Migrants' journeys through Calais

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 Migrant Voice - Migrants' journeys through Calais

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Article and research by Amelie Belfort “For myself, I tried to think why not France. But the French law is closed. When you come to France, they are happy to take information about you but if you have connections in other EU countries, they didn’t want to know about you anymore. I was put into jail in Paris, but when I said I had lived in Italy, they stopped the interview. Italy treats you really badly. If I had my human rights there, I would have stayed. There is nothing, so you have to leave. In other countries, they deport you to Italy, in France, you just have 5 days to leave.” (Biniam, Male) How is it to be forced into fleeing your own country without being able to go back? How is it not to be allowed to go out of your own country because of legal restrictions? And once you are outside of your country of origin, how is the decision process being made? How do you answer questions looking as simple as “Where am I going to go, how and why not there instead?” A study submitted as a Masters dissertation at the City University of London looks into the causes of onward migration of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants from France to the UK. Challenging the generally accepted idea that, for an asylum seeker or undocumented worker, all European countries have the same “standard”, the study shows how the UK is seen as an “exception” or a “last chance” for many migrants. Her research aimed at determining the reasons why asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who are in France and more precisely in the Calais region might want to pursue their journey to the UK. Why don’t irregular migrants want to stay in France? Or why do they want to reach the UK by any possible means? What are the individual factors (socio-demographic profile) playing a role in their decision making? Are social factors (networks, family, language) determinant in the choice to pursue the journey? The question also raises more structural issues: What are the macro-sociological factors influencing the decision to move onward? To what extent do policies and practices, both at national and European levels lead individuals to wish to escape from the Schengen Area? Understanding individual motivations to cross the border between France and the UK should make it possible to deconstruct not only the images of both countries circulating among undocumented migrants, but also to determine what are the institutional structures “pushing” individuals from one country to another. Based on 16 interviews, two focus groups held in London but also on a five-week long ethnographic fieldwork, this research investigates the situation in Calais and whether it fits with the most important theories of migration. The findings of this research show that the movement of migrants between the two countries is not only due to individual factors (economic situation, networks, language skills…) but also to more structural causes, including policies and governmental practices within the Schengen area. Introduction and summary of conclusion Calais is famous. Everyone has heard at least one story about migrants who, slipping underneath a lorry in Calais, made it to Her Majesty’s Kingdom. Stories about hordes of migrants waiting in Calais for the right moment to “hop in” a P&O ferry or the Eurotunnel are widespread. The UK remains an “exception” among European countries in particular because of its attachment to border control. Indeed, contrary to the majority of other EU countries, it decided not to ratify provisions of the Schengen Agreements on the free movement of persons. Consequently, since the establishment of the Tunnel between France and the UK, the territorial border between the UK and Europe became a strategic border to control. This phenomenon was formulated as a political “problem” from the end of the 1990s when individuals fleeing the Kosovo war arrived in Calais, trying to reach the UK. It was the beginning of the Sangatte camp that welcomed an increasing number of asylum seekers over the years. It quickly became a legend in countries of origin of asylum seekers. The dismantlement of the camp by the French authorities did not lead to a decrease of the population transiting through Calais. On the contrary, it ultimately led to a multiplication of informal camps (“jungles”) all along the coast. The “cleaning of the jungle” operated by the French government in 2009 in agreement with the British authorities has not prevented asylum seekers and irregular migrants from considering the Calais region as a gateway to the UK. Calais is a transit zone for numerous individuals trying to reach the UK every day. This study shows that, for many others who cannot escape Calais, it can be a form of purgatory. Indeed, it polarizes individuals wishing to go to the UK for many reasons. One of the sentences I heard the most when doing fieldwork in Calais was « I don’t want to stay here, I want go to England ». There is very little research questioning the nature of this “onward” migration phenomenon. In lots of aspects, Calais and its surroundings can tell a lot about the people who are willing to make it to the UK. It also raises numerous questions about the causes of onward migration from a state of the Schengen space to the UK. As a conclusion of this research, we can see that there is a wide set of factors explaining the existence of a place like Calais. On the one hand, the asylum