Volunteering for Refugees in Calais: An Interview with Flor Tercero

Calais is a town in northeast France, located next to Belgium and across from the UK. It is home to the largest and busiest port operating between the UK and northwest Europe. The ferry port and the Eurotunnel facilitate a great amount of traffic across the border, which is why it attracts so many migrants seeking to move to the UK.

On October 24, 2016, French authorities began dismantling the so-called Calais Jungle. Thousands of people who lived there under horrendous conditions were relocated to the reception centers located across the country. The evacuation, which took several days, was covered by many international news outlets, raised serious concerns over the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, and the violation of their basic human rights.

I interviewed Flor Tercero, a human rights lawyer from ADDE (Avocats pour la Défense des Droits des Etrangers) who is a member of Jungle lawyers—an organization formed specifically to give legal assistance to Calais migrants—to learn the details of the evacuation process and the legal and political background and ramifications of the situation in Calais.

—Özden Ocak for EuropeNow

 

EuropeNow Let’s start with the politico-legal backdrop of Calais Jungle. Could you explain the role of the UK and France in the formation and dismantling of Calais?

Flor Tercero Until Brexit, we said that the UK was in a EU à la carte, choosing to opt in or out according to its own interest among the rules that EU has established for the rest of the Member States. So the UK opted out of the Schengen system, but opted in for the Dublin regulation. European citizens can enter the UK without visa, but foreigners legally established in the EU have to apply for a visa. UK controls its borders with the EU, fearing that adopting the Schengen regulation would have led to an erratic immigration wave. But the UK’s opting in for Dublin regulation means that people managing to pass through these tough border controls and apply for asylum in the UK could be sent away.

This happens when people have their fingerprints taken when passing through the external borders of the EU (Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Bulgary, Poland). The UK can then send asylum seekers to those countries. That is why people do not want to apply for asylum in France: they fear that once their fingerprints are taken by French authorities, the UK is going to apply the Dublin regulation against them if they manage to cross the channel. What also drives people to avoid applying for asylum in France or elsewhere in Europe is that if they are granted international protection in France, they cannot legally go to any other EU country to resettle there. Refugees have no right to decide in which country to live. They have to stay in the EU member state that granted them international protection. It’s then understandable why asylum seekers avoid applying for asylum in countries like Greece or Hungary, where they are mistreated even when they are recognized refugees. So the only way to get to the UK for those who have their families and communities waiting for them, to help them survive, is to avoid applying for asylum and trying to reach the UK by any means possible.

The UK and France have signed a bilateral agreement, les accords du Touquet, that leaves to French authorities the responsibility of patrolling borders for the UK in the Calais area. This has nothing to do with the EU regulations but was negotiated as a way to convince the UK to stay in the EU. But nothing has been agreed to let in people who have legal grounds to come and live in the UK, for example, unaccompanied minors that have family in the UK. France considers people who do not seek asylum in France, which was the vast majority of people in Calais, to have no right to stay in France and even less to have access to any commodity even if the living conditions in their camps are inhumane and dangerous for vulnerable people. The indignity in which the people have been living in the Jungles of the Calais area is a shared responsibility between the UK and France.

EuropeNow Could you tell us about the evacuation process? Were there resistance to the evacuation and clashes with the police? How many people were evacuated in total, and were they relocated to the reception centers as the government was promoting?

Flor Tercero We had no access at all to the Jungle when the evacuation started because the Préfète du Pas de Calais denied entry to the Jungle for anyone except those authorized by the State and the inhabitants of the Jungle, including the lawyers. We have therefore no knowledge of what happened between the people in the Jungle and the police. But since the government had made clear that the evacuation would start on October 24, only those who accepted removal by bus to centers far away in France remained in the Jungle. Those who wanted to stay in the area left the Jungle before October 24.

What we know is that based on ethnic profiling, dozens of people have been arrested by the police around the train stations in the Calais and Lille areas, and Gare du Nord, the train station in Paris where trains arrive from the North of France.[1] These people were taken to the police stations and most of them sent to retention centers in Coquelles, Lille and the Paris area. An evacuation operation also took place in Paris on November 4. It concerned around three thousand people that were also taken to accommodation centers in Paris. The Mayor of Paris made that evacuation operation a condition prior to the opening of a humanitarian camp run by the municipality of Paris.[2] The three thousand people were not given notice, were rounded up, their tents were destroyed and they could not gather their belongings.  It is very possible that a lot of people from the Calais Jungle were among this group. We have no accurate information about where they were taken and what will happen to them.

According to Passeurs d’hospitalité, which cites the State local representative (Préfète), 5,604 people were evacuated by the 27th of October.[3]  We believe eighteen hundred minors were evacuated on November 2 and some three-hundred women and children were left in the Jungle on November 3.

We have no reason to doubt that they were relocated to reception centers. But the living conditions of these centers are sometimes appalling.[4] And we know for sure that the reception centers for minors disrespected the aim of protection and educational aid that those minors are entitled to receive by law (articles 375 and following of the civil code).

EuropeNow What do you believe will happen to the thousands of migrants evacuated from Calais? Are you expecting a lot of deportations?

