Migration crisis: What future for Calais border?

As the migration crisis shows no sign of abating, local authorities are being forced to handle the brunt of it.

As the migration crisis shows no sign of abating, local authorities are being forced to handle the brunt of it | Photo credit: Fotolia

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

28 Apr 2017

Europe's migration crisis is a regular fixture in the news, but the local dimension of the problem is less frequently mentioned. The importance of taking on a local approach to tackle the issue was the subject of a Committee of the Regions report presented earlier this month.

Rapporteur Hans Janssen has highlighted the need to work more closely with local governments, particularly in Libya, in order to generate development in countries of origin.

The paper was well received by Leonello Gabrici, who heads up the EEAS migration and human security unit, and called it "very complete and realistic." He added, "These are real people living a tragic experience."


Gabrici stressed the need to establish a partnership framework with countries of origin and transit, without focusing exclusively on "migrants who need to be sent back home." 

He also noted that "looking at a regional context is fundamental, but it also depends on the willingness of the third countries. We should not forget, however, that our own member states need to continue to support us. Local communities are the ones who really work with people."

François Decoster, Mayor of Saint-Omer in northern France, has seen first-hand the pressures being place on local authorities to deal with the migration crisis. "The speed of the migratory flux has a direct impact on local authorities, as they deal with the day-to-day lives of citizens."

Saint-Omer welcomes around 1500 minors each year for five days, while administrative work is carried out to locate their families. Others who wish to stay in the city receive assistance to sign up for school or traineeships.

Saint-Omer is located in a region where the far-right, anti-immigration Front National has traditionally enjoyed considerable support, so how has the local population reacted to the city welcoming refugees? 

"We explained to them why there were new co-citizens. It's a delicate topic to explain. I don't want to commit my constituency further, because our capacities are limited, but if every local authority did the same, we could take a different approach to tackling the issue,” says Decoster.

Saint-Omer is just 40km from Calais, which Decoster says is now seen as a symbol of "the failure of migration policy, due to a lack of response from authorities above local level." 

A key element of this failure is border management between France and the UK at Calais. "There has been a lack of consideration for the reciprocal positions of France and Britain." 

He points out that when the Touquet agreement was signed in 2003, the situation was very different. This agreement let countries set up its immigration controls in each other's Channel ports, meaning the French border is in Kent and the French border is in Calais.

However, many migrants looking to reach Britain end up being held back in Calais, and local authorities are struggling to cope. The infamous 'Calais Jungle' was shut down earlier this year.

For Decoster, "the situation is completely different now than when the treaty was signed, so it's completely normal to review the question of border management within this new context."

The Brits may disagree on this one, but the Frenchman insists, "Brexit completely changes the context of this bilateral agreement, so it makes even more sense for the UK to move its border back since it wishes to move away from any kind of European solidarity in terms of migration management. Previously, the border urgently needed to be moved. Now, it has become imperative."

Decoster is also critical of member states laying the blame for the migration crisis on the EU, saying governments are the ones reaching agreements in Council. "Europe isn't abstract. It's member states, heads of state and ministers taking decisions. Taking decisions is all well and good, but what matters is then implementing them."


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