CALAIS – The migrants who congregate in this small town in northern France are almost as much a part of the local landscape as the cafes and brasseries.
Thousands of people have come from countries like Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan, via the Mediterranean Sea, the Balkans or, more recently, Belarus. Their destination is about 40 kilometers to the north-west: the English coast.
On November 24, at least 27 people trying to reach the UK died when their boat capsized. But that did not deter the migrants from making the crossing, having traveled thousands of kilometers to reach the country they consider to be an El Dorado.
“I want to make my living in England,” Jan, 22, told me. “I don’t want to stay in France. He has already made seven attempts to reach the UK and he would try again despite the recent tragedy, he said.
The British government insists that the solution to the crisis of the crossing of the Channel is more police. The UK accuses France of not doing enough to prevent the crossings. The government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants the French authorities to crack down on migrants, with the help of the British police. French President Emmanuel Macron rejected these proposals, seeing them as an unacceptable violation of sovereignty.
The northern coast of France from which migrants launch their boats stretches for around 100 kilometers. Even if France accepted the United Kingdom’s proposals, controlling the entire area is materially impossible.
Despite the British emphasis on security, there is a growing understanding across the Channel that more policing will not make the problem go away. The recent increase in small boat crossings is believed to be partly due to other modes of travel, such as car and truck, which have become unsustainable due to increased safety. With reinforced defenses around Calais’s road and rail network, migrants instead turned to the sea, despite the risks.
As a result, calls are increasing in France to reopen negotiations on a crucial agreement with the United Kingdom. The 2003 Le Touquet accord moved British passport controls to French soil, effectively placing the border in northern France. He has been widely criticized across the political spectrum for placing the burden of the police on the French authorities.
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Due to the Le Touquet agreement, it is nearly impossible for migrants wishing to seek asylum in the UK to legally enter the country. To apply for asylum, migrants must reach British soil. But with UK passport control being in France, they would be refused if they attempted to enter by official means.
The fact that the UK has outsourced part of its border control to French authorities has caused consternation in French politics. Several candidates leading next year’s presidential election support the renegotiation of the treaty.
Former center-right hopeful Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region which includes Calais, said last month of the migrants: “Let them take the ferry” to England. Far-right candidates Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen also support the cancellation of the agreement. During the 2017 presidential campaign, Macron also said the treaty should be renegotiated. In power, however, he is one of the few mainstream politicians to support the deal as it is.
Those who propose to renegotiate the agreement put forward several arguments. The first is that the agreement obliges the majority of migrants who seek to reach the UK to cross the Channel illegally in dangerous boats. The move of British border controls to Britain should help persuade migrants to take safer routes to reach British soil, where they have the legal right to seek asylum. It would mean less loss of life, supporters argue. “It’s clear that people shouldn’t have to risk their lives to come to Britain and seek asylum here,” said Zoe Gardner of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.
The second is that the material conditions underlying the agreements have changed. In 2003, the UK and France were both members of the EU. Today the UK has left the EU and with it the ‘Dublin Regulation’, under which migrants can be returned to the first EU country they entered. This acts as a pull factor for migration across the Channel, as migrants arriving in the UK know that they will no longer be sent back to the EU countries they passed through before arriving in Britain.
The third argument is financial. Placing the British border in France means that it must be heavily guarded, and the British contribution in this regard is estimated at a fraction of the cost, as security has increased in the nearly two decades since the signing of the Touquet. In July, the UK announced it would pay an additional € 63million for the cost, but last month France said it still had not received the funds.
The fourth is political and humanitarian. The inhabitants of towns and villages along the French coast have become accustomed to a kind of cohabitation with migrants. Relations are generally civil; most local residents sympathize with migrants and few are openly hostile to them.
“They behave well,” Emilie, a fishmonger in Boulogne-sur-Mer, told me. Yet most residents are tired of the refugee camps on the outskirts of their towns and desperate to see people, including women and children, sleeping rough in parks and train stations. Renegotiating Le Touquet would hopefully ease tensions in this part of northern France, which leans strongly to the far right.
Canceling the deal would be onerous, perhaps acting as an additional pull factor for migrants in the region. ” France [withdrawing] unilaterally du Touquet would make sense politically, but would probably lead to an increase in migration to the Channel and a risk of further tragedies, ”said Benjamin Haddad, principal director of Center Europe at the Atlantic Council think tank.
A compromise solution could be for Britain to take asylum claims on French soil, which would save migrants from having to make the dangerous crossing to the UK. Britain rejected the offer, saying most arrivals should be returned directly to France to deter crossings.
On a regional train in northern France, I met Ali, a soft-spoken 24-year-old Syrian from Idlib. Via Google Translate, he said he tried six times to get to England by boat, including one attempt when his boat capsized on the same day the 27 migrants died last week. “I thought I was going to die,” he said. He recalled that his group had tried to enlist the help of the British Coast Guard, but was told that British ships could not enter French waters. They were brought back to France by the French authorities. He said he would try again in a few days.
Although Ali has parents in Germany, he told me he would only move to the UK, a country he said he loved. When he found out I was British he had a question for me. “Do you know how I can apply for asylum [in Britain] other than by sea? If they are successful, several future leaders of France will soon have an answer for him.
[see also: Humanity, not hostility, will solve the migrant crisis]