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Brexit won't change much for migrants stranded in Calais

Despite immigration promises by the UK's Leave campaign, France's border agreements with the UK have very little to do with the EU.
Pierre Longeray
Paris, FR
Foto di Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Three days after the UK voted to leave the European Union, countries across the union have been contemplating what the exit means for Europe.

While some have voiced concerns over how the decision will impact trade and the jobs market, French media seem mostly interested in the effects of Brexit on the migrant crisis in the northern port city of Calais.

Back in March, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times that "France would no longer keep migrants in Calais" if the UK chose to leave the EU.


Hours after the results of the referendum came in Friday, Xavier Bertrand, the president of the region in which Calais is located tweeted that, "The English wanted to take back their freedom, they must also take back their border."

During a visit to Calais Monday, Macron appeared to have slightly revised his earlier position, saying only that France would from now on be "more demanding" of the UK with regard to migrants.

Bertrand, however, seemed to endorse a more aggressive approach to the issue. "I loved the position of the minister in early March […] when he said, "If they leave [the EU], the migrant camp will be in England," said Bertrand.

In actual fact, the agreements that determine France's efforts to control its border with the UK have very little to do with Brexit or even the EU — despite immigration control being a key argument of the Leave campaign.

In 2003, France and the UK signed a bilateral treaty in the northern French coastal resort town of Le Touquet to bolster cooperation between the two countries' police forces at the border. Brexit has no bearing on this agreement.

"The problem is that the agreement [signed in] Le Touquet is unbalanced," explained François Gemmene, an expert on migratory flows at the Paris Institute of Political Sciences. "The UK has been backing away from its responsibilities, and France now finds itself in charge of keeping migrants in Calais."


Some French opposition politicians are nonetheless hoping to capitalize on Brexit and the UK's disengagement from the EU to challenge the Le Touquet treaty.

Related: This is a typical school day for migrant children stranded in Calais

If the countries go back on the agreement, explained Gemmene, the French authorities would no longer have to stop migrants from attempting to reach the UK. "Migrants would be able to reach England, and the English would no longer be able to send migrants back to the country in which they first entered the EU, in line with the Dublin agreement," he said.

The Dublin Regulation, which determines which European country can process a migrant's asylum claim, is only binding to EU nations.

"Migrants would then be able to disperse across England, or the English authorities could establish a migrant detention center in Dover," said the expert. "Paradoxically, even though Brexit was triggered by an isolationist attitude, the UK could end up welcoming more migrants that before," he warned.

Meanwhile, in Calais, officials are not the only ones to ponder the implications of Brexit, explained Stéphane Duval, who runs the Jules Ferry migrant center, near to the Lande camp — often referred to as "the Jungle" in the media.

"The migrants' situation is very spontaneous. They're not planning ahead, wondering whether Brexit will change anything for them," said Duval. "Their number one objective is to reach England."


Related: This is a typical school day for migrant children stranded in Calais

If anything, said Duval, migrants seem more concerned with what Brexit will mean for the UK than how it will affect the border between France and England. "They are convinced they will reach England, so in a way, they are entitled to know what will end up happening," he said.

While UK voters spent the weekend celebrating or reeling from the result of the referendum, the Italian navy and coastguard rescued some 3,300 migrants off the coast of Libya.

According to the Italian interior ministry, some 60,000 migrants have landed in Italy since June. Many of them are hoping to eventually reach the UK.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.