system, labour market and living conditions in Calais are the main reasons pushing people from France. On the other hand, language, labour market and the asylum system, alongside with the beliefs about the UK are the main reasons attracting individuals to the UK. Eventually, structural factors, such as policy making and European framework do influence ongoing movement of individuals more than any micro factor. To read a more detailed summary of the study and its finding – read below. _______________________________________________________________________________________________ Methodology used This research is based on 6-week long fieldwork and testimonies collected in 2 focus groups held in London and 16 interviews (some on each side of the border). Fieldwork included participating in everyday activities, such as food distributions, showers, sport meetings, but most of all, informal conversations and “socialisation”. Profile of individuals met in Calais In Calais, I met migrants from extremely diverse backgrounds. Nationalities present were as varied as Iraqi, Iranian, Sudanese, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Afghan, Uzbek, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Indian, Somali, or Bengali. For most of the people I met, being in Calais was the outcome of a journey that had lasted months or years, from countries of origins, but most of all throughout Europe. Calais is a playground for a heterogeneous set of individuals from diverse backgrounds: asylum seekers, economic migrants, people who were returned from England, and those who circulated several years in Europe. Indeed, two profiles for journeys are noticeable in Calais. On a one hand, individuals from African countries and often crossing the Mediterranean to Italy as boat people and on the other hand, individuals from the Gulf, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, who enter Europe via Turkey and Greece. For all those who reached the North of France after long journeys, Calais operates as a deadlock or as a hub. Average time spent in Calais largely depends on nationalities, access to smugglers and what could be called “luck”. Calais and its region welcome a mixed population composed of people wishing to claim asylum in the UK indeed, but also persons who have an asylum claim in France, as well as individuals who are completely outside of the asylum framework and would respond to the description of the “economic migrant. 1. Reasons for migration to Europe If reasons for initial migration were not the main topic of investigation of this research, to some extent they enable us to understand the decision making and the journeys. Safety and the will to improve one’s economic situations were the most frequently heard explanations for the first migration, with the exception of Eritreans who are mostly fleeing lifelong military service. Safety has to be understood in a wide context. Indeed, political persecutions or other kinds of persecutions were the most widespread, but I also met individuals whose freedom and basic rights were denied in autocratic regimes and left in an attempt to recover freedom. Economic reasons also encompass numerous realities. Nevertheless, economic migration is often blurred with myths and beliefs about Europe along with a certain desire to “become something”. “I left Egypt 9 months ago. I want to be something, to work. I wanted to be a science engineer, for people to know me. When I wake up in my country, I dream to come to Europe because I think it is very beautiful but when I come to here, it is very different. “Maybe I’ll die today but I think I will become something” (Ahmad, male) A majority of migrants I met in Calais who were from countries not traditionally known as providers’ of asylum seekers ‘such as Egypt in Ahmad’s case, had this hope to find almost instant work in the UK, and particularly in London. When safety is not the only concern, primary decision about migration destination is often not very clear-cut, relying on informal knowledge and networks. In numerous cases, opportunity seeking has often been disappointing in the countries they first went to and pursuing migration is a strategy to fulfil one’s first intentions. Thus, the reasons for first migration of the individuals met in Calais are the same then the ones usually found in theories of migration. However, because the “pull” factors expected did not meet their expectations, they decided to move onward, first to another European country in the majority of cases, then to the UK. 2. The micro determinants of onward migration Based on the analysis of interviews and fieldwork observations, four sets of reasons are identifiable. First, there are some factors “pushing” individuals from France. They include the asylum system, labour market and living conditions in Calais. Second, the UK is generally perceived as more attractive than France, for various reasons that will be explored below. Third, established networks can partly explain why individuals might feel more attracted to the UK. Finally, more structural reasons such as policies and governmental practices account for a large part in individuals’ decisions to move onward. 