Europe's illegals trapped in Catch-22

Tougher new asylum laws leave immigrants stuck in the streets.

Nobody needs to tell Ali, a young refugee from Iran, how hard European governments are cracking down on illegal immigrants these days. "I got that from a French policeman when he caught me in the port the other night," he says, pulling off his woolen cap to reveal a nasty gash in his scalp.

As Ali, who refused to give his family name, waited last week in this northern French port for another chance to slip across the Channel to England, European Union justice ministers in Brussels were finalizing a new immigration law that would make it harder than ever to claim political asylum on their continent.

That law, warned top UN refugee official Ruud Lubbers, embodies "significant departures from accepted international refugee and human rights law and principles established over 50 years."

Under pressure from right-wing populist parties, governments across Europe are tightening refugee laws. "The incredible laxity of recent years has led to a rise in exasperation and racism" in France, said French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy recently, explaining the tough new immigration law he is pushing through parliament. Mr. Sarkozy's first step, a year ago, was to close the Red Cross camp at Sangatte, outside Calais, where some 2,000 refugees lived while waiting to hop a train or boat to Britain.

Some 385,000 people sought asylum in European Union countries in 2001, the last year for which figures are available, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). About 50,000 of that total landed in France. Only about 15 percent of all asylum seekers are successful. However, since many who fail come from countries to which EU governments will not forcibly return them, they become illegal immigrants.

While current figures are about half the levels hit in the early 1990s during the Balkans wars, the issue has become a political hot potato, driven by nationalist populist parties, a rising jobless rate, and public anger over reports of immigrants abusing the system of asylum benefits.

That is why Ali and 14 other Iranian men like him are now living in the charred bowels of a burned-out boat moored at an abandoned dock, "living like animals," as one of them puts it.

They are among about 200 young men, mostly Iranians, Kurds, and Sudanese, living on the streets in Calais after having spent some $8,000 each to smugglers to get this far. Some have the $1,000 that smugglers demand to get them across the Channel, others are broke.

Though the number of illegal immigrants in Calais has fallen since Sangatte was closed, prompting Sarkozy to boast of success, local people say that many of them are simply heading for other ports, now that Calais offers no special comforts.

"The problem of these migrants still exists," says Denis Duvot, chief of staff to the mayor of Calais. "It's just that we have moved it to Cherbourg, Dieppe," and other ferry terminals in northern France and Belgium. "Wherever there's a port, there are refugees," he adds.

Social workers helping the refugees - feeding them sandwiches and tea twice a day - say the French police regularly arrest the immigrants and simply dump them a long way away with orders to leave France within five days. "The police try to push them away from Calais so that the [interior] minister can say there is no more immigrant problem in Calais," complains Jacky Verhaegen, an official with La Belle Etoile, a local charity.

Last September, Ali says, the police arrested him, took him to Paris, held him for 24 days, and then "left me in the countryside. I didn't know where I was. It took me three days to walk to Lille," a large city south of Calais.

And French citizens who assist the refugees also now face prosecution. Charles Frammezelle, who sheltered 21 Afghans in his small apartment, has been charged with "aiding irregular residence in an organized group" - a crime normally attributed to people-smugglers that carries a five-year jail penalty.

"I was doing my social duty," Mr. Frammezelle says. "I couldn't leave them outside in the cold."

When they are arrested, the refugees are given the opportunity to apply for asylum in France, but hardly any do so. "Nobody loves or respects a country that does not respect you," says one dreadlocked Sudanese who identifies himself only as "a black homeless in Europe," as he sits in the dirt behind the Portakabin parked on a piece of wasteland where La Belle Etoile hands out lunch.

If the refugee comes from a country to which France will not send people back against their will, such as Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, the police take him to one of the shelters dotted round France, which he is free to leave when he likes.

ALMOST all of those taken away from Calais return here, drawn by the prospect of making it to England, where many refugees have family and a less regulated economy makes it simpler to work illegally.

Refugees also believe they will meet with more generous treatment from the British authorities if they seek asylum there. They are not deterred by British Home Office leaflets, printed in English, French, Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto, and distributed here with the free lunch, that begin bluntly: "You are warned - things in the UK have changed" and explain how recent legislation has abolished generous subsidies and the right to work for asylum seekers.

If an arrested refugee comes from a country France regards as safe - such as Sudan and most other African nations - and doesn't ask for asylum here, he can be sent back home - and Sarkozy says that in the future he will be. The minister recently ordered local authorities to double the number of illegal immigrants that they expel each year, insisting that "the credibility of any public policy on immigration depends on effective execution of repatriation decisions."

The problem of where to send would-be refugees is one of the questions holding up an EU-wide asylum policy, as governments argue about which countries can be regarded as "safe."

The overall thrust of the new EU directive, human rights groups worry, is to "shift the burden from EU member states to countries further afield," as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said in a letter last week to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

At the same time, so many EU governments are demanding exceptions and derogations from what is meant to be a common asylum policy that the law is becoming "a collection of national practices, often bad ones," says UNHCR spokesman Diederik Kramers.

Meanwhile, the refugees in Calais are caught on the horns of the French authorities' dilemma - wanting them to leave, but stopping them from going to the only place they are interested in. "They just want to get to the other side of the Channel, and we do our best to stop them because of our international obligations" to Britain, says Michel Heuzé, the government's top representative in Calais. "It seems surreal."

"We don't understand what they are doing," adds Davood, one of Ali's friends on the burned-out boat. "On the one hand they tell us to leave France, and on the other they don't let us. They kick us with their feet, but they hold us back with their hands."

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