Page last updated at 20:47 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Turning the tide of immigration

By Chris Mason
BBC News, Calais

Illegal immigrants in Calais
Illegal immigrants roam the streets of Calais and sleep in doorways

The French immigration minister has promised to remove illegal immigrants from the Calais region of north east France, easing fears in the UK that he would bow to pressure from aid agencies to reopen shelters for those waiting for a chance to cross the Channel to Britain.

The minister's visit to Calais was national news in France.

Television satellite trucks parked up outside the local government building where he was due to speak and national newspaper reporters scrabbled for desk space in the modestly sized municipal hall.

It is easy to see why.

Around 700 migrants are thought to be homeless in and around Calais, many living in a squalid, makeshift camp known as "The Jungle".

It is even said that pregnant women can be often be seen sleeping in shop doorways.

The number of migrants here is increasing, as is the political pressure to do something about them.

'Eldorado'

These are desperate people - many from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Eritrea - who have spent years' worth of savings to get this far.

But for most, Calais is not their final, hoped for, destination.

France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, captured the issue in a sentence.

Britain, he said, is perceived like "an Eldorado" in the eyes of people traffickers and illegal immigrants.

In short, there's a perception the UK is a soft touch - and a place where immigrants can prosper.

Police and immigrants at Calais detention centre
UK officials have stopped 88,500 illegal immigrants in the last five years

That presents a challenge to the French authorities and their British counterparts.

When the Red Cross opened an accommodation centre in nearby Sangatte between 1999 and 2002, the scale of illegal immigration from here to south east England soared.

When the centre closed, there was more than an 80% fall in the number of migrants caught.

Aid agencies argue there is a humanitarian case for providing homeless people with a home - albeit a temporary one.

Critics say such centres act as a magnet for more migrants, meaning that rather than helping to solve the humanitarian problem, they actually exacerbate it.

But refugee action groups say those who have faced torture and threats of execution deserve compassion, not castigation, and above all deserve shelter in the middle of winter.

Nonetheless, the French government has ruled out funding a new accommodation centre for immigrants or offering political support for an aid agency to build one.

'Exclusion zone'

So this is a subtle change in French thinking.

Mr Besson - himself born in North Africa - has only just become immigration minister. As a former socialist in Nicolas Sarkozy's centre right government, he wants to be seen to be engaging with this issue.

It is six years since a French immigration minister has been here, despite it being a hugely important local political issue.

But why should people in the UK care about such a change in French immigration policy?

Take a look at the statistics. The UK Border Agency has told the BBC that in the last five years, UK officials have stopped more than 88,500 attempts from people trying to get into the UK illegally. Of those, 61,000 were at Calais alone.

French immigration minister Eric Besson
Eric Besson wants the UK to help pay for new immigration measures

Of course, the nature of the figures relating to illegal immigration is that they can only be a rough indication of those who have successfully managed to enter the UK without permission.

But that accepted, you can argue that if immigration is a problem, Calais is responsible for nearly 70% of it.

So French attitudes to immigration policy here matter.

Eric Besson told me he wants to see what he called an "exclusion zone" for immigrants in this region of France.

He has not worked out how to do this yet, but he does know who he wants to help pay for it.

If Calais is the gateway to Eldorado, he wants those in that "golden" destination, to translate the Spanish term, to chip in.

Mr Besson is due to meet his British counterpart, Phil Woolas, in the UK in February.

The Home Office describes France "as one of our closest European partners in fighting illegal migrants" and says "our shared determination has already created one of the toughest border crossings in the world at Calais".

Co-operation, then, is welcomed on both sides, but do expect the French to ask for a cheque from the British taxpayer.



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