles have had no such reports, and the Calais police denied the Mail’s story that they advised holidaymakers to keep car windows and doors closed.

The No Borders camp at Calais in June brought over several hundred protesters. But solidarity with the migrants attracts police harassment. The camp was blockaded and demonstrations in the town were attacked by police, who made more than 20 arrests. Meanwhile, harassment of volunteers distributing humanitarian aid continues, under French laws that criminalise assistance to undocumented migrants.

The immigration minister denies that this law, designed to target traffickers and profiteers, penalises solidarity. He has promised to meet solidarity groups and to extend exemptions for social and medical workers. But Salam notes that the proposed exemptions don’t cover volunteers, and point to the recent prosecution of its vice-president, Jean-Claude Lenoir. Although he was acquitted in July of insulting a police officer, the prosecution has appealed.

No Borders Brighton’s ‘Mailwatch’ is at

http://nobordersbrighton.blogspot.com

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