The Big Question: Why is the UN setting up in Calais and can it resolve the refugee problem?

Robert Verkaik
Thursday 02 July 2009 00:00 BST

Why are we asking this now?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is formally establishing a full-time presence in the French port. The agency's staff will help migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers negotiate the French and British immigration systems. But the focus will be on assisting those who want to request asylum in France. The UN has had a part-time presence in Calais since early June and, as of yesterday, that has been increased to five days a week. The UNHCR says it is important that those people fleeing persecution and war have free access to "unbiased" information so that they know they can claim asylum in Calais. Part of the purpose of the renewed mission is to protect migrants and asylum-seekers from the misinformation given to them by traffickers.

How many refugees are living in Calais?

An estimated 1,600 refugees and migrants are camped outside Calais, a fifth of them children. But the current situation in France is a far cry from the Sangatte encampment, which saw 68,000 people pass through its vast halls between 1998 and 2002. The camp was designed to hold about 900 refugees, but the Red Cross said numbers peaked at about 2,000. Sangatte was closed in 2002 after a deal was struck by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now the President.

What are the conditions like in the camps?

Pretty squalid. There is no proper provision of even basic facilities, and refugees scavenge or rely on charity hand-outs. On 13 June, a young Eritrean drowned in a Calais canal after he went there to wash. Most of refugees live in appaling conditions in a shanty town constructed in the woods near the Channel Tunnel, commonly known as "The Jungle". Last month, two of the camps, which had been used by 100 migrants, were levelled by French bulldozers.

Who is living there?

According to the international charity Médecins Sans Frontières, the majority arrive from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia or Palestine and are fleeing war, violence, hunger and extreme hardship. The recent unrest in Pakistan and Iran has also increased numbers. Many have made long and perilous journeys. In a desperate bid to escape their plights, some have paid money to traffickers to get them to Britain, where they may have relatives. The traffickers often lie about the true legal position in France and Britain.

What do locals think of the camps?

The sentiment in Calais could be best summed up as "not in my back yard". The local tourism industry and many businesses are opposed to the camps because there is a strong perception that the refugee problem deters people from visiting the French port. They blame Britain for not doing enough to discourage asylum seekers. The UNHCR describes relations between the refugees and the people of Calais as "tense". Recent years have seen protest marches about the situation.

What would happen if the French authorities were to close them?

The lesson of Sangatte shows that emptying the camps would not stop immigrants and refugees coming to stay at the French ports. When Sangatte was shut, it took only a few months before more refugees came back to the town to find makeshift, alternative accommodation. Closing the camps would simply result in a displacement of the immigrants, making it even more difficult to monitor them. The job of policing the immigrants is made much easier by having a designated refugee camp.

Why don't the refugees want to stay in France?

There is a perception that the French immigration rules are much stricter than the British ones, and so some refugees pin all their hopes on applying for asylum in the UK. But many more refugees want to come to Britain because they believe they have a genuine claim for asylum. Some are Iraqis or Afghans who have worked with British forces during the occupation of their countries and now fear persecution because they are treated as collaborators. Others have been tortured or raped. A study by Smain Laacher, a French sociologist, found that nearly 90 per cent of the Iraqi Kurds and Tajiks or Pashtuns from Afghanistan were reasonably well educated and had saved the equivalent of several years' wages to pay for the journey. It begs an obvious question: what terrors did they leave behind to prefer to spend their lives in a makeshift camp with no sanitation?

What does the law say?

Under the Dublin convention, a refugee is supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country through which he or she travels, and an EU member state may return an asylum seeker to that country. The convention is a treaty between EU members which came into force in September 1997. Under the treaty, a member state is responsible for handling an asylum application if a member of the asylum-seeker's family has been given refugee status in that country, or if a refugee has been granted a visa or residence permit for that country. A member state is also responsible if the refugee has been able to enter its territory because of poor border controls or has been allowed to enter without a visa.

What are Britain and France doing to stop immigrants from crossing the Channel?

The two governments are currently discussing the creation of a new immigrant holding centre within the British side of the Calais docks. This would be more institutionalised than Sangatte and would allow both immigration authorities to send illegal immigrants home more easily. Nearly 20,000 illegal attempts by immigrants to enter Britain were thwarted by the UK Border Authority in Calais last year, compared with 7,500 in 2004. A further 9,000 were stopped in Coquelle, Paris and in Dunkirk, Belgium. It is not known how many more immigrants succeeded in outwitting border guards. Phil Woolas, the Border and Immigration minister, says: "Last year alone, UK Border Agency staff at our French and Belgium controls not only searched more than one million lorries but also stopped 28,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally. The illegal migrants in France are not queuing to get into Britain – they have been locked out."

What are the alternatives to the current policies?

The options tend to fall between two extremes. One is to open up Europe's borders, forcing other European states taking their fair share of immigrants, so that there is a free flow of immigrants. After several years, migration across continents and countries might even out. In Greece, for example, 99.9 per cent of all asylum claimants are rejected, with similarly high rejection rates in Slovenia. With such low refugee recognition rates across parts of southern and eastern Europe, there is little incentive for persons who think they may have legitimate asylum claims to break off from the people traffickers and claim asylum while en route. The other extreme option would be to stop all immigrants from entering Britain. This would contravene EU and international law and end Britain's long and proud record as a place for those seeking sanctuary from all kinds of persecution.

Would closing the camps stop illegal immigrants from entering Britain?


* The camps in northern France actually act as a magnet for illegal immigrants from across the world who want to come to the British Isles

* Human traffickers would not be able to trawl the camps for victims

* Without anywhere to live, the immigrants would soon enough return to their homelands


* Closure would simply displace any illegal immigrants and refugees – the problem would not go away

* The majority of residents in the camps are genuine asylum-seekers and not illegal immigrants

* The best way to stop illegal immigrants is to tighten up Britain's border controls

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