Riot police firing tear gas, migrants catapulting missiles at lorries and shelters set on fire. The dismantling of the “Jungle” migrant camp near Calais has had a lurid start. Those incidents lead to the question: is the never-ending crisis in Calais about to explode into uncontrollable violence?
No, says Fabienne Buccio, the calm and friendly woman who has one of the hardest jobs in France – managing police, security and government policy in the Pas de Calais area. There is a largely unseen, or little reported, “battle of Calais”, which the French government is beginning to win, she says.
“We must remain humble. The problems are very great. But, yes, I think we are starting to make real progress,” Ms Buccio told The Independent in her first interview with the British media. “The Calais crisis cannot be solved in Calais. It can only end completely when the problems which create these great flows of mass migration are resolved. But since the autumn, we have had a clear plan, balancing the need for greater security and the need for humanity. And it is beginning to succeed.”
The figures support her claims. Nearly 3,000 migrants have agreed to move to reception centres elsewhere in France since 27 October. Eighty per cent of them have applied for French asylum.
The number of Calais migrants accepting financial help to go home has increased sixfold since the start of this year. The population of the “Jungle” – the patchwork of official and unofficial migrant camps north of Calais – has fallen from 6,000 in September to about 3,700 and is still falling. New razor wire fences and police reinforcements mean that very few migrants are now reaching Britain illegally.
Ms Buccio believes that she is on course to reduce the migrant numbers to a “manageable” population of 2,000. She blames this week’s violence on mostly British “extremist” activists in the No Borders movement and a “hard core” of about 150 migrants “whom they manipulate”.
“The great majority of the migrants are co-operative and are beginning to accept that we – not the extremists – have their best interests at heart,” she said.
Ms Buccio, 56, a great admirer of Jane Austen, is the prefect, or senior national government representative, in the Calais area. There is no equivalent in Britain; think of it as an unelected, provincial governor.
It was Ms Buccio who devised the plan to clear the southern part of the Jungle, which began this week. It was she who launched the first intensive effort by the French authorities to offer asylum to the migrants and “test their determination to reach the imagined El Dorado of Britain”.
Past generations of Calais migrants were obsessed with Britain. Those who have arrived more recently have been “misled by people smuggling gangs” to make for Calais, she said. When they realise that they cannot cross the Channel, they are ready to try their luck in France.
Of those who agree to be bussed to the 102 reception centres elsewhere in France, 100 per cent of Eritreans, 87 per cent of Syrians, 80 per cent of Afghans but only 40 per cent of Sudanese agree to give up all chance of seeking British asylum and apply to remain in France.
Ms Buccio was scathing about the No Borders activists, four-fifths of whom are British. “They are young people who are driven by an anarchist ideology of hatred of all laws and frontiers,” she said. “They have no real concern for the suffering of the migrants. They manipulate them and they mislead them. They harass the social workers we send to canvass them about staying in France.”
“And they are dangerous. One of my police officers had his hand broken in five places on Monday. They are not throwing pebbles.”
Ms Buccio is herself the grand-daughter of an Italian migrant who faced racist violence from local people when he fled from fascist Italy to Marseille in the 1930s. She has worked her way up from the bottom of the administrative pyramid to one of the most high-profile government jobs in France.
She has made a reputation since she arrived last year as a humane and hands-on official. Unlike many French prefects, she seldom appears in braided hat and white gloves.
While we speak, she takes a stream of calls from officials in the Jungle. “Be careful when you are dismantling shelters in that area,” she tells one caller. “That’s where the mosque is. And watch out that the No Borders people don’t burn it down and blame us.”
For 20 years, Calais seems to have been a never-ending crisis, but that is changing, Ms Buccio insists.
“First, the Calais port and the Eurotunnel freight terminal are now almost water-tight,” she said. “The new security arrangements are working. I’m not saying that no one ever gets through. A few people managed to cross the Berlin Wall after all. But it is now very, very hard to reach the UK illegally.
“Secondly, we have been reaching out actively to the migrants in the Jungle to persuade them to go to reception centres elsewhere in France, Thirdly, we have basic but decent living conditions to offer – converted shipping containers, a shelter for women and children – for up to 2,000 migrants who wish to remain here.”
Calais threatens to become an issue in the Brexit debate. Some French politicians say that, if Britain leaves the EU, France should stop defending the British border.
“I am not a politician. That is not a question that concerns me,” Ms Buccio said. “The frontier must be protected and properly policed. We get on well with our British counterparts. There is often criticism of France in the British press but the people we deal with every day appreciate the efforts that we are making.”
Ms Buccio’s great test will come this spring and summer as more Syrian and other migrants pour into Europe. Will thousands of them make for Calais?
“Some will, inevitably,” she said. “But the intelligence we are getting, from as far away as Afghanistan, is that people now know that the Channel is an unbreachable barrier. The word is going around: it is time to forget Calais.”
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