Calais: the UK’s migrant trap
Guest post by Matt Carr. Matt is a writer and a journalist. His latest book Fortress Europe - Dispatches from a Gated Continent is published by Hurst, and comes with an enthusiastic recommendation from JCWI.
Undocumented migrants occupy a precarious position on the fringes of European society even at the best of times. Since the 2008 financial crisis however, European governments have embarked on a new drive to prevent migrants from coming to their countries and remove those who have succeeded.
Stepped-up immigration raids in the home or the workplace; police harassment and identity checks in the streets; quota-driven deportations and removals; new deployments of the European Border Agency Frontex – all these developments represent a tightening of the exclusionary screw that is not limited to outlying EU ‘border countries’ such as Spain or Greece.
War of Attrition
For the last two years French authorities in the Nord-de-Calais region have been waging an undeclared war of attrition against undocumented migrants in the city. Most of them are seeking to enter the UK, and until September 2009 they were living in the migrant encampment on the outskirts of Calais known as ‘the Jungle’.
That month the French government demolished the camp, following pressure from the UK. At the time both governments hailed the eviction of the camp’s 800-odd inhabitants as a major blow to ‘people smugglers’.
Since then the average number of migrants in Calais has fallen to around one hundred people at any given time, in addition to a few hundred more scattered in makeshift camps along the French coast. For nearly three years now, this transient population has been subjected to a remorseless and vindictive campaign of police harassment.
Almost every day French police raid migrant squats, or arrest migrants in the street and take them to the immigrant detention centre at Coquelles, before making them walk back to the city. In some cases migrants are arrested various times during the same day and made to repeat the process. These efforts are spearheaded by units of CRS riot police that are now permanently stationed in the city specifically to deal with migrants.
In three visits to Calais, I have personally witnessed police confiscating blankets from homeless men in the tail end of winter, raiding a group of Afghans at night who were sleeping out in railway wagons, in most cases without blankets, and carting migrants off to detention before releasing them again. The Calais local authorities have also demolished various migrant squats, most of which have been replaced by others.
These efforts, as the deputy mayor of Calais himself admitted to me, are intended to drive migrants out of the city and deter others from following their example. At the same time the city council discreetly allows local charities and NGOs to maintain soup kitchens in a food distribution centre near the Calais docks.
The result is a permanent state of insecurity in which migrants are liable to be arrested on their way to soup kitchens which the Calais authorities themselves have permitted, chased from one squat to the next, or forced to sleep in the street or fields to avoid the police.
It is difficult to believe that the UK government is unaware of these developments. The UK Border Agency works closely with the French Border Police, and British immigration controls now extend into French ports, as a result of the ‘juxtaposed controls’ agreed by their respective governments.
Britain’s unwillingness to join the EU’s ‘borderless’ Schengen Area has effectively transformed Calais into a staging post for unauthorised entry and a migrant trap. Some people have been in Calais for months trying to cross the Channel and avoid the attentions of the police.
Others have been deported from the UK all the way back to their home countries only to return to the city to try and re-enter. Some have been seriously injured and killed in the attempt. Since December last year, three migrants have died in the city in obscure circumstances.
Unwilling to do anything that might be seen as incentivising migration or draw the kind of criticism from the British government and media that was once directed towards Sangatte, the French government is committed to a ruthless policy of deterrence that shows no sign of succeeding even on its own terms. For migrants continue to arrive in Calais and other ports along the coast, and some succeed in smuggling themselves onto trucks and crossing the Channel.
If the repression has not deterred migration, it has nevertheless transformed Calais into a harsh and often dangerous environment for migrants who come to the city looking for asylum or inspired by the possibility of a better life in the UK. In the current climate, neither the French nor the British government seems to be in any hurry to bring that situation to an end, and the UK public appears for the most part oblivious to the grim drama that is being played out on the other side of the Channel.
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