The United Nations refugee agency said it plans to establish a full-time presence in the northern French port of Calais beginning in July to assist hundreds of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who are living in “squalid” settlements hoping to cross to the United Kingdom.
Staff from the Paris office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been going to Calais, which the agency left in 2002 after the authorities closed the Sangatte reception centre, on a weekly basis since early June to work with aid partner France Terre d'Asile to provide those living there with information, including on French and British asylum policies.
“We have come here to help the migrants and asylum-seekers to make an informed decision,” Francisco Galindo-Velez, UNHCR representative in France, said during a recent visit to Calais.
Currently there are an estimated 800 migrants in the Calais area and about one in five are unaccompanied minors. Another 800 are in other ports on the northern coast. UNHCR describes relations between the foreigners and the people of Calais as “tense.”
The majority of those living in the “grim makeshift” settlements in Calais are from places such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq and Somalia.
“Most are motivated by economic or family reasons, but a few have fled violence or persecution and their well-being is of direct concern to UNHCR,” said the agency. “Many have no idea about the situation back home, or about what they can expect in the UK.”
According to UNHCR, many people pay smugglers large sums of money to bring them to Calais, which is separated from the UK by a narrow strip of sea. Ferries criss-cross the English Channel every day and some migrants try to hide on trucks to make the journey from France undetected.
The agency noted that if they make it to the UK and are caught, they could face a return to the continent or to their country of origin, unless granted asylum.