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France, UK trade blame over Calais migrant crisis

© François Lo Presti, AFP | French police look on as migrants get a free meal in the city of Calais, August 2014.

The worsening migrant crisis at the French port town of Calais has raised tensions between the UK and France, prompting officials on both sides to accuse the other of not doing enough to tackle the influx.


Natacha Bourchart, the mayor of Calais, faced heated questions from British MPs as she visited parliament on Tuesday to discuss the flow of illegal immigrants from France to the United Kingdom.

Bouchart told parliament that her city was being "taken hostage" by migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who are attempting to cross the English Channel to enter Britain.

The number of refugees arriving in Calais has risen sharply in recent weeks – from around 1,500 in August to around 2,300 today, according to police figures – and British leaders, worried about an avalanche of new migrants heading to the UK, are placing the blame squarely on France.

Shadow immigration minister David Hanson, who recently visited Calais, said France needs to “step up its game” to stop migrants from trying to board lorries bound for the UK.

“I think we have to be frank… there is far more the French authorities should be doing to stop the dangerous stream of migrants trying to enter our country illegally,” he wrote in an opinion piece. “I hope Ms Bouchart will recognise her role in taking action to sort this out.”

Frank Duvell, a senior researcher at Oxford’s migration observatory COMPAS, said that Europe and the world are dealing with a migration crisis unprecedented since the end of World War II. Duvell also said that the UK is doing more than its fair share of finger pointing.

“The UK seems to be very quick at blaming each and every entity in and out of Europe for the failures of preventing irregular migration,” Duvell told FRANCE 24.

Worsening situation

The recent media spotlight on Calais comes after a series of incidents that grabbed global headlines starting in September.

In what was largely perceived in France as an insult, Britain offered to donate 20 km (12 miles) of steel fencing used during the NATO summit in Wales to help Calais control its refugee population.

In a sign of some cross-Channel cooperation, London did pledge €5 million over three years to help France secure the port of Calais and for aid to destitute migrants.

In a sign of the rising tension over the contentious issue in the UK, around 50 British far-right protesters converged on Dover in September. The protesters were purportedly there to show support for the lorry drivers who use the ferries between Dover and Calais – the lorry drivers have been a target for illegal immigrants and the drivers face stiff fines if found to be transporting them, even if it’s without their knowledge.

The situation in Calais turned violent this month when around 200 migrants stormed England-bound lorries. The police finally forced them back with tear gas. The clash prompted Paris to send 100 additional police to the northern port and to announce the opening of a new centre to help asylum seekers file their papers.

Britain is the 'magnet', not Calais

Some have already expressed doubt that one new migration centre will alleviate the chaos, citing previous failed attempts at moving migrants away from Calais. Inevitably, the refugees just return.

For their part, politicians in Calais say the problems they face far exceeds their resources and abilities.

Speaking to the British MPs, Mayor Bouchart suggested that the generous UK benefits system was to blame for migrants risking their lives to make the journey across the Channel.

Bourchart had threatened in September to block the port unless Britain did more to help control the number of migrants transiting France.

“Calais is already a magnet," Philippe Mignonet, the deputy mayor of Calais, recently told a popular British daily. “Well, Calais is not. England is.”

No EU-wide system

As Britain and France look to tackle the crisis in Calais, COMPAS’s Duvell said the problem could only be tackled at a European level.

“It’s totally inappropriate to point the finger at the mayor of Calais or even France. There are around 12 million displaced people in the neighbourhood of Europe,” he said, in reference to Syria, Iraq, Turkey Lebanon, Ukraine and Russia.

Duvell said UK leaders could do much more to ease the refugee bottleneck in Calais, having resettled just 50 of the Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country over the past three years.

“Europe needs a refugee dispersal system. As long as no system exists, people will continue taking matters into their own hands,” Duvell said.

But in a sign that Britain was not ready to set its gaze any farther away than Calais, the UK’s Foreign Office said on Tuesday that it was opting out of an EU programme to patrol the Mediterranean for marooned migrants.


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