Calais: No good options

PARIS, France — Inaction was not an option, according to Eric Besson, the immigration minister who spearheaded the recent effort to dismantle a camp of undocumented migrants in Calais. Hundreds of migrants had gathered there, hoping to make it to the United Kingdom. 

During a speech following the late September raid, Besson said the makeshift tents in a Calais area known as “the jungle” was a blight without sanitation or running water, where a “scabies epidemic” had developed and where the rule of law belonged to smugglers. The area had become a convenient cover for criminals and their sometimes-violent racket of extracting huge sums for smuggling humans across the English Channel. Moreover, criminal activity was starting to spill over beyond the camp. 

“Children have been attacked on the way to school,” Besson said, in a transcript provided on the ministry’s website. “Intrusions and thefts are increasing. Neighboring businesses can no longer work normally.”  But his promise to restore the rule of law fell flat. The newspaper Liberation lampooned Besson for playing “good cop” with certain immigration policies and “bad cop” with others. Critics said the raid, while an impressive show of force, failed to offer any real long-term solution to the problems that have plagued the area ever since the government closed the Red Cross-run Sangatte refugee camp in the Pas-de-Calais region in 2002. 

Announced a week in advance, the operation on the morning of Sept. 22 assembled 500 police and gendarmes — along with 30 Farsi and Pashto-speaking interpreters — to detain 276 people, some of who were led away in tears. Volunteers said a great number of the mostly Afghan migrants had already fled ahead of the arrival of authorities. Nonetheless, the spectacle attracted a throng of journalists as well as protesters, some of whom clashed with police in front of television cameras. 

It was not clear if any smugglers were arrested during the raid, but Besson, in his remarks, said an ongoing investigation had already led to the pre-raid arrests of three of the five main smugglers operating in the area, who allegedly were responsible for about 100 illegal passages per month into the U.K. Migrants believe immigration rules are more tolerant in Britain, and that they can more easily find jobs and get a foothold in society there. 

But about 20 associations that regularly work with migrants warned in an open letter the day before the raid that the operation would not only be ineffectual but would make an already bad situation worse. “Destroying the makeshift shelters and scattering the camps is to deliver the migrants to criminal networks and to fix nothing on a deeper level,” the letter said. The move was a continuation of “the mistake of 2002.” 

Liberation said: “Since Sangatte, the reality is that France, but also the European Union has failed to address the problem of migrants. The influx of undocumented migrants in the jungle of Calais, but also in Lampedusa, Gibraltar or elsewhere, requires a European-wide plan.” As if anticipating the naysayers, Besson acknowledged that razing the camp would not solve all the problems but it was an important step. He said he shared people’s perception that the “incoherence” of a Europe-wide immigration and asylum policy exacerbated the problem but he assured he was “actively working on it.”

A Calais official says that hundreds of migrants are still in the camp's vicinity, while one news report said migrants are starting to return to the area. 

Some of Besson's proposals include establishing a real border patrol force as well as a maritime unit to intercept migrants at sea and repatriate them if necessary and according to international law. He said it was out of the question that he would choose between “restoring the rule of law in Calais and negotiating with the European Union.” He intended to fight on both fronts and hoped to adopt an action plan by the end of October. 

But pressing questions persist now about the fate of the migrants and what will happen when there is another influx, as many predict. 

According to the government, of the 276 migrants detained, about 125 were determined to be minors. They were scattered to group homes while their situations are assessed. A few of the 151 adults were released if it was possible to determine that they had asylum cases pending, while the vast majority was dispersed to detention centers. Five people were being treated for scabies while another 14 have asked for political asylum. 

Two people with the authorization to remain in France, after having been granted asylum, had stayed in the camp in the hope of crossing into the U.K., the government said.