2.1. Push factors Relying on individuals’ experiences, France seems only very rarely to be the intended country of destination, and even when it is, the general situation of the asylum system, labour market and living conditions influences the decision to move onward, more than cultural or linguistic adaptation. “When you try to ask asylum in France, you have to write a statement on why you left your country. But you sleep in the street, you don’t eat, how can you write it and wait 4 months for the answer while sleeping in the street? There is no access to legal system. All they do is giving you advice but you never meet a solicitor, someone interviewing you. There is no immediate housing support” (Biniam, Male) France is the European country receiving the most asylum seekers. However, compared to the number of asylum seekers, only a small number are granted protection, and the material conditions provided to applicants has been constantly decreasing. For all the people who intended to claim asylum in France in the first place, realities of asylum seeking were often disappointing. First, when new migrants arriving in Paris or Calais see registered asylum seekers living in the same conditions as themselves, it can be a shock and influences the primary decision to make an asylum claim. Since 2011, a daily allowance of 11.01€/day was implemented to enable asylum seekers to survive while their claim is being examined. A housing system is also supposed to host them during procedure time but the system is completely overcrowded and not adapted to the needs of asylum seekers. There are not enough rooms in the region and in France in general, and when they exist, they are often very far from cities, removing the asylum seeker from an environment he knows. Leaving this kind of housing to go back and live in squats is a regular option for lots of asylum seekers who prefer living in destitution but with their community, than living with homeless people or people with alcoholism issues for instance. For instance, John, an asylum seeker from Ethiopia, has been in Calais for five months. He is living in a squat, and does not understand why the government does not provide him with a decent shelter. Normally, he is entitled to have a room with other asylum seekers.  He was allocated a room to share with someone else but the house he was living in was occupied by drug users and this was causing him anxiety and insomnia, so he decided to leave. For people who were hoping to find a job and “European living standards” in France, the reality is also harsh, since there are fewer opportunities in the black market than in other countries, and they are often taken up by people speaking a minimum of French. As the French labour market offers very little options to undocumented workers, disappointment and desire to optimize the migration decision explain the decision to find one’s “luck” somewhere else. This decision is often made in accordance with other “pull” factors such as information on the UK labour market, information often related by relatives already in the UK. Finally, the last important push factor seems to be the living conditions individuals have to endure, and most of all relationships with the police in Calais. Indeed, beyond being homeless, relying on charities to get food, clothes, blankets and other stuff to make up makeshift shelters, they undergo a constant harassment by the police. According to a social worker met in Calais, since the arrival of the new Mayor in Calais, 70 squats were dismantled, forcing individuals to sleep in the streets. Through this research I did not find evidence that living conditions were a push factor on their own. However, I collected numerous narratives of individuals who, remembering violence they underwent with the police, preferred to leave, feeling they were not treated as humans. More than direct violence, people experience an additional psychological distress due to what can be qualified as a constant police blackmailing and harassment. I also heard numerous narratives about policemen coming to arrest people in squats in the early morning every day, or urinating on their personal belongings so that they become unusable. This continuous harassment from the police pushes individual to leave this hostile environment. 2.2 Pull factors Among the pull factors, one can find language, and to some extent education, beliefs about the asylum system and labour market, and finally, information about the UK. Fred is an Iranian asylum seeker. He studied mechanical engineering in Tehran, and had to flee the country because of political persecution. When I met him in Calais and asked him why he did not want to stay in France, he instinctively told me that he speaks English, is educated and does not want to waste several years to learn French. Speaking the country’s language is often related to pre-established networks. Historical and colonial ties also play a role in this geographic dispatching. “When I’ve been to Italy, most North African (Algerian, Moroccan) want to go to Spain because they have family there and speak Spanish. People from Cameroon and Senegal want to go to France because they speak French and have connections in France.” (Biniam) Even when individuals were not proficient in English, they could still express themselves and be understood in English, while they could not speak French at all. For adults who are trying to pursue an education and/ or to find a job, sometimes to provide for a family abroad, spending several years learning a language can be a luxury they cannot afford. Britain would be attractive because integration to society would potentially be immediate, unlike France. Beliefs, myths and information about the UK actively shape the migration process. If the idea of a wealthy Europe is probably grounded in the fact that, unlike most of the countries of origins, European nations have developed a welfare system, most individuals I met in Calais did not seem to realize that this “wealth” is not meant to be for everyone. All