UN refugee agency voices hope that France extends protection to asylum-seekers

18 September 2009
Local aid workers distribute food to some of the foreigners who have been living in makeshift shelters in the Calais area

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has voiced hope that asylum-seekers and children hoping to cross to the United Kingdom will be protected following the announcement that France will close makeshift settlements housing the undocumented foreigners.

Last week, French Minister Eric Besson announced that authorities will close down the camps, known as the ‘jungle,’ in the northern French port of Calais.

During his meeting Mr. Besson yesterday in Geneva, High Commissioner António Guterres said that he recognized that irregular migration poses challenges to the region and that the French Government has the right to maintain law and order.

“However, he noted that among the irregular migrants in the region there are persons in need of international protection, and noted the protection needs of these individuals, particularly the large number of unaccompanied children,” said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming.

The agency is encouraged by the European nation’s commitment to ensure that each asylum-seeker’s situation is carefully examined.

“This should include access to full and fair asylum procedures and the option of assisted voluntary return,” Ms. Fleming noted.

Many of the people living in Calais and waiting to move to the UK are from countries wracked by war, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia.

During his meeting, Mr. Guterres encouraged France to provide accommodation to all asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied children.

The current ‘asylum à la carte’ system, he underscored, must be replaced by one with consistent rules and procedures.

In Calais, UNHCR is providing information and counselling to undocumented foreigners about claiming asylum in France and other options, such as returning voluntarily return to their home countries, to allow them to make informed decisions about their futures.

Francisco Galindo-Velez, UNHCR representative in France, said during a visit to Calais in June that the settlements – housing some 800 migrants, with one in five being unaccompanied minors – in the city are “grim.”

“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.


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