The situation of exiles on the English Channel and North Sea coast

Report of a CFDA mission of inquiry carried out between May and July 2008

report, in French, available on Cimade website

Between May and July 2008, the French Coalition for Asylum Rights (CFDA) (Coordination française pour le droit d’asile), composed of about twenty French associations, carried out a mission of inquiry in north-western France on the situation of the “exiles” found in the area. These “exiles”, at present, come principally from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and the Sudan. La CFDA estimates that approximately 1,500 persons are concerned. They seek, in vain, a European country willing to accept them. Rejected by every country through which they have transited, they end up on the Channel coast in France. Some of them then succeed in crossing to the United Kingdom, while others go on to a variety of northern European countries. New arrivals constantly replace those who leave.

These exiles survive by hiding in the woods or in urban squats. The police harass them constantly. Over the past few years, but with little visibility, their presence has extended over an increasingly wider area. Their predecessors, from 1999 to 2002, had previously been sheltered in the Sangatte camp, near Calais.

Six years after the closing, in late 2002, of the Sangatte Camp located near Calais (in northern France, just 12 kilometres from the British coast), where, at the time, almost all the exiles in the region received shelter, the CFDA had to visit six French departments (Pas-de-Calais, Somme, Seine-Maritime, Calvados, Manche and Paris) located in five different regions (Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardie, Haute et Basse-Normandie, Ile-de-France) in order to assess the situation of the exiles from Africa, the Near East and Central Asia who have come to Europe in the hope of finding safety and a better life.

After three months of visits and meetings with the exiles, the militants who aid them, government representatives and agents of various organisations involved in port security, the CFDA has come to the following conclusions :

- The exiles are much more numerous that the government is willing to admit. As a best estimate, between 1,000 and 1,500 persons are concerned (that is, about the same number as those who received shelter at Sangatte in 2002). They are divided among groups of very variable size, which seek, as discretely as possible, to board trucks heading for Great Britain or other European countries. Only about a third of these exiles are now found in Calais itself. Seaports continue to be important organising areas, where exiles meet and plan their departure. However, motorways are now also frequently used, especially the parking areas of service stations where trucks engaged in international shipping are to be found.

- Most of the exiles currently come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia or the Sudan, that is, from countries in deep crisis where violence rages. In that regard, they resemble their predecessors from other countries, who generally stopped fleeing to Europe once the situation in their countries of origin improved somewhat.

- Given the unquestioned legitimacy of the reasons leading these exiles to flee, France and most other European countries generally refuse to deport them back to their countries of origin. However, despite this “comprehensive” attitude toward the reasons that led them to come to Europe, the judicial and administrative obstacles placed in their paths make it next to impossible for them to obtain legal residency status, condemning them to lead unstable lives of extreme poverty.

- Among the variety of rules that complicate or prevent the exiles from obtaining legal residency, the European “Dublin Regulation” has proven a particularly formidable obstacle. This Regulation confides the exclusive responsibility for examining asylum claims to the first European Union country through which it which it can be proven that an asylum seeker has transited. It therefore forecloses the possibility, for many asylum seekers, of staying in the country in which they wish to. It relegates them, furthermore, to countries on the frontiers of Europe where, for a variety of arguably good reasons, they do not wish to remain.

- This sort of “house arrest” imposed on the exiles, with total indifference to their hopes and needs, leaves a great many of them disoriented. It leads as well to what might be called a “hot potato” approach among European Union countries, each of which tries in turn to send the exiles back to a different member State. In this way, the exiles are condemned to wander endlessly, crisscrossing Europe.

It has been more than twenty years since the first exiles were observed near Calais. Over the following two decades, all the policies formulated to deal with them have been founded principally on the fear of attracting additional exiles if those already present are treated decently. These polices are justified by the peculiar idea that the exiles flee their countries, which are the scene of armed conflict, and come to Europe, principally because of the level of comfort they hope to find in a potential “host” country.

This unrealistic approach has, for obvious reasons, proved a disastrous failure. The government, given its inability to put a halt to the inflow of exiles, has tried to conceal its powerlessness by concealing the exiles themselves, as best it can, from public opinion. The opening of the Sangatte camp in 1999 was just one example of this way of dealing with the problem. The CFDA’s report reveals how completely this political hoax has failed, as well the enormous damage it has caused.

For very different reasons, the exiles themselves also seek to be as invisible as possible (which of course suits the government perfectly). The end result is the existence of a series of camps furtively established all along the Channel and North Sea coasts. The exiles choose this invisibility in order to avoid, to the degree that it is possible, the problems the government creates for them precisely in order to force them to conceal themselves. With the exiles more or less out of sight, the government can then deny that they exist, or at least claim that there are very few of them. The exiles’ rights (to asylum, to lodging and to health care, as well as the particular care legally due to the minors among them) take a very distant back seat in this arrangement. Since the exiles, for the government, do not exist, a few humanitarian gestures toward them suffice, just enough to permit their simple survival. It is also much easier for the police to intervene against them, with greater or lesser brutality, since there is no one looking.

Given this context, the exiles often decide to leave France. Others are deported back to the European countries through which they transited on their way to France, although many of them then return here. But France’s inhospitable treatment of them has virtually no effect in deterring their compatriots who are preparing to flee their home countries from coming to France. Even if we suppose that they are aware of France’s hostility, it weighs little on their decisions given the seriousness of the motives underlying their flight.

The violence of all sorts - symbolic violence, administrative violence, judicial and police violence - used against the exiles thus has no effect on the phenomenon of exile itself. It has however led, in France and in Europe generally, to a creeping disrespect for fundamental human rights.

Slowly but surely, other “Calais” are increasingly to be found on Europe’s internal and external marches : Patras in Greece, the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco, the Canary Islands, Malta, Lampedusa and the south of the Italian peninsula, Mayotte in Indian Ocean have all become snares for exiles to whom Europe applies policies denying fundamental human rights in order to dissuade still other potential exiles from trying to come here.

Calais therefore, and now the entire northwest of France, have become a sort of “model” for the rest of Europe. It is for this reason as well that the CFDA feels it necessary to call attention to the dangers of policies which, although they have already demonstrated their inadequacy in practice, are being adopted as the path of least resistance in many other European countries.