The Refugee Council believes the attention being focussed on the Red Cross centre in Sangatte, northern France, misses the point. The centre was set up two years ago as a humanitarian response to people sleeping rough in the Calais area. It is the symptom, not the cause of the problem.
Would-be asylum seekers are gathering on the French side of the channel because they are being prevented from reaching the UK by increasingly effective measures.
The refugee convention allows refugees some element of choice as to where they claim asylum, according to the High Court. But requirements for visas, controls on Eurostar rail passengers, the use of scanners to detect stowaways and fines on lorry and ferry companies are making it ever harder for them to reach the UK.
Desperate people are being forced into using increasingly dangerous methods. Asylum seekers travelling to the UK may be more visible but the numbers arriving via the channel tunnel are not increasing. If anything, they are going down, according to Migrant Helpline in Dover.
Fleeing countries with appalling human rights records, such as Afghanistan and Iraq and faced with numerous hurdles, many refugees put themselves in the hands of an agent, abandoning any control over their country of destination. Any choice they do have is based on information of varying accuracy passed by word of mouth. Those in the Calais area may be heading for Britain for reasons of language (many speak English), family or community connections, colonial history or simply because they believe they will get a fairer hearing.
From October Eurotunnel will be fined if people are found entering the UK clandestinely, in the same way that companies are fined if stowaways are found on aircraft, lorries or ships. In protest, it is attempting to have the Sangatte centre closed down. The effect will be to throw vulnerable men, women and children on to the streets.
Not everyone wishes to seek asylum in the UK. 38,590 asylum applications were made in France in 2000, according to UNHCR, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali, both French-speaking countries, amongst the top countries of origin.
For the French authorities, it is administratively convenient to ignore those intending to cross the channel, rather than take any steps that would push them into applying for asylum in France. The Refugee Council is particularly concerned at reports from its clients of attempting to claim asylum in France and being directed towards the UK.
The situation in the Calais area will continue while real or perceived differences between the French and British asylum systems remain and while it is administratively convenient for the French authorities not to intervene. The way forward is for the UK and its EU partners to renew their efforts to create a common system in which refugees are treated in the same way, wherever they happen to apply for asylum.
Last autumn they established Eurodac, a fingerprint database, which will help determine whether an asylum seeker has made a claim in another EU country. On the negotiating table now are proposals for minimum standards on asylum procedures and minimum standards on reception conditions.
Later this month the European Commission will publish a proposal for a common interpretation of the definition of a refugee. Crucially, France and Germany, unlike other signatories to the 1951 refugee convention, do not consider people to be refugees, unless they are at risk of persecution by their governments. If people fleeing, for example, Algeria’s Islamic fundamentalist opposition forces, are not to come to the UK for fear of claiming asylum elsewhere, it is essential that EU governments agree a “full and inclusive” interpretation of the 1951 refugee convention, as they promised to in Tampere in 1999.
Read the joint press release issued by leading British and French NGOs in response to the situation in Sangatte here.