of the individuals whose first reason to move was economic improvement wanted to find a job as soon as possible, but this is not contradictory with a certain image of general wealth redistributed by the state. Attraction for welfare can also be mixed with the idea that their government would have given up on them, whereas the social model in the UK would allow a complete development of the individual who can concentrate on studies and work, without having to think about a way to finance healthcare, to access mortgages, education or consumption goods. The attractiveness of the UK is dependent on a certain constructed idea of the country, rather than on tangible information and knowledge about how it functions. Because they did not find the wealth, labour and protective environment they had expected in the countries they crossed, because these ideas of wealth they have been nurtured for years cannot fade away at the first disappointment, and because these ideas about the UK are still fed by smugglers and networks while in Calais, the UK appears to be the expected ‘Eldorado’ and they decide to move onward. Physical and psychological tiredness probably accentuate the idea that the UK “has to be the good one” and none of the individuals I met in Calais was considering the possibility to be disappointed once on the other side of the Channel.  To some extent, one can say that the belief that the UK is a better place for irregular migration, or irregular stay in case of asylum case rejection is somehow rooted in fact. Regardless of recognition rates, one could say the same about the asylum system which appears to be more transparent. For irregular migrants the UK is a better place to “hide” since there are no random ID checks in the street (unlike in France) and there are possibilities to work undercover in big cities. In addition to beliefs about the UK, decision to move onward is also based on the information circulating about this last European country. This thematic was particularly discussed in one of the focus groups: Haile: "I tell people how it is but nobody believes it. You think that everybody gives you money. I have a friend in Greece, I can’t tell him to stay in Greece. When in France, agents, people tell you how good is here." Girma: "When in Calais, all the information is about the UK. Even if you don’t want to go to England, everybody changes your mind. In Calais, you just keep trying […]. No one tells you that you can stay in France, everybody tells you to go to the UK. Everybody encourages you to leave.” Information seems to be generated indistinctively by three channels. First, because their business depends on their success to get their clients to the intended destination, smugglers massively influence the migratory process by promoting the UK. From what I witnessed, the smugglers hired by informants themselves were not usually seen as “threatening” people, but as “helpers”. Second, family and friends in the UK and abroad are also primordial providers of information. This will be discussed in the next section. Finally, migrants who already went to the UK and for any reason were back in Calais also add their experiences to the information circulating about the UK. Even among informants who had already seen the UK, a general positive attitude is always adopted when thinking about the UK. Ali, now an undocumented worker in London, works 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for derisory wages. It was also his way of life when he was living in London a few years ago. However, when he was in Calais the second time, he was not remembering a “hard life” but a “free life”: Ali:" I missed London, I missed the cleanliness, the system, the tidy line, the freedom is good. Here is free life. Researcher: Do you think here is clean? Ali: Yes, of course. Everything is in the right place.” 2.3. Network factors Family, friends, and more largely pre-established communities in the UK are also an important factor shaping journeys. However, in the case of the ongoing migration from France to the UK, networks do not seem to be such a prominent factor. In fact, one can distinguish between two cases. On one hand, individuals who knew from their country of origin that the UK was their intended destination rely heavily on networks. “I have family in the UK” is a common motto among asylum seekers in Calais. However, because the final destination was planned from the beginning and Calais is simply a transit space, one cannot say that networks shape the decision to move onward. ”You cannot find a lot of Ethiopian and Eritrean people in France”. You want to go with people of your own community. Here in the UK, I found classmates and friends, but no one in France. You look for family and friends. You need to find people who can understand your culture. Nobody wanted to stay in France.” (Petros, Male) On the other hand, when networks exist, decision to set down in a country or to move onward is not only made because of the presence of family or friends. First reasons for moving have to be satisfied, otherwise they endanger the whole migration process. 