New Kit for Refugee Hunt 

Photo by Bertrand Bouchez on Unsplash

Around Calais, the teams responsible for hunting down migrants are smiling at the new kit that has arrived: drones, a borrowed buggy, thermal binoculars for night vision. At last they can do their job properly in the 2,000 hectares of Merlimont Reserve (near Le Touquet) where some 300 migrants were camping last week. Along with increased air surveillance of the coast, these newly equipped teams should be able to stop more overloaded small boats trying to cross the Channel. Getting the right kit for battle has always been a matter of masculine pride: think of the steeds, armour, shields and swords of yore. And now update to this modern war of LIC (lutte contre immigration clandestine) where we will lick the migrants with high tech kit. Will the next technological step be death rays from the night skies?

Patel Would Approve of the New Kit

Priti Patel would approve as she has said more resources were needed to secure the frontier. In fact, the French authorities initially procured that plane for coastal surveillance from Britain, but then found that, post-Brexit, the import regulation was too complicated. So, after some delay, the plane was procured from Denmark, another EU country.

The local government of Calais not only engage in LIC; they now also cope with the arrival of hundreds of Ukrainian refugees hoping to board the ferries or Le Shuttle to Kent. These groups did not have to camp out. A youth hostel was opened up to accommodate them. The local newspaper, La Voix du Nord, points out how two-faced the authorities are: on the one hand, the welcome for Ukrainians and, on the other hand, increasing restrictions on the migrants.

Good Migrant, Bad migrant?

In Calais, various humanitarian agencies are vocal in protesting at how the local authorities treat the migrants. They are not allowed to arrange hot meals for them in any area of the main town. The aid agencies used to have more places of temporary accommodation but these were closed. So migrants disperse to the outskirts and the roadsides. The police then disperse them from there by seizing their tents and other possessions. If the weather is exceptionally cold or intolerable, such as during the recent storms, the authorities do allow the migrants to sleep inside a shelter. There were reported to be some 900 of them. In protest at how the migrants are treated there have even been hunger strikes to draw attention to their plight. The Mayor has spoken of the “excesses” of these pro-migrant organisations.

So the local newspaper is now shining the spotlight on the unequal treatment of the refugees from outside Europe compared to the recent arrivals from Ukraine. President Macron has recently denounced the British treatment of those Ukrainian who came to Calais seeking to cross the Channel. They were told they had to get visas from either Paris or Brussels. This contrasts with how these refugees are treated in countries belonging to the EU , where they can move across the borders without a visa.

Handled by Private Company

The Home Office has long been in the business of making it as difficult as possible to immigrate legally to the UK. For many years, for example, it controlled the flow of applicants from India just by long wait-times for understaffed services: I once saw the waiting room at Madras, filled with about 1,000 patient applicants. From what I know in South Africa, the first stages of the visa process from abroad are now handled through a private company, either VFS Global or TLS Contact.

The actual granting of the visa is then done by the Home Office. In 2019, the stated waiting time between application and granting was six weeks. So it occurs to me that maybe some of the apparent Home Office dithering about how to cope with Ukrainian refugees was because of how it affects the contract with this private company. Should they be doing the work, or emergency staff drafted in from elsewhere in the civil service?

Office is 60 Miles Away

An office has now been opened to deal with visa applications, but not in Calais, nearer to where the new refugees arrived, but in Arras, a town in northern France some 60 miles away. Why not in Calais? The unspoken reason is that neither the Calais authorities nor the British Home Office want to offer the same facility to the refugees from non-European countries. These people take to the small boats because there is no way they can get a visa legally. They cannot get their claim to be a refugee assessed by the British Government until they reach the UK. It will be interesting to see if they can now use the new online system of visa application.

Meanwhile, they face dodging LIC in the Merlimont nature reserve.