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What's happening with the refugees in Sangatte?
Calais (France), 12 and 13 October 2000



This report on the situation at Sangatte is the result of an investigation by several French NGOs — the CCFD (Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development), Cimade (Ecumenical Aid Association), Gisti (Information and Support Group for Immigrants), SAF (Union of French Lawyers), and SM (Union of French Judges). They visited the Sangatte camp and talked with officials there, as well as with local community groups and local authorities, such as the prefect, the state prosecutor, the chief judge of Boulogne and immigration police.

When the weather is fine, you can see the English coast. Huge ferries go back and forth across the Channel all the time.

Dozens of foreigners are hanging around, silently watching and dreaming, hoping to find any way they can to cross to England — with the help of small-time smugglers using their own cars, lorry drivers who they sometimes pay, or using the ferry or the train, or even by walking through the tunnel.

The French border police do not check on foreigners much. The Calais harbour authorities have become much stricter however and getting over to the other side is increasingly hard. But economics intervenes. There is fierce competition between the various ports. With such a high volume of traffic, too many checks would slow down all the ships and trains. So they are only casual and nearly all the foreigners eventually manage to get across.

But they have to wait. A year ago, it took about a week of trying every night to find a way over. These days, it's about three weeks. The would-be migrants, who have come via Belgium or Italy, are stuck on the coast after their long trip. This absurd situation led to the opening of a camp at Sangatte where they could stay.

The Sangatte camp

We prefer the word "camp" to "centre" because of the living conditions there and its doubtful legal status. Its only precedent is perhaps the Spanish Republican camps in the 1930s. It was opened at the end of September 1999 by the French government after a succession of problems and efforts by local authorities.

Concern about the situation began growing from about 1986, when a small number of foreigners were trying to reach England and getting turned back. Most were Vietnamese and Pakistani. After 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poles and then other Eastern European began to arrive, along with Sri Lankan Tamils.

In 1994, a small group called "La Belle Etoile" founded in Calais by an Amnesty International campaigner, became one of the first to call attention to these "refugees," especially the Poles, who were being turned back by the British authorities even though they did not need a visa.

In October 1997, about 40 Gypsies from Czech Republic who had asked for asylum and been turned back by the British installed themselves near the tunnel terminal. In December, an emergency committee to help them was set up by charity groups. After negotiations, Britain agreed to take half the Gypsies.

In October 1998, young Kosovars fleeing the Serbian army arrived. That winter, they and others crammed into the ferry terminal, their only shelter from the cold. In February 1999, whole families began arriving from Kosovo. The charity groups provided them with food and blankets and persuaded the authorities to open a warehouse where they could stay at night.

The first camp lasted only a month. Every night, about 200 foreigners arrived, 80% of them Kosovars and many of them wives and children wanting to join a father or a husband already in Britain.

On 4 June 1999, the local authorities suddenly closed the warehouse. At two days notice, more than 200 people were thrown onto the streets of Calais. They settled in parks, especially one near the town hall, the Parc Saint-Pierre, which became a shanty town.

Alerted by a European "Green" MP, the authorities "discovered" the settlement and this led to the opening of a centre at Sangatte. It lasted only 10 days. But pressure from the charity groups led to the opening of the present camp on 24 September 1999.

Since the end of the Yugoslav crisis, the Kosovars have been replaced by Iraqis, Iranians, Turks (mainly Kurds), Afghans, Sri Lankans, Poles and Romanians. People from elsewhere will turn up when wars and dictatorships toss them out onto the road and the oceans.

A big shelter for misfortune

The camp is a huge corrugated-iron warehouse, 25,000 sq metres in area, half a kilometre from the small seaside resort of Sangatte. Once used for storing materials to build the Channel Tunnel, it now "receives" the foreigners who wander up and down the coast.

The cost of running the camp, including wages for 35 permanent staff, is covered by the French labour and solidarity ministry's population and migration division. The French Red Cross runs it day-to-day. Former Red Cross workers have been hired on renewable three-month contracts and a manager has been appointed.