Flor Tercero In October 2015, a similar operation started. But the government acted differently, saying, “if you want to apply for asylum in France, we won’t apply Dublin regulation to you, you won’t be deported to Italy or Spain or Hungary. But you have to ask for asylum in France, and we will take you to a reception center. If you don’t want to apply for asylum, you will be deported to your country of origin.” Some six hundred people were transferred to reception centers. The rest had to endure a massive roundup operation that sent fifteen hundred people to retention centers all over France (using military planes) to ensure they would not come back to Calais. As soon as they were released, people went back to Calais to try to cross the Channel. Some of them had already applied for asylum and were waiting for the processing of their files, but the roundup was so violent, people lost their papers and belongings. Those who chose to go to reception centers started asylum procedures, but contrary to the government promise, some of them were placed under Dublin regulation and have not been able to enter their asylum claim as of today. Because that’s what Dublin regulation is used for in France: to prevent people from applying for asylum, and make them wait over a year in the hope that wars would be over by then and France could deny them protection. This roundup lasted several weeks until the terrorist attacks of November 2015. The police force was needed in Paris and at the borders and the people of Calais were left in peace.

We were expecting the same this year. So we started to prepare litigation groups all over France. But the roundups took a different form. First, the authorities convinced most of the people to accept displacement to reception centers. Only those determined to reach the UK went into hiding or decided to go to Paris. The roundups started in the train stations and cities around the Calais area and Paris. Ethnic profiling allowed police to detain dozens of people who were taken later to retention centers in Calais and Paris. But the number of people affected is difficult to evaluate as it’s mingled with the “normal” activity of the police as they carry the task of fighting illegal immigration. These people are being processed for deportation from France, either to a EU member state, or to their countries of origin. In particular, we are worried about Sudanese people, as France does not have a not a general policy of protection of the people of Darfur.

As for the people taken to reception centers last year, all were supposed to leave there within three to five months.  Some of them finally underwent Dublin transfers even if the government had promised to avoid that.  Some started and are continuing their asylum applications.  Others were facing deportation and most of them returned to Calais. We have no reason to believe that this time their fate will be different.

EuropeNow As a human rights lawyer, could you tell us what you see as most problematic in this whole process of dismantling the Jungle and the evacuation of the migrants? One major issue is the unaccompanied minors who are waiting to be transferred to the UK as part of the Dublin regulation. How does that work so far?

Flor Tercero What’s problematic is the total lack of preparation and information provided for people in the Jungle about where they would be taken, how long they would be sheltered (the Government officials claim three to five months), what kind of legal solution was available to them, or how the asylum procedures some of them had already started would proceed. They were left with no choice—either they accepted going to centers away from the Jungle or they would be put in retention centers. In particular, the people were given the impression that if they accepted to go to the accommodation centers, the French authorities would not continue the Dublin regulation, which was a blatant lie.

We fear that some families were separated as the government did not identify the people that were displaced. Only bracelets with numbers were given to them in order to board buses.

Also, we criticize that reception centers will be open only for five months maximum. The government says this period of time is enough to sort out who is entitled to stay in France to follow up their asylum applications or be sent away. We seriously doubt it. The Interior minister has declared that no one in the reception centers is going to be subject of Dublin procedures.[5] One of our members discussed the matter with the Prefecture of Meurthe, and they said that if some people were caught by the police outside the reception centers, they would be sent away. We know that people who were promised that if they went to reception centers they would not be “Dublined” were in fact sent away to Italy and Spain.

Worse is what happened to unaccompanied minors. An estimated eighteen hundred UM lived in the Jungle. Some of them were already registered as UM and taken to a Center of Provisory Shelter (CAP) in the Jungle. They were not evacuated with the first wave. United Kingdom Home Office officers were supposed to evaluate their age and the possibility of family reunification within the frame of the Dublin regulation (close family ties and family with legal status in the UK). This information led to a wave of UM arrivals in the Jungle. The Government decided then to evacuate the minors on November 2. By that time, it was supposed that lawyers could access the Jungle because the administrative act forbidding access Jungle had been withdrawn. In fact, neither lawyers nor associations were allowed to enter the Jungle. Police prevented them from talking with minors and families that still lived there. The government circulated on the 1st of November a paper with the following information to minors:

Tomorrow, the minors of the CAP will depart on bus to centers for minors all around France, where they transfer procedure to the UK will be dealt with by the British authorities.

Not a single transfer application to the UK will be dealt with in Calais. The follow up of files and departures to the UK will be made from the centers for minors.

A bracelet will be given to you. It will have your bus number on it. The bus departures will take place all day long and will start from 8 am. Everyone will have a reserved seat. The buses will leave from the CAP.

The British authorities will accompany you during the bus ride.

No other information was given to the UM. They were worried about what would happen to them.  A British charity gave phones to some of them to be able to keep in touch with people in Calais who would be willing to help them from a distance.

It was also completely illegal the way the NGO France Terre d’Asile, which operates for the French government, separated those it considered prima facie as non-minors from the possibility of being registered in the CAP, hence depriving them of a shelter and a chance of having their reunification claim examined by British authorities.