3. Structural reasons explaining the decision to move Beyond reasons belonging to individual rational choice to move onward, migration from France to the UK is also highly dependent on more structural reasons. First, illegality is often the only option for the candidates to Europe, since entering a European country legally is getting ever more complicated, as a result of the general strengthening of border control that can be seen in at Europe’s borders over the last decades. Each country has its responsibilities in making these migrants illegal and the UK often appears as an ultimate solution to escape the European system. It leads to one to question the role of European harmonisation and asylum policies in the onward migration of individuals from France to the UK. Since the 1990s, there has been a general trend among European countries to tighten border controls and reduce policies favourable to asylum seekers. This appears in states’ strategies to be less attractive than their neighbours in terms of protection and living conditions offered to asylum seekers, but also in terms of deportation of asylum seekers to third countries or by simply rejecting claims. Consequently, for most of the people I met in Calais, coming illegally to Europe has paradoxically become easier than getting a visa. In fact, if one considers the border between France and the UK, even considering the numerous risks of injuries and death when trying to cross, the technical action of smuggling oneself to the UK remains fairly easy. Whilst I was in Calais, and all through the summer, the turnover of individuals in Calais was extremely high. Week after week, 80% of the population receiving food from charities in the area would disappear. All of the individuals I socialized with in Calais, except one person who was deported to another European country are now in the UK. When agents are not paid to facilitate the passage, it is easy to learn technical skills on how to get oneself in or under a lorry in specific places and circumstances in order to maximize the possibility of success. Likewise, when it comes to asylum seekers, it is often easier, and safer in terms of recognition rates for them to enter illegally into Europe and to claim asylum than to go through the UNHCR process of relocation. Thus, entering Europe illegally often remains the ultimate solution. However, illegality of entry coexists with a process of criminalization of migrants aiming at maintaining them in this illegality as well as pushing them to the next country. Because the UK is at the extreme end of Europe, it appears as a “last chance”. Claiming asylum in the “first safe country” as provided in the Geneva Convention is often impossible in Europe, since their case is not examined properly. Greece’s recognition rate of asylum seekers is around 1% and it has readmissions agreements with Turkey, putting individuals at risk of being deported to Turkey, then to their country. In most cases, applicants are left without a decision but unable to make a claim anywhere else. Italy does not provide suitable living conditions to asylum seekers. Most applicants are transiting through Greece and Italy without lodging an application and when they reach their country of destination, they simply lie about their journey. Secondly, once one has arrived in France, the French state has also a set of strategies to keep individuals into illegality and push them out of the country as soon as possible. Worse than the police’s continuous harassment and bad living conditions, individuals often do not have an effective possibility to claim asylum. Once on the French territory, if the wish to go to the UK is expressed or if fingerprints in other European countries are mentioned, more often than not, individuals are simply released with an order to leave the territory (OQTF) in order for them to fulfil their aim. In Calais, almost everyone who has an order to leave the territory, has been caught by the police at least once. People carry it on them as a casual ID, since they cannot be deported during the time they are allocated to leave the country. “For myself, I tried to think why not France. But the French law is closed. When you come to France, they are happy to take information about you but if you have connections in other EU countries, they didn’t want to know about you anymore. I was put into jail in Paris, but when I said I had lived in Italy, they stopped the interview. Italy treats you really badly. If I had my human rights there, I would have stayed. There is nothing, so you have to leave. In other countries, they deport you to Italy, in France, you just have 5 days to leave.” (Biniam, Male) It is a win-win situation for the state since it wants individuals to leave the territory, and since they are willing to leave by their own means, it does not have to support the administrative and financial costs to detain them and deport them. “When you tell them you want to go to the UK, they give you a five day paper for you to fulfil your design and don’t detain you anymore. In France, we don’t care about where you are from, we just want to make sure that you are leaving”. (Petros, Male) It seems that, even if the French immigration policy has been more and more restrictive over the last thirty years, these generalized practices consisting of “softly” pushing people out of the country have dramatically increased since 2003 and the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy on the political scene. Indeed, since 2003, immigration laws were modified four times, each time in the idea to “combat” illegal immigration and decrease asylum migration. To do so and to stay consistent with its obligations towards the Geneva Convention, the French state has adopted smokescreen policies consisting of adopting repressive laws a priori respectful of individual fundamental laws on a one hand, and delegating the office to implement them to subsidiary bodies of the administration. This leads to the police harassment towards migrants in Calais: the action is supposed to uphold the law, but which instead breaches individuals’ fundamental rights. Finally, the role of France in turning migrants to illegal people has to be contextualized in the broader perspective of the cooperation between France and the UK on irregular immigration. Several administrative agreements relative to irregular migrants coming from the France and trying to enter the UK were signed between the two countries.  