Migrants on the French coast

What is happening to migrants the other side of the Channel, as reported in French media?

In Kent media, we see pictures of migrants in groups, huddled in overloaded inflatable boats on the sea, or being escorted off the beach. We are also informed that Napier barracks in Folkestone is about to be reopened as a reception centre for them, in spite of these premises being deemed unsuitable.

But what is happening the other side of the Channel in the north of France? In recent stories of migrants in the local paper, La Voix du Nord, there are three types of stories:

1) Of the beach and sea rescues of migrants who have nearly drowned

2) Of how the local authorities are trying to control the migrants

3) From the law courts of cases of people smugglers, or of those defending the rights of migrants.

Migrant rescues

Migrant rescues are increasing as the weather gets warmer. Here are excerpts (translated into English) from La Voix du Nord, the local French newspaper:

This Saturday morning, emergency services came to the aid of several migrants in difficulty when putting to sea from beaches around Le Touquet, Boulogne and Ambleteuse. 50 were taken to Boulogne safe and sound.

This Saturday many calls for help were received from migrants in difficulty and rescue operations got underway. Towards 4am 11 migrants, rescued from off Le Touquet, were brought to port, reported to the local authority and taken into the custody of the border police.

At 8.40am the lifeboat … put to sea to rescue another boat that was in difficulty. In total 24 migrants, five of them children, were brought into the port of Boulogne

Shortly before 8am, ten shipwrecked migrants, Vietnamese and Iraqis, were brought into the port from Ambleteuse, among them two women and two toddlers. According to our information these migrants had departed, simultaneously from several of the local beaches, during the night.

At Sangatte, 30 were rescued, and there were more calls for help from about 40 migrants in difficulty at Oye-Plage. Rescue boats set out from both Dunkerque and Calais. At the same time, the marine police on board “La Scarpa” were put on alert to rescue those in trouble at sea and at 7am this ship, with a fragile inflatable boat in tow, brought to port 29 people.

The marine police spotted another inflatable overloaded and sinking and 29 “secret” migrants (“clandestins”) were rescued including a young girl and a toddler of two.

At 7am “La Scarpa” came into Calais with 29 migrants on board of various nationalities, some suffering from hypothermia. The border police and fire-teams took charge of them.

38 survivors of various nationalities -Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani and Vietnamese- had returned to the beach having failed to get to sea from Hennes. The fire-teams of Marek took charge of them. Some of them, suffering from hypothermia, were taken to be examined by medical teams before being taken to a shelter.

The Mayor of Oye-Plage explained “if more men, women and children are still near death on our beaches, certainly we are always willing to welcome them for a few hours; take  time to give them first aid and to organise their transfer to a shelter. But we must find an appropriate place of temporary accommodation as the health centre is not suitable. This must be put right collaboratively, with the State taking overall responsibility.”

Migrant deterrence

In 2015/16, there were some 10,000 migrants gathering in France, in a series of camps called the Jungle, hoping to embark for the UK.

Over the past few years, helped by funding from the UK Government, more infrastructure has been put in place to stop clandestine migration. Over 60kms of high fencing (moved from London’s Olympic Park after the 2012 games) has been erected.

It surrounds the railway line as it enters the Channel Tunnel, but despite this some acrobatic and daring migrants have tried to jump on to the train. I recall having breakfast on Eurostar when it was suddenly halted when approaching the Tunnel because migrants had jumped on the roof. I had a pang of guilt at eating a delicious Continental breakfast in comfort while such desperate individuals were trying their luck on the roof above.

As more barriers have been erected to protect the lorries, so the migrants have moved to the traffic islands further away, still readying themselves to jump on to the lorries. But as these ways of crossing the Channel are increasingly blocked, so more of the migrants are taking to sea, as the news stories above show. While waiting, they build camps where they can.

The authorities try to block off these camp locations. For example, there was a good sleeping place under a large roof overhanging a pavement. The authorities have just blocked it with large, jagged rocks. There are two bridges, the George V, and Freycinet, near the Calais-Ville railway station, where migrants were sheltering. Their camps were recently dismantled with the deployment of many officers “trained to enforce order” – meaning armed police and soldiers.

The authorities, who counted 500 migrants at Calais before this operation, stated that regular patrols are carried out to offer shelter to willing migrants. A spokesperson for the town authority said that to stop new camps, structures are being put in place:

“We will try to choose something of quality which fits in with the environment. We will not put up railings like last year, or bicycle-posts, which were quickly replaced by longer poles after the outcry last year”.

In sympathy with the migrants

There are various organisations working to assist the migrants.

Jeanne Menjoulet. Calais Stop Repression. June 2018

Last month the local Bishop declared (see Cross-Channel Alerts on the menu at Kent Bylines):

“In France we treat our pets better than we treat the migrants, in terms of their rights”

And the spokesperson for Secours Catholique added, “they are very much here, and they are human beings”.

