[Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2008 prior to GlobalPost's launch.]


CALAIS, France — As ferry passengers travel between Calais and the United Kingdom, they see the famous white cliffs of Dover, but there is no torch-bearing woman draped in a sheet of copper symbolically welcoming the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Instead, travelers without valid documents find a legal and humanitarian limbo that not only points to systemic failures in their own countries but also to deficiencies in a system buckling under the strain.

“When they come here, their target is England,” said Jacky Verhaegen, who has worked with refugees for the past eight years, most recently in a paid position with a Catholic charity in Calais that includes informing migrants about their legal rights.

“Smugglers are selling England not France,” said Verhaegen.

The Border Agency website announcement that “the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of providing a place of safety for genuine refugees,” may as well be an invitation. England poses less of a language barrier for those who speak English and aim to find work in the underground economy. Migrants are also confident that members of Britain’s large immigrant communities would help a newcomer establish a footing.

In 2007, 19 out of every 100 people who applied were recognized as refugees and granted asylum, according to Britain’s Home Office. From September 2007 to September 2008, the government received more than 25,000 applications, the highest volume from applicants from Afghanistan, Iran, China, Iraq and Eritrea.  In a three-month period that ended in September, 17 percent of the more than 5,000 cases for which a decision was rendered were granted asylum.

Efforts at coordination and sharing the immigration burden include an agreement among European countries that helps ensure that asylum seekers fill one application for refugee status only. The first country of arrival — or the country where fingerprints are first collected — is where an asylum case technically begins. But traffickers, if not the migrants themselves, are well informed about the Dublin Agreement and about which countries are more or less likely to grant a request for asylum. So most people try not to get fingerprinted in Italy or Greece, for instance, and entered in the shared database with a permanent link to a country with stricter criteria for asylum.

“That’s why the police are controlling them here, to try to find out if they have a fingerprint elsewhere,” said Verhaegen.  “And if they do have fingerprints in another country, then they try to deport them. That’s the only thing the police can do to them actually.”  

In a crackdown this fall, authorities rounded up groups of Afghans from a camp in the woods around Calais and prepared to repatriate them on a charter flight to Kabul. They scrapped the plan after pressure from various groups mounted, according to news reports.

Savvy migrants know that human rights law forbids repatriating “someone to a country where there is a real risk they will be exposed to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Claiming to be from a country at war, like Iraq, or a region embroiled in a humanitarian crisis, like Darfur, may actually help one’s case, especially if the information cannot be verified.

An asylum-seeker must show that he is unable to return to his own country because of  “a well-founded fear of persecution.” While a case is pending, the applicant “may qualify for help with housing and living costs,” according the Britain's Home Office.

Asked about her plans if she eventually did make it to the U.K., Amani, a 17-year-old who was among the squatters inhabiting a derelict sawmill before it was reportedly evacuated by French riot police, held out her palms and said, “I will give them my hand.” She would allow the authorities to fingerprint her so she could start the asylum process. She said she wanted to go school, get a job and help her parents, who sold their house in Eritrea to fund her passage, to emigrate too. Her trip was delayed after a truck driver caught Amani and six members of her family trying to sneak onto his lorry for the 22-mile ride across the English Channel.  He turned them in to authorities.

“I have to take the risks to go to England,” Amani said after the ordeal. “They give a pay check every month, the government in Britain” — a piece of information she had received from sources she could not name.

Amani’s maternal aunt Zenab, a slight woman of 37, welled up with tears at the thought of their abandoned life in Eritrea. Zenab’s gregarious 10-year-old son, Abdulaziz, dismissed his mother’s tears. With no Arabic translator he used hand gestures to indicate there were too many guns back home and too much war. He had no desire to turn back.

Verhaegen said short of ushering peace and prosperity into the migrants’ countries of origin, European countries have no choice but to be more consistent in their coordination.

“That could be a solution,” Verhaegen said. “To have a uniform European policy about asylum.

Introduction: A lace-making town frayed by immigration
Part I: Two sides of the same Calais street
Part II: A broken immigration system


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