Britain or Bust

6 minute read

There are far more hospitable places than the Red Cross refugee center in Sangatte, in northern France, a stinking hangar crammed with over 1,600 asylum seekers and surrounded by police and a high wire fence. But that’s exactly where 99 Iraqi Kurd and Afghan migrants badly wanted to be last week. we want to go to Sangatte or to die, read one handmade banner held aloft by a group of young men who occupied the Calais Church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul, about 8 km from Sangatte. Most had paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers to get them this far, and they hoped to use Sangatte as a base from which to sneak into the U.K.

Denied access to the center by the French government’s recent decision to turn away all new arrivals there, the men installed themselves instead in a tiny waterfront chapel and refused to leave. Some threatened to go on hunger strike. “We’ll fight to stay here,” their spokesman announced through a line of riot police.

But when the riot police finally moved into the church, the migrants didn’t fight but filed obediently into buses waiting to ferry them to local police stations. Before the eviction, Kurshid — an 18-year-old Iraqi Kurd who paid smugglers $6,000 for the month-long journey via Istanbul to Sangatte — stood outside the church with a towel wrapped around his head against the cold. “We want to go to Sangatte because from there you can go to England, Australia and Canada,” he explained. “We don’t want to apply for asylum here because the French won’t give us a passport or political rights.” But just hours after police moved in, 76 of the 99 men lodged official requests for asylum in France, with 13 more accepting the offer of five days in a reception center to consider their options. Both possibilities had been on the table since the occupation began five days previously.

The standoff in Calais was just another reminder of the U.K.’s popularity among asylum seekers. Over the past three years, only 1% of the migrants passing through Sangatte have applied for refugee status in France. Like Kurshid, most want to go to Britain, which has traditionally been viewed as a cushier option. The U.K. allows more people to remain in the country, even if they are not granted asylum. Migrants think they have a better chance of finding work there in the black market, many already speak some English and also perceive Britain as more tolerant. “As long as there is the feeling in Kurdish Iraq that Britain is the place to be — there are lots of jobs, you can work, you are looked after — then they will want to come,” says Dover M.P. Gwyn Prosser.

The French and British governments are trying to change that. In return for closing Sangatte and adopting a harder line against migrants, the French have demanded that Britain reform its asylum policy. Under the new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill approved last week, asylum seekers in the U.K. will lose the right to work that they have enjoyed until now; appeal procedures will be streamlined; access to benefit payments restricted; and holding centers built to house asylum seekers while their claims are being processed. But even if these measures are implemented next year as promised, it’s by no means certain that they will deter migrants. Sangatte itself is proof of how attractive passage to the U.K. remains.

The Sangatte center opened in September 1999 to cope with Kosovar refugees from the Yugoslav war, who had been sleeping out in Calais parks and trying to stow away on cross-Channel ferries. Since then, the huge warehouse has become a staging post on the international smuggling route to the U.K. A staggering 60,000 people have passed through Sangatte over the past three years. Despite nightly news footage of people clambering aboard Channel Tunnel trains — and vigorous protests from the British — the French authorities pretended the problem didn’t exist.

But after winning power on a law-and-order platform, France’s new right-wing government decided to act. In September, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his British counterpart David Blunkett agreed that the center at Sangatte would close for good by April 2003. Some 900 French police are now stationed around Calais to intercept migrants, while an additional 1,000 places have been created in reception centers elsewhere in the country, to avoid large concentrations of asylum seekers in specific areas. Two weeks ago, the French announced major arrests: they had broken up six people-smuggling rings operating inside Sangatte. “This is all about preventing the emergence of another Sangatte, where organized smuggling groups can set up shop again,” says a spokesman for the French Interior Ministry. “We aren’t going to accept the existence of any more zones outside the law.”

The French crackdown has pushed many migrants over the border into Belgium, where coastal police picked up 60 illegal aliens last week, all of them from Sangatte. “We don’t have any overall numbers yet, but there are more and more refugees every day,” says Karen Vinck, a Zeebrugge police official working on the case. “It’s getting worse.” Vinck adds that the increased controls are pushing migrants to take bigger risks. In Nieuwpoort, a small coastal town 40 km from Zeebrugge, dozens of migrants have attempted to cross the Channel in small boats and rubber dinghies over the past few weeks.

As coordinated Franco-British action drives migrants and smugglers away from the Calais-Dover route, towns elsewhere along the coast can expect increased traffic. As an icy drizzle blew in off the Channel last week, Calais resident Jean Godts nodded over at the lights burning behind Saint Pierre-Saint Paul’s stained-glass windows. “They must be unhappy to be doing what they’re doing,” he said of the asylum seekers who were still holed up in the church. “But we’re a poor town here in Calais. We can’t accept all the misery of the world.” The residents of other towns, elsewhere in Europe, may soon have to look some of that misery in the face.

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