The northern French port town of Calais has received a huge influx of migrants seeking to cross the British channel to apply for asylum in Britain, just as unprecedented numbers of migrants make the dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing to Italy fleeing war, persecution, or poverty.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve traveled to Calais Monday to meet with migrants and migrant advocacy groups, and to urge migrants not to attempt the illegal and highly dangerous border crossings into Britain, and instead to claim asylum in France.
"Too many migrants who could benefit from asylum in France are still hesitating" because they think that they would be better off in England, said Cazeneuve. "We have to make them understand that claiming asylum in France is their best hope."
In the last six months, Cazeneuve has made three visits to the French ferry port, where thousands of migrants lie in wait, hoping to board trucks that are headed to the UK. During Monday's trip, Cazeneuve checked out the living conditions at the "new jungle" slum — a makeshift camp several miles from the city center — where migrants were forced to relocate to after being pushed out of other camps in the spring. Also known as "a roofless Sangatte" — after the infamous Eurotunnel warehouse that operated as a refugee center from 1999 to 2002 — the slum is now the only tolerated migrant camp in Calais.
Natacha Bouchart, the city's center-right mayor said that the new camp had "taken a load" off Calais, and allowed authorities to "stamp out insecurity in the city center." But migrant advocacy groups have denounced the poor sanitary conditions at the camp, which lacks access to running water and many other basic amenities.
"We are seeing the start of a scabies epidemic," Doctors of the World employee Martine Devries told Cazeneuve on Monday. "They defecate in the bushes. When our volunteers go on site, people say they are hungry and thirsty."
The minister also stopped in at the Jules Ferry government-run migrant drop-in center, which became fully operational two weeks ago. The center, which is housed in a former children's day center, offers basic services to migrants, including showers and food distribution, and is fitted with electrical outlets to enable migrants to charge their cellphones. According to reports, the center serves 1,300 hot meals a day.
During his speech on Monday, Cazeneuve reiterated the government's commitment to dismantling organized human smuggling networks and prosecuting smugglers. He also announced that French authorities dismantled 30 percent more smuggling networks in 2014 than they did in 2013. On the same day, a prosecutor in the northern French town of Satin-Omer handed down a 16-month prison sentence to a 19 year-old Iraqi smuggler who was found with 19 Syrian refugees hidden inside his truck. Police arrested the man in April after a 90-mile car chase.
Cazeneuve also said that 885 migrants had claimed asylum in France in 2014, and that 455 had filed for asylum since the start of 2015. According to AFP, several migrants present at the meeting told the minister they were scared to stay in France, for fear they would be sent back to countries like Romania or Italy — their point of entry into the European Union (EU).
According to the Dublin II Regulation, asylum claims can only be processed by the state through which the migrant entered Europe, and many "Dublinned" migrants living in Calais today are prevented by EU law from filing their claim in France.
Cazeneuve told migrants he was aware of the issue and said it was "urgent to equip the EU with a migration policy and an asylum policy that are capable of meeting the [current immigration] challenges." He announced that he would be meeting his European counterparts in Niger on May 14 to discuss new strategies to tackle the increase in migrants.
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