Calais heading for crisis: Migrant problem threatens to escalate, and neither France nor Britain seem able – or willing – to sort it out

As 200 desperate migrants attempt to storm their way on to a P&O ferry to Britain, John Lichfield reports from a mini-UN of conflict and oppression

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The Independent Online

Sibatu says he is 18 years old. He looks 20 years older. After travelling “with many problems” 3,000 miles from Eritrea, he has spent the past six months in the rain of the Channel coast a few miles from his destination.

On Wednesday evening he was among 200 would-be asylum seekers – mostly young East African men – who tried to storm a cross-Channel ferry in the port of Calais.

“The others told me this is the only way,” he told The Independent. “Maybe, a few of us could get on a boat. Maybe none. We didn’t win this time. We will try again.” After 20 years of deadlock, the never-ending saga of the Calais migrants is threatening to explode into outright crisis.

The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, spoke this week of shutting the port unless the British Government does more to help. She says her town has been “taken hostage” by the 1,300 migrants sleeping rough in the day and trying to board trucks – and now ships – by night. Relations between the two main categories of migrants – refugees from Africa and the Middle East – are increasingly tense. A Far Right march is planned on Sunday to demand that all the migrants should be systematically arrested and kicked out of France. Wednesday’s mass trespass through the main gates of the Calais ferry port is described by French police as a “worrying change in tactics”.

Until now, the migrants have mostly haunted approach roads and attempted to stow away in British-bound trucks or climb on to their back axles. Catherine Konforti, president of a charitable group which feeds the Calais migrants, said: “It was just desperation. After months of failing to get on lorries, they were desperate to try something new.”


This week the French government bowed to pressure from the United Nations and announced plans to open a day centre – strictly non-residential – where the migrants can eat, shower and receive medical help. This is a significant change of policy after 12 years of harassment and the bull-dozing of squatter camps.

The new centre will be the first official refuge since British pressure forced the closure of the Red Cross residential camp at Sangatte, just south of Calais, in 2002. It will inevitably be branded a “new Sangatte” by the right-wing press and politicians in Britain.

The French government and Ms Bouchart say the problem is partly of Britain’s making. She and the Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve want the Government to pay towards policing the port (which costs France €10m a year). They also want Britain to persuade refugees that the UK is not the El Dorado painted by people-smugglers.

For almost 20 years, Calais has attracted an ever-changing cast of the stricken or the enterprising from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and now Africa. The problem began in 1994-5 with Bosnian refugees. The 1,300 migrants in Calais represent a mini-United Nations of conflict and oppression. About one in five are from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The great majority – and this is a relatively new development – are from Eritrea, Somalia, Darfur and the rest of Sudan.

Makeshift tents near to the Calais ferry port (Getty Images)

There was a street-battle last month between the Africans and Middle Eastern group over the right to exploit the most prized sections of the slip-roads approaching the ferry port. In an attempt to deflate tensions, welfare groups have organised an Africa v The Rest migrants’ football match this Sunday.

Why do they not apply for asylum in France or simply vanish into the French black economy? This is a complex issue and one frequently mis-represented in Britain.

Sibatu said: “I go to England because in Eritrea there is only violence. In England, I have Eritrean friends who will get me a job, a new life.”

Why not apply for political asylum in France? “I no speak French. I have no friends in France.” Another Eitrean, Jemal, 21, said he had tried the official asylum route in France and got nowhere. “So now I’ll try and go to England because the people there are friendly. I can get a job there.”

Migrants, mainly of Syrian origin, rest in tents near Calais (Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of illegal migrants enter France every year. The majority  want to stay in France. Some, especially the Afghans, Syrians and Pakistanis, come to France only to reach Britain. An increasing number, especially the Eritreans, emigrate to Europe without any country in mind. They are poorly treated in Italy and France and head for the Channel coast.

The Calais problem is acute, and visible, because Britain is an island and does not belong to the EU open-borders Schengen Agreement.

Ms Bouchart and Mr Cazeneuve say Britain can no longer pretend this is just a “French problem”. Under agreements reached in 2009 and 2010, Britain pays for body-heat-detecting equipment and other control measures.

In a meeting last week with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, Mr Cazeneuve asked Britain to cover more of the cost of security and welfare. He asked her to send officials to tell the migrants Britain was a cold, wet island where illegal jobs are hard to come by.

In return, the French minister promised to prosecute migrants caught stowing away and to send them home. In practise, the systematic expulsion of migrants to war zones is opposed by French courts on human rights grounds.

The mayor’s threat to close the ferry port should probably not be taken seriously either. The town’s economy  depends on British visitors.

With a British election approaching, it is equally unlikely that Ms May will give ground (or money). Crisis or no crisis, the 20-year deadlock continues.