To live in the camp, you simply ask for a bed. There is no register. Prefabricated metal sheds and tents have been set up in the warehouse. Conditions are spartan and there is no privacy. There are 18 sheds, each with 30 beds, making a total of 540 plus 150 more in tents — a total of 700 beds. There is room for more, but the director admits that 5000 people could be housed, not that he wants that to happen. The camp perhaps has a bright future ahead of it. In its first year, 16,000 people have been accommodated, most of whom have then managed to cross the Channel.

The food is adequate and 2,400 meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) are served each day. They are prepared in Lille and warmed up at the camp. Basic facilities are provided — a clinic, showers, toilets, laundry — but the "guests" live rather like dogs or cats in luxurious kennels. Living in the warehouse is much better than living outside, as was happening for several years, but it's still the life of a camp.

Public order, human management
and token control of numbers

At the camp entrance, there is always a police car. Every day, after 4 pm, many camp residents, usually by themselves but sometimes with their family, walk away towards the coast, towards Calais in the hope of finding a night passage, either paid for to a smuggler or clandestine, but always illegal. Dozens of them leave in groups from the camp under the benevolent eye of the police. These foreigners may well disappear. Nobody knows them.

Some will be back the next day, having failed to get across the Channel. Every day new ones replace those who have made it the previous day. When the camp was opened, it had 200 foreigners. By the end of the year there were 400. The average now is 700, with sometimes as many as 1,000.

The police in front of the camp do not check anyone's papers except the passengers of cars with non-local registration plates as part of a drive against organised people-smuggling. They will sometimes even give foreigners a lift to the camp if they find them in town or on the road during an identity check or if they just been released from a detention centre at nearby Coquelles.

The "camp" was set up in response to a humanitarian need and at the request of charity groups, but also to what is perceived as a threat to public order. There is local resentment of the foreigners, even though their presence has been a boon to the town's small businesses. An anti-foreigner committee has been set up, and a successful boycott of the five year term for the president of the French republic referendum (24 September 2000) was organised as a protest against situation.

The camp is also part of France's attempt to be a good European Union partner to Britain by appearing to make its borders secure against illegal immigration. But Britain is opposed to the Sangatte camp.

There is no formal punishment for unauthorised immigrants, but makeshift action is taken to discourage. A large number of people — 14,840 — were questioned in the course of September 2000 but only a few of these were detained. Of these, only a small number were sent away from the area. Passengers hidden in lorries are detected through the presence of carbon dioxide so as to delay their crossing. Small-time people-smugglers are caught (mostly British — between January and September 2000, 139 were convicted and mostly given six-month jail sentences. Some refugees were detained, others sent back to European countries they had passed through before reaching France. Ten to 15% are deported from France, according to local officials.

The prefect (governor) of the department (province), who was appointed three months after the camp opened and is a former national head of defence and civil security, admits that nothing can stop people getting through. The state prosecutor says there is no question of sending Iranians, Afghans, Somalis or Iraqis back to their countries. "It's also my job to see that foreigners are safe", he says.

The camp has only one staff member to help the refugees with their legal problems and he is a young man who is not a lawyer and has no training in the laws concerning foreigners. He often has to ask officials at the prefecture for advice.

It is hard to say how many of those passing through the camp would, if they had a choice, seek asylum in France rather than Britain. Many have relatives already living in Britain and others want to go to Canada. But they know their chances in France would be slim and barely 0.01% of those in the camp seek asylum (combined refugee and territorial asylum status).

Sangatte proves the need for a proper immigration policy based on freedom
of movement and the right of asylum

The conclusion of our investigation is the same as that of everyone on the spot in Sangatte. The unanimous opinion of the prefect, the state prosecutor, the administrator of the camp and of the detention centre and the local charity groups points to solutions to a situation that is a humanitarian disaster with a legal facade. But these solutions are not being applied. The presence of thousands of undocumented foreigners is tolerated by keeping them undocumented.

