News Stories, 17 July 2009
CALAIS, France, July 17 (UNHCR) – Locals call it, "The Jungle" – a squalid warren of shanties made out of cardboard, plywood and bits of plastic that has mushroomed among the sand dunes and brambles outside Calais. Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, live there or in derelict buildings closer to the centre of this port city in northern France.
They come from far away: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and even Vietnam. Some have been on the move for months, crossing mountain ranges and deserts. They are reluctant to talk to outsiders.
The last hurdle in their dream of a new life in the United Kingdom is the 34-kilometre stretch of sea that separates Calais from the white cliffs of Dover, clearly visible from here on a clear day.
Their motives for making such an arduous journey and for roughing it in Calais vary. Some have relatives in the UK. Others have heard that it is easy to get a good job there. Some want to study. Yet others have been forced to flee their countries because of political, religious or ethnic persecution, and may be entitled to refugee status if they are given the opportunity to apply for asylum.
"There is no general situation, each individual case is different," explained UNHCR's Marie-Ange Lescure. Since early June, the UN refugee agency and its local partner, France Terre d'Asile, have been present in Calais, informing and counselling hundreds of people about asylum systems and procedures to apply for asylum in France and the UK.
Last week, the two organizations presented the French authorities with a road map aimed at helping to resolve some of the problems posed by the complex situation in Calais and other towns in northern France, and to assist those who may have a legitimate fear of persecution in their countries of origin.
The road map gives details of UNHCR's mission and activities in Calais and makes a series of proposals on how to deal with cases falling under the Dublin II regulation, under which asylum claims are normally handled by the country where the applicant first entered the EU. It also makes concrete suggestions on how to instal mechanisms to protect children and minors.
Meanwhile, finding accurate information and impartial advice for each individual case is not easy. Migrants and potential asylum-seekers can easily lose their way in a tangle of rumours, wilful misinformation and bureaucratic regulations which can be as bewildering and intimidating as a real jungle.
For those who may have a need for international protection, the local authorities have taken important steps to facilitate the procedure to apply for asylum. Since last April, the municipal authorities have made it possible for asylum claims to be lodged in Calais. Before, prospective asylum seekers had to go to Lille, 100 kilometres away.
Since then, more than 120 people have come forward to the special counter set up at the sub-prefecture in Calais. But, despite the cooperation from the local authorities, potential asylum-seekers still face considerable administrative and bureaucratic obstacles.
For example, the Dublin II rules about where asylum claims should be processed affects many of the people living rough in Calais. Most entered Europe through Greece, a country where asylum-seekers continue to face serious difficulties in accessing an effective asylum procedure.
To avoid being sent back to Greece or elsewhere, some migrants and asylum-seekers have gone to the extreme of burning their fingertips with red-hot nails or sulphuric acid so that they cannot be identified.
People smugglers, who make money by helping migrants and asylum-seekers reach their destination, often feed false information to their clients. Some asylum-seekers have said that they have been threatened by smugglers after making an application and have had to leave the "jungle."
"The jungles are controlled by smugglers," said a local humanitarian aid volunteer, who has been working in Calais for years. "They control access to the trucks and trains. A week ago a young man was stabbed in the hip for trying to climb onto a truck without paying the smuggler his fee."
Another issue of particular concern to UNHCR is the situation of children, some as young as three, who have arrived here with a parent or relative or, in some cases, on their own. They are extremely vulnerable and need special protection.
"Children are usually accompanied by a smuggler who claims to be an older brother or uncle. They use the children as bargaining chips to get more money from their families," said Jean-François Roger from France Terre d'Asile.
UNHCR hopes that by working closely with the British, French and EU authorities as well as other relevant organizations and civil society, a solution can be found for at least some of those currently living in unsanitary and dangerous conditions in Calais.
By William Spindler in Calais, France