France and Britain to defuse Calais migrant crisis

Migrants in Calais waiting to cross the Channel. [Reuters]

France and Britain are to sign a deal today (20 August) aimed at preventing undocumented migrants entering the Channel Tunnel, while stepping up joint police operations against the people-smugglers who profit from their desperation to reach Britain.

The northern French port has hit headlines as migrants make attempt after attempt to enter the Channel Tunnel to reach Britain, some paying for it with their lives.

Some 3,000 people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are camped in Calais attempting to get to Britain, where many already have family and work is perceived as easier to find, by any means necessary.

At least 10 people have been killed since June trying to make the crossing.

While France and Britain have tried to present a united front in tackling the crisis, the issue has strained ties between the two.

>>Read: EU offers to help France, UK face Calais migrant crisis

Politicians in Britain have accused France of security failings, while London has been slammed by Paris for making it too easy for migrants to work illegally, thus luring them to its shores.

The accord, which will be signed in Calais by France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and his British counterpart Theresa May, will focus on securing the area.

As part of the deal, the Home Office said on Thursday that British police officers will be deployed to Calais to combat gangs smuggling the migrants across the Channel.

Led by one British and one French senior commander, they will work alongside their French counterparts in a “Command and Control Centre”, the ministry said ahead of May’s visit to the ferry port.

The new joint command will “find and disrupt organised criminals who attempt to smuggle migrants into northern France and across the Channel”, it said.

New measures include increased French police numbers and British-funded fencing, CCTV and other security equipment to protect the tunnel entrance in Calais, the Home Office said.

Operator Eurotunnel will receive unspecified “support” to deploy more security guards at the site, it added.

It will also provide a boost to humanitarian assistance for the migrants in a bid to ease the desperate conditions in Calais.

‘More fencing, more resources, more dogs’

Keith Vaz, who chairs a parliamentary body scrutinising the work of May’s ministry, welcomed the agreement but warned there was already evidence of greater “illegal activity” at other Channel ports in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“Closing off one route will only mean the problem moves to another port,” he said.

“We need agreements with countries across the north coast to stop this situation developing before we see Calais-like crises spring up at ports across the continent.”

>>Read: Man dies as thousands of migrants storm Channel Tunnel

Britain has pledged £22 million (€31 million euros) so far towards improving security at the French end of the Channel Tunnel.

And Prime Minister David Cameron promised “more fencing, more resources, more sniffer dog teams” to aid French police in their nightly efforts to prevent the migrants getting through.

Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel said earlier this week that the number of migrants trying to break into the undersea rail link in Calais had fallen to around 150 a night, down from a high of 2,000 at the end of July.

France and Germany step up cooperation

After signing the deal, Cazeneuve will travel to Berlin to meet his German counterpart Thomas de Maizière, who announced earlier this week that Germany expects to receive a record 800,000 asylum seekers this year – far more than the 500,000 initially expected.

Germany, as Europe’s biggest economy, has become the top destination for refugees. Berlin has struggled to accommodate a wave of asylum seekers from war zones such as Syria but also from countries without military conflict in southeastern Europe, including Albania, Serbia and Kosovo.

De Maizière called on Wednesday (19 August) for the European Commission to act against member states not taking responsibility for the crisis, while Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Sunday (16 August) that the issue could become a bigger challenge for the European Union than the Greek debt crisis.

EU border agency Frontex on Tuesday (18 August) reported a record high of 107,500 migrants at the European Union’s borders last month.

And the number of migrants arriving in crisis-hit Greece is accelerating dramatically, with nearly 21,000 landing on the overstretched Greek islands last week alone, the United Nations said.

The growing refugee crisis will also feature in talks between French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday (24 August), as southern European states bearing the brunt of the influx press for a concerted EU-wide response.

France wants to set up processing centres for speedier treatment of asylum applications at Europe’s main entry points and use development policy to enlist better cooperation from transit countries, Fabius said. 

Migrants attempt to enter the United Kingdom illegally by stowing away on lorries, ferries, cars, or trains travelling through the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel Calais Terminal. The migrants are a mix of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from Darfur, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other troubled areas of the world.

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