French police Thursday forcibly evicted nearly 100 refugees who had been occupying a church in the northern town of Calais, ending a five-day standoff and the migrants' hopes of slipping across the Channel into Britain.
The refugees, mostly Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, were taken to government reception centers, where they will be offered the chance to apply for asylum in France, officials said. But the scores of migrants arriving daily in Calais, sleeping rough in shop doorways, have drawn fresh attention to the problems immigrants in Europe face, as France and its neighbors roll up the welcome mat.
The group of mostly young men who had sought shelter in the church had been denied access to the Red Cross camp at Sangatte, just outside Calais, which the government closed to newcomers last week. Sangatte, which houses around 1,800 refugees from 50 countries, has been a launch pad for people ready to risk their lives by sneaking onto the Eurostar trains that carry goods and passengers through the Channel tunnel from France to England. The camp is to be closed completely next April under a deal between the French and British governments.
Britain last Friday toughened its immigration and asylum laws to make the country less attractive to foreigners, and a heightened police presence on both sides of the Channel since last July has made it harder to get into Britain on trains or ferries.
But news of Sangatte's closure and the British legislation, which forbids asylum seekers from working and puts them in special isolated reception camps, has not yet spread along the secret routes that migrants travel from the Middle East and Central Asia, paying smugglers as much as $10,000 each to get them into Britain. "When they hear that it has got much harder, perhaps people will stop [giving] their life savings to the smugglers," says Corinne Perthuis, an official with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which is currently sorting Sangatte residents into those with a good case for asylum and those without.
European leaders decided last June to put new muscle into their immigration laws to try to stem the flow of illegal migrants from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, who are currently arriving at an estimated rate of 500,000 a year. But they have not yet been able to agree on common standards by which to judge who qualifies for asylum, to set benefits asylum-seekers should enjoy while they wait for their cases to be decided, and to coordinate the manner in which decisions should be reached.
"It is very important that all countries set the same conditions, so as to avoid asylum shopping," whereby asylum-seekers seek out the most advantageous terms, says Leonello Gabrici, a European Union spokesman.
People smugglers currently exploit the differences in approach, and migrants head especially for Britain, because asylum-seekers there are guaranteed lodging and a small income, whereas in France, for example, there are only 5,000 beds available for 40,000 asylum-seekers. Britain also has no national ID card system, and a less regulated economy than many continental countries, making it easier for illegal immigrants to live and work unnoticed by the authorities.
At the same time, say officials with immigrant aid organizations, the smugglers have a particular interest in encouraging people to go as far as Britain, since the smugglers earn more money that way. Many of the Iraqi Kurds holed up until Thursday morning in the Calais church said they did not want to seek asylum in France because they had been told that only 1 per cent of their compatriots who had done so had won the right to stay. In fact, the French government accepts more than 70 percent of Iraqi asylum applications.
As conditions around Calais have grown harder for the migrants, many are reported to be traveling up the coast a short distance to ports in neighboring Belgium, to try their luck there. They are being helped, authorities say, by smugglers seeking to escape a French police crackdown that has seen 40 of them arrested in northern France in recent weeks.
Though the Sangatte closure and church eviction has signaled a newly tough French policy, "the test will be whether people are still coming to Calais in a couple of weeks," says Ms. Perthuis.