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The Road to Calais

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The Jardin des Olieux is a small park just off the Boulevard Victor Hugo in Lille. Twenty-five or so homeless migrants have been camping there for a couple of months. Several of them are teenagers. Mamadé from Guinea, who is 16, told me that every morning they walk to a day centre near the train station for a meal, coffee and a wash. But they have nowhere to sleep except the park, and the police have taken away their mattresses. The French state in theory guarantees appropriate accommodation and support for unaccompanied migrant children, but there is an effective ‘presumption of majority’, according to a local lawyer, as well as long delays in the process which leave many on the streets for weeks.

Last month the government made changes to the procedure for claiming asylum in order to shorten the process to an average of nine months, rather than fifteen. They will also build more specialist accommodation for people who have asked for asylum, which will be more widely spread around the country. At the moment, claims tend to be processed by the prefecture at which they are first lodged, placing considerable strain on certain regions, especially the Pas-de-Calais and Paris.

There are hundreds of homeless migrants in Paris. Around 120 are occupying the Lycée Guillame Budé, a former school in the 19th arrondissement, asking for proper accommodation and regularisation. Most are from Afghanistan, Sudan or Eritrea. Abdel, a 23-year-old from Sudan, told me that he used to work as a driver for his father, a former member of the government who fell out with the regime. He has been in France for around nine months; his father is in Libya. Some of his friends have left France for the UK, or are in Calais hoping to cross the Channel. They tell him he should follow them to England, but Abdel speaks good French and would be happy to stay in France. He has put in an asylum claim. He would like to train as an accountant and start a family here. ‘But time is passing,’ he said, tapping his wrist with a finger.

I spoke to a 30-year-old man from an African country who asked me not to reveal his identity in order to protect his family. He had been a lawyer at an office that supported people who had suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the government. He was arrested several times. The office has now closed and his former colleagues have all left the country, some for Europe, others going elsewhere in Africa. He made his way to Libya, crossed the sea, ‘then Milan, Ventimiglia, Paris’. He lodged a request for asylum a few days after arriving in Paris six months ago. He waited five months before being asked to tell his story. He has been sleeping on the streets, in parks, in metro stations, under bridges.

When he gets the chance, which isn’t often, he watches French lessons on YouTube or works through an exercise book. Proper lessons would help, he says. Prima facie, he appears to have a good case for asylum, whenever the decision is eventually made, but it is difficult to be hopeful. ‘I don’t see light, only a black wall.’ He showed me photos on his phone: the last cup of coffee he had before leaving home, the Libyan desert, his identity card – ‘So if I dead, they know who was this man.’

A recent report by Secours Catholique, based on in-depth interviews with 54 migrants in Calais, found that only a fifth had left their home countries with the express intention of heading for Britain. The majority had fled with no clear destination in mind. Some migrants have specific reasons for wanting to go to the UK – they know people there, or they speak English, or they believe they have a good chance of finding a job – but around half of those in Calais ended up there because they’d failed to find anywhere else to stay, and kept going. Secours Catholique calls the port ‘the Finistère of the Schengen Zone’.

Last week Xavier Bertrand, the employment minister in the last Sarkozy government, said that France should tear up the Le Touqet Treaty and return the British border to Kent. Migrants would be able to travel legally to the UK and claim asylum on arrival. There’d be no waiting at Calais, and the French police would no longer have to enforce the British border. Bertrand is bothered by the expense and inconvenience of the policing operation, rather than its routine violence and the deaths it has led too. He was making a play for right-wing voters in Le Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, where he is standing for Les Républicains in the next regional elections. But his solution is the same as that demanded by the activist group Calais Migrant Solidarity.

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