France (and other European countries) do not want to resolve the following contradictions :

  1. Foreigners passing through Boulogne and Calais are virtually all genuinely fleeing repression. International law protects their flight and allows them to seek refuge abroad where they must seek official protection, under the Geneva convention on refugees and the European Convention on human rights.

  2. By closing their borders in line with European Union policy, EU countries are blocking any permanent immigration of people, including those fleeing persecution.

  3. Since foreigners determined to emigrate eventually succeed, closing borders just makes them dependent on immigration racketeers and other crooks who take advantage of the border-closure policy.

  4. Such violation of international refugee protection law means that instead of constructively cooperating on a European-wide scale, such countries compete to defend themselves by pushing their deportees onto their neighbours after failing to stop them entering in the first place.

  5. This inability capacity to take into account both the situation and present law leads to simple camps being opened for refugees. In Sangatte, and also in Melilla, Ceuta and any where that geography gives refugees a greater chance of fleeing.

See “Facts about a non-policy

What can be done in Sangatte-Boulogne-Calais and elsewhere?

Housing the would-be official refugees in the Sangatte camp is certainly better than letting them wander around outside, as the French authorities had been doing since 1986, when the illegal crossings started. But apart from the fact that such housing is scandalous, the situation is quite inadequate.

The camp is likely to explode eventually under pressure from the constantly-growing number of foreigners if the people there are not treated as the refugees they are. The scandal of the tens of thousands of foreigners there and in Boulogne and Calais has arisen because everyone thinks their flight is legitimate but nobody either in France or the countries they have passed through to reach it wants to grant them the asylum they deserve. It is clear that if they could obtain it from these countries, many would not try to get to Britain.

The EU aim of an agreement on minimal rights to asylum is neither acceptable nor realistic. The only realistic thing is to do what member-states have promised to do by ratifying international agreements, which is to let political refugees move freely, take them in and give them protection when they ask for it.

Since the Dublin Convention, which sets the rules about which EU country is to examine an asylum claim, each country has been doing its best to fob off as many immigrants as possible on its neighbours. France is trying to make the crossing more difficult so foreigners will go to Belgium or the Netherlands to try to get across to England. It would be less hypocritical and more effective to create positive cooperation between countries. This approach would, as well as protecting the refugees, make for a more even sharing out of political refugees among EU countries.

In France, there is no alternative to starting hearings of applications for asylum for all who seek it and also to changing the French definition of asylum. Ninety per cent of refugee applications were rejected in France in 1998, along with 94 per cent of applications for territorial refuge.

The real alternative to the band-aid approach of Sangatte is, short of making the area into a new Gibraltar, for France and Britain to sit down and work out how they can receive in a proper manner the refugees seeking to make the crossing. Such an agreement could be the prelude to an accord between EU countries to share the responsibility of taking in persecuted people from the outside world.



About 40,000 foreigners travel from Calais to England each year in the hope of getting asylum.

About 85% of them are from countries where the situation is so bad that sending them back is unthinkable in the opinion of all officials involved. Mostly these are Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians. Before were the Kosovars. Almost all of them manage to get to England even if it takes them an average of three weeks now, compared with three days a few months ago. Reliable sources put the number of illegal crossings at between 50 and 250 a day, with an average of 110.

The checks of foreigners cannot be effective because of the situation in the countries they are fleeing from. Between January and September 2000, fewer than 1,000 people were detained out of 15,000 questioned and very few of those were deported to their country of origin.

The Sangatte camp was opened to prevent the refugees having to live in inhuman conditions and to avoid xenophobic reactions from ordinary French people. In its 16 months of existence, it has sheltered 16,000 people and sometimes as many as 1,000 a day.

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Dernière mise à jour : 2-01-2001 11:19.
Cette page : https://www.gisti.org/doc/actions/2000/sangatte/synthese.en.html

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