UNHCR clarifies role in Sangatte operation
GENEVA, September 27 (UNHCR) - A senior UNHCR official on Friday clarified the role the UN refugee agency will play in the forthcoming operation in the controversial Sangatte centre near Calais in northern France.
"UNHCR does not start a pre-registration exercise today, as some reports have suggested," said Raymond Hall, Director of the agency's Europe Bureau. "The first stage is in the hands of the French Red Cross, which will collect basic data and issue identification badges. During this period, the UNHCR team in Sangatte will be simply providing information to the residents - explaining to them what is going on, what the process involves and so on."
In July, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers offered his agency's services to try and help resolve the situation in Sangatte, which had not only become a serious bone of contention between France and the United Kingdom, but was also having an extremely negative effect on the general European asylum debate.
The offer was accepted and the parameters of UNHCR's involvement were subsequently worked out with the French authorities.
Once the Red Cross has finished its initial identification exercise, a team from the UN refugee agency will conduct a registration exercise involving one-to-one interviews with all of Sangatte's inhabitants, with the dual aim of establishing their background and intentions, and of identifying possible solutions to their individual situation. Subsequently, the UNHCR team will provide them with counselling about their best realistic options, depending on their personal circumstances.
"Refugee status determination will be carried out by the French authorities, and UNHCR will refer cases who wish to apply for asylum to them," said Hall. "In addition, we will provide special counselling to those with clear protection needs. The UNHCR team will include staff brought in especially from the regions from where some of the larger Sangatte groups originate."
It is believed that many of the people in Sangatte may be suffering from a diet of misinformation fed to them by the smuggling gangs intent on exploiting them. UNHCR, as the international agency charged with protecting refugees, believes it is in a position to provide the Sangatte population with objective information both about their realistic options in Europe, as well as - in some cases - current conditions in their home countries.
In line with a much wider, global approach to the voluntary return of Afghan refugees, the UN refugee agency has also undertaken to assist with organising the voluntary repatriation of any Afghans in Sangatte who would like to return home. UNHCR's operation in Afghanistan - a $271 million programme with a field presence in 28 different locations across the country - will also help out with this component of the Sangatte plan.
Hall said that separate but similar tripartite agreements concerning the voluntary repatriation of Afghans were currently being negotiated with France and the United Kingdom. [Editor's note:France went on to sign a tripartite agreement with UNHCR and the Afghan Transitional Authority on September 28.]
Afghanistan's Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Enayatullah Nazeri, is currently in the midst of a 12-day visit to London, Paris and the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. On Thursday, he met with a delegation of Afghans from Sangatte, and also visited a young Afghan - who lost a leg trying to cross over to the United Kingdom - in hospital in Calais.
The UN refugee agency has said it will, if necessary, help the French government with voluntary repatriation to other countries of origin, as well as with family reunion for any refugees separated from their families in other asylum countries.
UNHCR will also assist the French government to find solutions for the large number of unaccompanied minors believed to be in Sangatte, including transferring them to specialised centres and helping to trace close family members with the aim of reuniting them. The underlying principle will be what is in the best interests of the child.
"UNHCR's precise role throughout the Sangatte operation will remain somewhat flexible, depending on what special needs arise," said Hall. "With so little known about the centre's occupants, there is no ready-made solution. Instead, individual solutions will hopefully be found progressively day by day."
In recent days, the population of Sangatte - which is notoriously fluid - has risen to around 2,000. The centre, a former warehouse used during the construction of the channel tunnel, was opened on September 24, 1999 to cater for an increasing number of Kosovars who were sleeping in the open in Calais, and was initially a useful way to help this needy group. However, as time passed, it became a notorious hub exploited by increasingly sophisticated smuggling gangs. More than 60,000 people have passed through the centre in its three years of operation.