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UN refugee agency to set up mission in Calais

Video by FRANCE 3 , Sophie DAVIDSON

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2009-05-27

The United Nations refugee agency says it is setting up an office in the northern French port of Calais to help the hundreds of migrants waiting to cross the Channel make an "informed decision" about passage to the United Kingdom.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is to set up an office in the French port of Calais to inform migrants on asylum possibilities in France, UNHRC spokesperson Marie-Ange Lescure told FRANCE 24.

The undocumented immigrants — most of whom are in France illegally and plan to sneak into Britain — will be told that if they wish they can attempt to claim refugee status in France instead.

Calais is known to be a transit area for illegal migrants travelling through the European Union to the UK.

According to Lescure, claiming refugee status is quite a complicated process for migrants who are squatting illegally in France.

"Migrants can’t apply for asylum properly in the 'Jungle', amid pressure from human-traffickers," said Lescure, referring to a squalid, makeshift immigrant camp in Calais.

Hundreds of would-be asylum-seekers — Afghans, Kurds, Eritreans and others — have been camping in the Calais woodlands, from where they sneak on board lorries that cross the Channel by ferry or train.

France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, announced in April plans to close the Jungle during a visit to Calais that followed a large-scale police operation on the squatter camp.

Working with rights group in Calais

Lescure accused human traffickers of putting "mirages in the head" of migrants who have "illusions and fantasies" and often have paid large sums to seek a new life in Britain.

While the UN agency says many migrants have been fooled into believing they would fare much better in the UK, rights groups in Calais which work with migrants say they are aware of difficulties facing them if they cross the Channel.

"They don't think Britain is an El Dorado, but the country remains attractive, because migrants speak a little English and know they can find some illegal work there," said Sylvie Copyans, vice-secretary of the rights group Salam, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Copyans welcomes the opening of a UNHRC bureau in Calais, but says that it has yet to prove its usefulness. According to her, centres housing asylum-seekers in France lack room for new applicants.

“That’s not true,"responds Lescure. "If a migrant does become an asylum seeker here, the workers of France Terre d’Asile [a French NGO] manage several centres in Paris and can help them find a place."

Illegal migrants, a European hot potato

As well as closing of the squatter camp in Calais, in April, Besson announced a series of "humanitarian measures", including allowing migrants to file asylum requests in Calais. According to Lescure, the UNHRC saw this move as an opportunity for them to act.

“It was an opening,” said Lescure, “and we put our foot in the door.”

The agency also said it would bring refugee-assistance groups from Britain to Calais to try to explain the reality of life there to would-be refugees who have travelled thousands of kilometres dreaming of a better future.

Cooperation between France and the UK over illegal migration has not always been easy. France accuses Britain of acting as a magnet for illegal migrants by turning a blind eye to their widespread employment in its relatively unregulated labour market and by failing to enforce immigration controls.

Britain in turn says that asylum seekers should be the responsibility of the first European country in which they land, and says previous French attempts to house the migrants created a launching pad for illegal Channel crossings.

Date created : 2009-05-27