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The Crisis in Calais

Thousands of migrants fleeing war in Asia and Africa are battling riot police every night in an attempt to get on trains and trucks headed to the UK. Who are these people, and where is the situation headed?

August 5, 2015 1:42:37 am
migrants, calais, calais migrants, france migrants, england migrants, french migrants, uk migrants, euro tunnel, eurotunnel, euro migrants, europe migrants, world news At least 10 migrants have died trying to cross over since June. One French policeman has been injured during clashes with migrant mobs. (Source: AP)

What’s happening at Calais?

Hundreds of migrants from multiple African and Asian nationalities camped out at the French port city have been making desperate “nightly attempts” to enter the UK by illegally crossing the 50-km English Channel aboard freight trains or trucks. On Saturday, some 200 migrants broke through security fences and reached the final barrier before the Chunnel entrance. They faced off with riot police for nearly an hour before they were scattered by a “chemical irritant” spray. On July 28, the migrants unleashed a wave of over 2,000 attempts to breach the Chunnel entrance, and in the melee, a Sudanese man was crushed under a truck. Migrants have been trying to clamber on to transport vehicles and even cars crossing the Channel. At least 10 have died making the attempt since the beginning of June. Officials of Eurotunnel, the Chunnel operator, have said some 5,000 migrants were roaming Calais “at will”, spreading out around the Coquelles terminal as soon as it was dark, and making organised attempts to cross over to Britain. On Monday evening, as French gendarmerie battled a 1,700-strong mob, at least one policeman was sent to hospital by a flying stone.

Since when has this been going on?

The surge is recent, but the migrants at Calais and their attempts to enter the UK are not. A refugee camp was opened in Sangatte on the Channel in 1999 at the time of the Kosovo War, which became a base for thousands of asylum seekers and human traffickers. The camp was closed in 2001, but migrants continued to throng Calais anyway, squatting in tents in a squalid shantytown that has come to be known as “The Jungle”. French authorities estimate some 3,000 people live in The Jungle at any time. According to the UK Home Office, 2014-15 saw over 39,000 attempts at illegal crossings — more than twice the number in the previous year.

Who are these desperate people?

What is unfolding in Calais is a manifestation of the wider migration crisis in Europe — result of largescale displacement of people from theatres of war in the Middle East and Africa. A total 1,37,000 asylum-seekers from Syria and elsewhere have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in the first half of 2015. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a third of those who arrived in Italy and Greece were from Syria, followed by Afghans and Eritreans, while the largest number of applicants for asylum in the UK have been from Eritrea, followed by Pakistanis, Syrians, Iranians, Albanians and Sudanese. The desperation to enter Europe has often resulted in tragedy for the migrants — nearly 2,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year, including a staggering 1,308 in April alone.

Why does the UK look attractive to them?

In terms of numbers, Britain does not, in fact, appear to be the most preferred destination — for the migrants, the Mediterranean countries have been more welcoming and easier to reach. According to the French, 70% of those at Calais leave in four months, but the UK has denied that everyone who leaves ends up in Britain. Germany, Sweden, Italy, France and Hungary were all ahead of the UK in 2014 in receiving applications from non-EU asylum-seekers. That said, Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart has said that the UK is perceived to be generous with benefits, and as a better market than France for underground jobs. Many migrants want to claim asylum in the UK; some want to move because they speak English or have relatives in Britain. Migrants awaiting decisions on their asylum applications are entitled to “Section 95 support”, which is £ 36.95 (Rs 3,700) weekly for single individuals above 18, and £ 43.94 (Rs 4,400) for a single parent. Similar entitlements in France are higher: € 11.45 (Rs 800) per day. Both countries offer free accommodation and healthcare to asylum-seekers.

How have Britain and France reacted?
There has been little sympathy for the migrants. Prime Minister David Cameron has warned of a “swarm” of migrants invading the UK. Police in Kent have been using an emergency procedure called Operation Stack — parking giant freight vehicles on the highway to close down or severely restrict passage — to discourage incursion attempts, leading to estimated daily losses of a quarter billion pounds to the UK economy. Britain has committed a total £ 21 million to improve security at Calais over the next three years. The port is protected by 16-foot fences topped with concertina wire, besides heavily armed riot police. The gendarmerie have been accused of making undocumented arrests.

What is likely to happen now?
No immediate solution seems likely, even though the UK claimed on Monday to have “got a grip” on the situation. Theoretically, the flow of migrants will continue until the fighting in their countries stops, which could take years, and Europe will have to find a way to tackle the humanitarian crisis better. A bomb is ticking in Hungary, where 75,000 asylum-seekers have entered from Serbia in 2015, with another 1,00,000 likely to arrive in the remaining months of the year.

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