PARIS — The French port city of Calais has become ground zero for an explosion in immigration, as asylum seekers blocked from crossing the English Channel to Britain settle into overcrowded, makeshift camps that have become their permanent homes.
Calais has always been a crossing point for immigrants illegally seeking jobs and better lives in London and other British cities, where immigration policies are relatively liberal compared to the rest of Europe.
But the immigrant population in the city has grown steadily in recent months. Originating mostly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, their numbers have almost doubled to around 1,300 since this past winter. Most live in camps without electricity or water that have sprouted up in abandoned industrial sites or in a nearby forest the immigrants have sardonically nicknamed “The Jungle.”
“We can’t even say there are refugee camps in France,” said Veronique Devise, president of the local branch of Catholic Relief. “A refugee camp has tents, basic sanitation, water, medical assistance. We’d be happy if they had that.”
The French government provides the migrants with little or no aid. Instead, they depend on French nonprofits like Catholic Relief and Doctors of the World for medical treatment and other services.
“People are in a very precarious situation and the authorities are almost absent,” said Dr. Jean-Francois Corty, regional director of Doctors of the World, who added that government officials would prefer to do nothing until the problem goes away. “There is a huge discrepancy between their needs and what the city and the government offer. Migrants in Calais are treated as animals, put under constant pressure and left in a very difficult position on purpose.”
The vast majority of Calais migrants have no desire to settle in France, where asylum laws are tougher than in Britain. Most speak English. Penniless after traveling for months to reach Western Europe and unable to hire smugglers, many try to infiltrate the well-guarded port and hop on trucks heading to England. This year, at least eight migrants have died in accidents as they tried to stow away on vehicles.
In early August, a series of turf wars between migrants broke out in a Calais truck lot that resulted in around 50 people injuries. French riot police had to intervene with tear gas.
Over the past decade, French and British authorities have tried to divert migrants away from Calais. But under the open borders policy shared by most European Union members on the continent, immigrants who manage to enter the EU can travel through the region relatively unhindered until they reach the northern coast of France and the port of Calais, where Britain maintains traditional border crossings with the mainland.
“For migrants, it’s impossible to understand: France doesn’t welcome them, but it also prevents them from crossing the sea,” said Ms. Devise. “This is the consequence of the extreme migration flux in southern Europe, starting in Italy or in Greece. It ends up here.”
The overcrowded camps and the riots are fueling a heated debate on immigration among Calais residents, aid groups and officials.
Most Calais residents have been stoic about the influx of migrants over the years. But now many say they cannot bear all the burden of EU immigration policies. “Calais has been taken hostage,” said Deputy Mayor Philippe Mignonet, speaking to The Associated Press.
French border police claim that their country is dealing with thousands of the 61,000 illegal immigrants who arrived in Italy so far through June this year, a massive increase compared to the less than 8,000 who arrived in Italy in the same period in 2013.
Eric Ciotti, a deputy with the conservative Union for a Popular Movement who represents the Alpine region that serves as a crossing point for many of the immigrants from Italy, said the flood is a sign of Paris’ inaction in the face of a crisis. “France has become one of the weak links in Europe,” he said.
Many French citizens share his views. According to an Ipsos poll in January, 66 percent of the French public believe too many foreigners live in France. Forty-seven percent believe that reducing immigrants would boost employment among native French citizens. Unemployment in France now stands at 11 percent.
In May, running on an anti-immigrant platform, the far-right National Front won a record 25 percent of the vote in European parliamentary elections. In municipal elections in March, the party seized 11 town halls.
French President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, hasn’t been soft on migrants, however. He expelled a record 36,822 illegal immigrants in 2012 and 27,000 in 2013. France is currently processing 60,000 asylums seekers vying for 22,000 housing units.
According to the United Nations, about 6 million immigrants lived in France in 2013, less than 12 percent of the country’s population. About 14 percent of the population of the United States is foreign born, the U.N. report said.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has promised to assess the condition of the immigrant settlements next month. The French government has dismantled some of the ramshackle camps in the past but without providing their inhabitants with somewhere else to live.
Representatives of Catholic Relief and Doctors of the World said the immigrant problem would persist as long as the EU lacks a comprehensive immigration policy and Paris refuses to deal with the problem directly.
“If the government doesn’t want to listen to us, we can very well ask the United Nations Refugee Agency to come and assess the situation here,” said Dr. Corty. “We cannot go on like this anymore. It’s unacceptable in a rich country like France. We need to protect these people.”
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