Today, no lawyer knows exactly where the minors or adults were sent to and we are left to deal with the information gathered in the press in order to reach them and give them legal advice.

EuropeNow Finally could you tell us about the Jungle Lawyers and the work you accomplished for the migrants in Calais? As human rights and immigration lawyers your room for maneuver must be dwindling with the increasingly stricter immigration/asylum laws.  What legal framework do you have recourse to when you create cases against the state practices—let’s say of deportation, detention, and forceful relocation—as is the case in Calais?

Flor Tercero We were afraid that the government was going to repeat the massive roundup that happened one year ago. So, we decided to prepare the people of the Jungle for another roundup and organized what we called the “Jungle Lawyers weekend” on the 15th and 16th of October, as the government had announced that dismantling of the Jungle would start on the 17th. In an unprecedented action, sixty lawyers from all over France came to the Jungle to give legal advice about the rights of anyone arrested by the police. We provided them a PASS—a document we prepared indicating their identity, mother tongue, and the rights they want to exercise if caught by the police. We also prepared a form that included all pertinent information about the legal situation of each person to be given to the reception center and allow the refugees to follow up with their asylum applications, or be able to ask for family reunification or health services. We were able to reach between twenty five hundred and three thousand people during the weekend.

We use all legal means at our disposal to fight against abuses of the people of Calais. But we are sorry to witness a failure, in the end, of the judicial branch to exert its power over the executive branch of the State when we fight for collective rights (eg: the habeas corpus for the children displaced all over France, or the action against the decision to prevent lawyers to access the Jungle during its dismantlement). It is only when we litigate for individual cases that sometimes we win. The example of the three children and one vulnerable man that were taken to the UK on a judicial order that decided to apply article 8 of the ECHR to ensure family reunification under Dublin Regulation (that could not be started as minors in Calais had no access to asylum procedures) is an outstanding victory won by a group of British lawyers with the help of a couple of French lawyers.[6]

Eventually, the Appeal Court decided to quash this excellent decision but this opened the way to the adoption of the Dubs amendment to Immigration Act of 2016 in the UK. In France, each man, woman, and child that we fight for is not ensured protection against deportation, Dublin transfers, and in the end, against the persecutions they fear back in their countries.

But lawyers in France have won multiple times and we will carry on using French law, European law, and international conventions, especially the ECHR, —even if the Court has a very tempered way to deal with immigration. We are entering a very dangerous period in Europe for the rule of law.

 

 

Flor Tercero is a lawyer with a practice in immigration and asylum law in Toulouse, south of France, for over 20 years. She is member of several organizations defending the human rights of migrants including Syndicat des Avocats de France (Lawyer’s Union of France), Gisti (Groupement d’information et de soutien aux immigrés) and is the president of Avocats pour la défense des droits des étrangers (Lawyers for the defense of migrant’s rights).

Özden Ocak received her PhD in Cultural Studies in 2015. Currently she is a Visiting Scholar at NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. Her research focuses on European/French immigration politics, nationalism, citizenship and neoliberalism.

 

Photo: Flor Tercero, Private

References:

[1]Passeur d’hospitalité, When the color of your face makes you a target, November 4, 2016.  Available at: https://passeurdhospitalitesenglish.wordpress.com/2016/11/04calais-when-the-colour-of-your-face-makes-you-a-target/

[2] For more information on this please see:

Le Monde, Les migrants du campement du nord-est de Paris conduits vers des centres d’hébergement, November 10, 2016. Available at : http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2016/11/04/debut-de-l-evacuation-du-camp-de-migrants-de-stalingrad-a-paris_5025118_3214.html;

Le Monde, A Paris, 3000 migrants dans la rue, victimes collatérales du démantèlement de Calais, November 3, 2016. Available at:

http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2016/11/03/a-paris-3-000-migrants-dans-la-rue-victimes-collaterales-du-demantelement-de-calais_5024490_3224.html

[3] Passeur d’hospitalité, Destruction of shantytown: nothing is happening and all the children are safe and sheltered, except…, October 27, 2016. Available at: https://passeursdhospitalitesenglish.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/destruction-of-the-shantytown-nothing-is-happening-all-the-children-are-safe-and-sheltered-except/

[4] Passeur d’hospitalité, Destruction of the shantytown, undignified images, October 27, 2016. Available at:

https://passeursdhospitalitesenglish.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/destruction-of-the-shantytown-undignified-images/

[5] Paris Normandie, Calais. En visite dans un CAO, Cazeneuve donne des garanties post-démantèlement, October 28, 2016. Available at: http://www.paris-normandie.fr/breves/l-essentiel/calais-en-visite-dans-un-cao-cazeneuve-donne-des-garanties-post-demantelement-NY7247681#.WB-0yuHhCT8

[6]Doughty Street Chambers, Court orders Home Office to admit unaccompanied minors from the Jungle Calais to join family in the UK, January 21, 2016. Available at: http://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/news/article/a-bad-day-for-people-traffickers

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