France’s Macron visits Calais and walks a fine line with new migrant policy: humanity with a firm hand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 4:24pm

President Emmanuel Macron travelled Tuesday to Calais, the epicentre of France’s migrant crisis, to lay out a new approach to immigration: help for those who want to stay, expulsion for those using France as a transit point and sanctions for security forces who overstep the rules.

The northern port city is a magnet for migrants because it is the closest point between France and Britain and has two cross-Channel transport systems, the Eurotunnel and ferries.

More than 1,130 French security forces have been posted in Calais, including riot police, border police and gendarmes, to keep migrants out of the port and Eurotunnel and to stop them from setting up camps.

Macron laid out the broad lines of his immigration policy – humanity with a firm hand – in a speech before security forces, some of whom have been criticised for overzealous actions against migrants. The president’s trip was a preview of a tough new immigration and asylum bill to be presented to the Cabinet in February.

“Calais is not a back door to Britain,” Macron said, referring to the hundreds of migrants trying to make an end run into Britain by sneaking across the English Channel.

Macron declared that staying in Calais instead of applying for asylum in France is “a dead end” and vowed not to allow any migrant camp take root here again after authorities dismantled Europe’s biggest migrant slum in 2016.

At that time, there were more than 7,000 migrants in the sprawling, filthy camp on the edge of Calais, compared to up to 700 in Calais today.

Macron is meeting Thursday with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Sandhurst near London, and on the agenda is a 2003 border control agreement that he wants to change.

The 2003 Touquet Accords effectively moved the British border to the French port of Calais, where British agents help. The accord has spared Britain from receiving floods of migrants at its doorstep like other European countries, putting the burden of blocking their entry to the UK on France.

During his speech to security forces, the French president mentioned three points he plans to raise with May, including “better management of unaccompanied minors, reinforced police cooperation in Calais with the countries of origin and transit” and getting British funds for development projects in Calais.

The former French tourist destination has long suffered because of the influx of migrants.

“I think we can improve the situation without knocking everything down,” Macron said later at Calais city hall.

In a surprise announcement, Macron said the state was taking over food distribution to migrants, an apparent bid to undermine aid groups who have for years provided meals. Macron issued a stern warning to the aid groups against discouraging migrants from going to centres where they can apply for French asylum – a move that would end their bid to go to Britain.

“I no longer want us to delegate food aid to associations that use it to keep alive false information,” he said during a discussion with local officials.

At least three aid groups, including Doctors of the World, boycotted a meeting with Macron at the end of his day-long visit, saying he left no room for real discussions on critical issues.

“(The situation) is catastrophic” because migrants have no rights to pitch tents now, said Francois Guennoc of the aid group Auberge des Migrants, which also declined to meet with Macron.

Macron also told security forces in Calais they will be sanctioned if they fail to honour their rules of conduct. He listed some of the claims: that police confiscate sleeping bags and even shoes from migrants, awaken them in the night, use tear gas on their belongings and food.

“There are no half-truths,” the president said.

Macron also talked briefly Tuesday with Sudanese migrants at a special centre in Croisilles, south of Calais, where migrants can apply for asylum in France. Many stay only briefly in such centres and quickly resume efforts to sneak across the Channel.

One migrant applying for asylum in France, identified only as Ahmed, 25, said he travelled from Sudan through Libya and Italy to end up in Calais last year, and told Macron he wants to “learn French, get training and find a job as auto mechanic.” He said he had no choice but to leave home because his mother was killed and his family disappeared.

Macron told Ahmed that his story seems to meet the French criteria to be granted asylum.