Seeking Refuge: Migrants say 'no thanks' to EU distribution plans

In a ramshackle camp in northern France, migrants see problems with the formula proposed to 'share the burden' that a record influx of refugees is putting on Europe, and Italy and Greece in particular.

Thibault Camus/AP
A migrant washes her feet at a makeshift camp known as the 'jungle,' in Calais, northern France, on June 24.

Hundreds of black and blue tarps, many with thatched roofs, vie for space in this port city’s migrant camp, a testament to the powerful flow of human migration across Europe this year.

The population of Jungle 2, as it's called, surged from 1,000 to 3,000 in the three months after spring broke, the typical annual pattern. Residents have built more than homes: makeshift churches, schools, and even restaurants selling chicken skewers and chai tea dot Jungle 2.

Camps like this are spurring some European nations to push for what they're calling burden sharing, particularly Italy and Greece. Unsurprisingly, many of the less affected countries are opposed, arguing they have neither the infrastructure nor the resources to house and care for asylum seekers.

But they have surprising allies in their opposition: the migrants themselves.

Even as Europe's leaders debate, refugees are focused on finding jobs and establishing community bonds. And it's not that they don't want to move on from the poorer southern European countries hosting them. But what they don't want is to be farmed out to still poorer countries, instead of being settled in richer states like Britain or Germany.

“A human being has his life plans … and wants to go to the country where he has the best future,” says Alberto Achermann, a migration law expert at the University of Bern in Switzerland. While relocation would help correct some of the dysfunction in Europe's current system, it overlooks human intention, he says. “That is the biggest problem with all of these redistribution plans in Europe.”

'In England, there's no Jungle'

This year has seen an unprecedented flood of migrants seeking a better life in Europe. In the first six months of the year, 137,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, compared to 75,000 in the same period last year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Under current rules called the Dublin regulation, migrants who enter in Greece or Italy are supposed to officially seek asylum there. But they often try to slip through those borders – a fact those countries are accused of turning a blind eye to – to file claims elsewhere.

That has helped turn Calais, the closest point in continental Europe to Britain, where the overwhelming majority of Jungle 2 residents want to settle, into a flashpoint. In 2011, 4,500 migrants were discovered trying to cross the port and tunnel in Calais. In 2015, there have been 25,000 attempts so far on the same crossing, says Gilles Debove, secretary general of the police officer’s union in Calais.

Last month, a ferry strike brought traffic to a standstill here and had many migrants sensing an opportunity. Hundreds tried to force their way onto trucks that were backed up in the traffic at the Channel Tunnel the ferry closures created. The situation led Britain to declare its intent to create a "safe zone" for trucks passing through Calais to ensure migrants won't be able to jump aboard.

The migrants' intentions are clearly visible in Jungle 2. From Alpha, a migrant from Mauritania, to Khan from Afghanistan, many bear the litter-strewn conditions that France’s National Consultative Commission for Human Rights declared recently “inhumane and contemptible” because they have no intention of staying. Instead they bide their time, on a recent day crouching under a line of taps to fill their water bottles, brush their teeth, or rinse off – they can shower once every four days – until they can make it farther north.

Mostly the migrant flow runs from south to north, east to west. A typical route is the one Alpha followed, having crossed from Syria, to Turkey, Greece, Belgium, and now Calais, even spending time in jail – “several times,” he says – on his attempt to reach Britain. 

"In England, there's no Jungle,” he says. “After two or three days, they put you in a hotel. In two or three weeks, you have a place to live. Here in France, [there is only] the Jungle."

Khan says he and his peers go where they can get papers and work. The idea of staying in Italy makes no sense, neither for the migrant or the EU as a whole, he says. “Italians themselves don’t have jobs, so how can they give me a job?”

Philippe Wannesson, a local volunteer at the Jungle, says that most of the migrants here, who have fled poverty or war, simply sought to get into Europe. But a lack of jobs and welcome in Italy and Greece, where so many first arrived, prompted them on, many through France. The conditions here then prompted them onwards, to Britain. “They’re always looking to build a life somewhere else,” Mr. Wannesson says.

In the heated debate on quotas, Calais’s fate might remain unchanged – or even get marginally worse. The relocation formula only applies to 40,000 Syrians and Eritreans entering Greece and Italy over the next two years. Many of the men and women in Calais aren’t even refugees, but economic migrants whose asylum cases are likely to be rejected.

European resistance

Still, they bristle at the notion of someone deciding where they should live. No one talks of heading east. And judging from political rhetoric, that is how many of these countries would like it.

The countries of Central Europe – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary – have been some of the loudest critics of a scheme imposed on them to take in asylum seekers. Martina Sekulová, a research fellow at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, says that the issue of asylum shot to the top of the public debate in these countries for the first time ever.

“Debates were full of prejudices, stereotypes, fears, and refusal of migrants in general,” she says. Many politicians have argued that they don’t have the infrastructure to become asylum welcomers, but she says her country, Slovakia, has the capacity to create a well-functioning system.

“Slovakia should recognize the importance of the issue of humanitarian migration and its role – already as a well-developed, rich, secure, and stable country – in the wider geopolitical context.”

Vincent Cochetel, the European director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says he supports Europe’s relocation plan because it can help countries see that the crisis is Europe’s, not just the countries where migrants enter or the countries like Germany, Sweden, or the UK, where many overwhelmingly want to go.

Not every refugee will want to travel to the countries that haven’t traditionally accepted migrants. But an asylum seeker, under the current rules, doesn’t have that choice. Unless he has family or special ties to a certain European country, an asylum seeker has no automatic right to live in Germany or anywhere else he might covet. “Seeking asylum is not,” Mr. Cochetel says, “traveling to a destination country.”

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