During the EU referendum campaign, David Cameron suggested that Britain’s border control in France might not survive Brexit. Now, with an upturn in the number of irregular migrants in the Calais area, there is growing impatience in France at the situation there.
This summer, two leading presidential candidates within the centre-right Republicans party in France – Alain Juppé, and Nicolas Sarkozy – have argued that immigration control should return to British territory.
An alternative centre-right proposal, put forward by the current president of the Hauts-de-France region which covers Calais, Xavier Bertrand, suggests the current arrangements should be reformed. His idea is that UK border control could remain in France, but there would be one or more processing centres, or “hotspots”, in France, where claims could be lodged with the UK authorities.
The Le Touquet treaty
These recent statements all concern the Le Touquet Treaty, agreed by France and the UK in February 2003. The Le Touquet Treaty drew upon the precedent of the pre-departure control zone arrangements for the Channel Tunnel. It provides for each state to operate immigration control zone in the channel ports of the other and currently provides the basis for British controls in Calais and Dunkerque, and French controls in Dover.
In practice, the British authorities have the primary interest in this arrangement, as it enables them to block irregular migration from the continent. If a person is refused entry to the UK, or is found seeking to enter Britain clandestinely, they are handed over to the French authorities, to be processed under French law. The treaty also specifically provides that asylum claims are the responsibility of the state of departure, not the state running the control zone – so France is responsible for all asylum claims made in Calais, even to UK officials.
The story of the Le Touquet Treaty starts with the development of Europe’s Schengen border-free zone between 1995 and 2000. Its emergence made it far easier for migrants wishing to claim asylum in Britain, or to enter it in an irregular manner, to reach the French side of the channel. The first significant group of such arrivals to the Calais region came from Kosovo in 1998-1999, and were soon followed by others from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
The initial response of the French authorities to the humanitarian problems presented by these migrants was to authorise a Red Cross accommodation centre at Sangatte in 1999. The existence of that centre became politically controversial, however, as numbers increased, and after attempts by migrants to board freight trains bound for the nearby Channel Tunnel.
In 2002, after the centre-right came to power in France, with Nicolas Sarkozy appointed as interior minister, the British and French governments agreed a strategy of actively discouraging arrivals to the Calais region. The Sangatte centre was closed and British immigration controls were put in place in Calais, under the Le Touquet Treaty.
The 2002 deal succeeded in reducing the scale of irregular migration to the Calais region for many years. But the downside was that the lack of assistance for migrants led them to sleep rough, which over time led to the emergence of large tent cities in Calais and nearby.
The number of such migrants in Calais have grown markedly over the past three summers, from 1,000 in Spring 2014 to an estimated 10,000 in August 2016. It appears that the largest groups among today’s migrants are from Afghanistan and Sudan.
The current situation is dire in humanitarian terms: there is inadequate shelter, food and hygiene, and there are many risks to personal safety. It also poses significant problems from the perspective of immigration control, with ongoing attempts by migrants to conceal themselves on board UK-bound HGVs and other vehicles.
Ending the status quo
Over the past two summers, the two governments have reaffirmed an approach based on deterrence. After incidents at the Channel Tunnel in the summer of 2015, the response of both governments was to agree that the UK would provide funding for enhanced security. After a meeting on August 30 between the French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Britain’s new home secretary, Amber Rudd, a joint statement reaffirmed the goal of “working together to strengthen the security of our shared border.”
Consistently with that logic, parts of the “Jungle” camp in Calais were demolished earlier this year. Now, Cazeneuve has vowed to dismantle the rest of the camp, and to provide the migrants there with accommodation elsewhere in France.
But the recent political interventions from the centre-right are a sign that the ongoing situation may prompt a rethink by France, especially if the Republicans take the presidency and control of the French parliament in 2017 elections. So it is significant that Article 25 of the Le Touquet Treaty permits either state to terminate the agreement by giving two years’ notice. Faced with this possibility, the British government may yet find it attractive to adopt a more flexible approach towards the migrants in Calais, in order to preserve the principle of control at French ports.
There are some precedents for admission of migrants from the Calais region to Britain. In 2002, as part of the Sangatte closure, Britain agreed to take 1,200 Iraqi Kurds and Afghan nationals. More recently – under pressure in the courts, in parliament and from campaign groups – Britain has begun to co-operate closely with the French asylum authorities, to assist children and others who have a right to apply for asylum in the UK as family members.
Any move by Britain to accept more migrants from Calais would be compatible with the logic of co-operation with France. But such a step would undoubtedly face the criticism that any act of generosity is a pull-factor for more migrants and asylum seekers.
One way forward might be to adopt a version of Xavier Bertrand’s “hotspot” idea, focusing on greater access to Britain for those recognised as refugees. This would not only be a significant humanitarian step, it would also show Britain’s willingness to help resolve a crisis for which it unavoidably shares responsibility.