The last one signed in 2009 provides a reinforcement of security and migration controls on the shared border and a reduction of migrants in the North of France. Less formally, according to an informant who requested to remain anonymous, there seems to be cooperation between the two countries on the number of migrants “going through” the controls every week. The préfet would give security and police agents on the port an informal authorization to “let go” people in order to relieve the region from migratory pressure. In accordance, UK officials would be ready to “welcome” more people. Since the 1990s, EU competencies in the areas of migration and asylum have developed rapidly. This development of EU migration and asylum policy has been particularly challenging for national migration and asylum policy frameworks. Several Directives were adopted establishing minimal common rules among state members on treatment of asylum seekers. However, in practice, protection granted to asylum seekers varies considerably from one country to another and talks in the European Parliament have now started to address this situation, since its efficiency is limited. Indeed, the Dublin II legislation is transforming Europe into a prison for most asylum seekers. Most of the people I met in Calais were “stuck”: most of them had been fingerprinted in another country or had an asylum case pending in another country, so they were living with the permanent fear of being deported. Calais was operating as a prison: people could not go back to where they came from nor could they move forward. A majority of them had circulated in Europe for years, going from one country to another, trying to find a way into regularity, or at least to escape what could be understood as state persecution and to live with a minimum of rights. This ongoing circulation throughout the Schengen space appears as an adjustment strategy to be able to remain in Europe and not to be deported. The impossibility to choose the country where they will be able to claim asylum combined with the fact that claiming asylum in acceptable conditions is often not possible, individuals in Calais see the UK as the ultimate possibility for them to be regularized. Conclusion Given the wide diversity of profiles and experiences of individuals who are transiting through Calais, there is no established and clear-cut reason explaining their presence there, except the fact that they are trying to cross the border to the UK. Instead, one can distinguish between a wide set of factors explaining the existence of a place like Calais. On the one hand, the asylum system, labour market and living conditions in Calais are the main reasons pushing people from France. On the other hand, language, labour market and asylum system, alongside with the beliefs about the UK are the main reasons attracting individuals to the UK. Unexpectedly, the same causalities can operate as push or pull, depending on the side of the border you situate yourself on, thus paradoxically contradicting the usual push-pull theory. Quite unpredictably, I found that the importance of networks in the decision-making process to move onward should be put in perspective. Eventually, structural factors, such as policy making and European framework do influence ongoing movement of individuals more than any micro factor. Calais is a place where asylum seekers and undocumented migrants stay while awaiting crossing the gate leading to the UK. Their socio-economic and legal precariousness, as well as daily harassment on behalf of police forces — increasingly with the blessing of the law — has made it a real purgatory. This leads to suggestions for further research. One other crucial question remains pending: is the UK really the promised land expected by migrants? It might be interesting to conduct a longitudinal study on the participants who crossed over in order to find out if their expectations were met. If so, for how long will it still be so? Therefore, one could conclude that none of the theories of migration fully explain the onward migration of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants from France to the UK. Individual motivations for migrations are not sufficient to explain the circulation of individuals in Europe. There is a need to take into consideration structural causes inherent to the European asylum system and practices. If information, beliefs, asylum systems and labour markets still actively shape the migratory process between France and the UK, those “traditional” causes for migration are overtaken by more global explanations. Irregularity of the candidates to the UK has often been turned to “illegality” in the different European states they crossed to arrive in Calais. In France, nothing is done to regularize these individuals or to give them access to decent living conditions. Accessing the UK is for most individuals the incarnation of the hope that the European and French nightmares are over. As both a hub and a deadlock, Calais is a symptom of more global and structural power relations and inequalities. For more information and bibliography, contact me at Amelie.belfort@yahoo.fr Photo: A cut fence in Calais

 

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