The authorities have just forbidden the charities from feeding migrants in the centre of town.

Over the past three years, when the weather becomes cold, from January to the end of March, migrants have been taken into shelters, some of which are hangars that can accommodate up to 200 at a time. There are also containers in use at St. Omer. This year, now France is in Covid lockdown, this provision has been extended to the end of May.

The associations in sympathy with the migrants speak up frequently: for example, Francis Guennoc of L’Auberge des Migrants, who campaign for taking migrants into shelters without conditions, criticises  any late opening of these official shelters.

These associations have also been vocal about the recent removals of the camps in town as “not acceptable … very difficult with the low temperatures … some of those expelled lost their ID documents, medicines, phones and money”.

It was the timing of the patrols which outraged the sympathetic volunteers who said, “The patrols took place at 3pm and the people did not have time to move their belongings”.

The authorities responded with some facts about providing official shelter to migrants – 4,219 of them benefitted from state-run shelters between 16 Jan and 31 March – spending the night in the warmth of either the hangars or the containers. Some 9,911 migrants have been taken into the shelters since 2017. There is also a shelter for unaccompanied minors which has 60 places, and one for youth which since 1 January has accommodated 4,363 young people. At St. Omer the cost to the public was assessed as €400,000.

The legal rights of migrants in France

The location of the camps has been disputed in the law courts.

The Calais authorities were not able to dismantle camps in a large coastal area because it was privately owned. After much legal research it was revealed that the owner had died in 1970, so the municipality is now taking it over so as to utilise it for public enjoyment.

The area of footpaths along the streams (“watergang”) and wooded slopes to the north, was derelict and insanitary, and has been occupied since last year by migrants hiding in the woods and by the banks of streams. The camps were increasing in size because of the distribution of food and fuel at the entrance, near an area of sea-wall and promenade that has been renovated and now belongs to the locals of Sangatte.

The local government spokesperson said that, “As owners of this land, we can now go to the law courts and demand the end of this occupation for health reasons. A situation like this must not last any longer on municipal land”.

On the other hand, the court at Lille recently ruled in favour of a migrants’ camp at a sports centre for BMX sports cycling declaring:

“It has not been proven that the camp is a risk to public health, or that it does not respect  human dignity. Furthermore, it has not been shown to block access to areas for sport, nor is the camp a nuisance to the neighbourhood, nor is there an excessive cost for cleaning up the site.”

One of the leaders of the pro-migrant associations, Cedric Herou, described as a “paysan” (a small-holding farmer) recently had a case against him quashed after being charged in 2016 with setting up a camp to help migrants. Since then he has been prosecuted three times, receiving a fine and also spells in prison. The case had gone to the higher courts to test the principle of “fraternity” (one of the founding principles of the French Republic adopted in 1792 during the Revolution). When he finally won in the law courts on 1 March, his lawyer declared that this decision showed that he was only going to the aid of someone, and that fraternity is not a crime.

This decision is in contrast to the recent sentencing of a Ukrainian driver caught with three Vietnamese migrants on board his lorry, from the rail station at Rouen, and he pleaded guilty to charging about €3000 per person. He received a fine and a prison sentence. He was a people smuggler transporting migrants for personal gain, whereas Cedric was assisting migrants altruistically.

How French authorities reclaim land occupied by migrants

It is clear that the local and national governments have to struggle with conflicting rights. Undeniably the migrants in and around the coastal towns of northern France affect the quality of life for local residents.

Beaches have been fenced off, walks on the dunes have become impossible, and with intolerable numbers of people sleeping on pavements or under bridges, the authorities have increasingly moved to reclaim areas occupied by the migrants.

For example the 331-hectare area where The Jungle was has now been rewilded with woodland paths and defined circular walks to be enjoyed by locals seeking recreation.

But in order to achieve this, the authorities had to forcibly dismantle camps and disperse the migrants. Pushing these people around in this way is also an affront to human dignity and many feel pity for their plight.

UK policies on migrants affects those on the other side of the Channel

The migrants are all there because of their aspiration to reach the United Kingdom.

So the decisions of our government affect their situation. Local Southeast news says the migrants over there became worried when they heard that Napier barracks was again to be used to accommodate them. The Home Secretary has said that those arriving illegally would not be granted settlement rights.

Some 5000 immigrants will be granted settlement rights legally each year, mostly those with skills identified in listed occupations.

The Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), the Kent-based charity aiding migrants, says that the best way of preventing more migrants from risking their lives on the sea crossing is to open safe centres abroad from which legal applications could be made.

But this is unlikely to work, as most countries would probably not allow such centres fearing that they would become a magnet for migrants many of whose applications could be turned down by the UK. So the problem would recur, with lots of migrants still camping around in hope, exactly as they do now on the other side of the Channel.

Kent Bylines will continue to report news of these migrants with regular updates from French news sources placed in Cross-Channel Alerts.