Analysis: Calais chaos sharpens political appetite for solution
Britain and France working to return people to Africa and deal with the criminal gangs
One of the shops in the migrant camp known as the new Jungle in Calais, France. Photograph: PA
The situation in Calais, with thousands of people attempting to enter Britain through the Channel Tunnel, is the latest manifestation of the migration crisis facing Europe.
The numbers involved this week are huge – on Monday and Tuesday alone, about 3,500 are believed to have attempted entry to the Channel Tunnel. But the problem is nothing new. The coastal French town has been a gateway between continental Europe and Britain stretching back to medieval times.
In more recent years Calais has become a source of tension between France and Britain over who is responsible for the non-EU migrants who have gathered there in increasing numbers over the past few decades.
In 1999, the French government and the Red Cross set up a refugee camp at Sangrette near Calais. It was originally intended to house up to 900 refugees, but numbers soon surpassed 2,000.
French authorities closed the centre in 2002, following pressure from Britain, who viewed it as a magnet for illegal migrants trying to make their way to Britain and a hub for human traffickers.
In 2009, police and bulldozers moved in, dismantling the makeshift tents made of plastic and wood and arresting about 200 migrants. This sparked outrage from human rights and migration groups.
Britain do more
Last September the British government pledged £12 million (€17 million) over three years to help the French authorities. Crucially, however, the money is being targeted at heightening security and returning migrants rather than dealing with the humanitarian situation in the camps.
On Wednesday, UK home secretary Theresa May said Britain and France were working on ways to return people to west Africa and deal with the criminal gangs that organise people smuggling. She announced plans to ship high-tech security fencing to Calais to bulk up security at the Eurotunnel terminal.
Her comments were echoed by prime minister David Cameron, who warned that Britain was not a “safe haven” for migrants and said that illegal immigrants would be removed from the UK. His use of the term “swarm of people” was heavily criticised .
Legally speaking, EU countries’ obligations towards people from outside the union depends on their status. In terms of EU migration policy, the distinction between economic migrants (those who choose to move to another country for work) and asylum seekers (those who are seeking asylum from persecution) is important. Under international law, countries must consider applications for asylum, though they can return economic migrants.
Despite urgent calls from Italy, Greece and other southern European countries for solidarity in dealing with the issue, collectively the EU has little power over asylum policy. Member states retain significant autonomy over justice and home affairs issues, which includes immigration from non-EU countries.
The decision this year to launch a relocation and resettlement scheme for non- EU migrants is the first EU-wide response to migration.
EU policy on migration is further complicated by the existence of the so-called Dublin regulation, which states that migrants must apply for asylum in the country in which they first arrive – a rule that was introduced as a way of preventing people from applying for asylum in multiple countries.
While there is little appetite among member states to change that regulation, the agreement on a joint relocation and resettlement plan, prompted by the tragedies in the Mediterranean, may be an important step on the road to a truly EU-wide policy on migration.