Calais asylum hotspot proposal: the main questions answered

French politicians want a centre where UK asylum claims can be processed in France. Why has the plan caused so much outrage?

A call by Xavier Bertrand, a French regional politician, for an EU “asylum hotspot centre” to be set up so that refugees can have their claims for asylum in Britain processed on French soil has provoked tabloid outrage in the UK.

Bertrand, president of the French region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, in which Calais is situated, has also warned that failure to establish such a system could jeopardise the 2003 Le Touquet treaty under which British border checks moved from Dover to Calais.

Here we look at some of the main questions that the proposals present.

Isn’t an EU asylum hotspot a potentially sensible idea to sort out the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Calais camps?

Theresa May has actually been a strong supporter of the EU’s recently adopted policy of setting up hotspots for the swift identification, registration and fingerprinting of migrants arriving in other parts of Europe so that those who are vulnerable refugees can be given the support they require.

As May told the Commons on 16 September last year: “I set out our strong support for the [European] commission’s ‘hotspots’ proposals for screening centres in those parts of Europe most acutely affected at the moment. These centres will identify those in need of international protection and give them quick access to asylum procedures. They must become operational immediately.”

Calais camp locator graphic

In January, the immigration minister, James Brokenshire, now Northern Ireland secretary, said the UK government “supports the principle of hotspots” and considered their swift and effective implementation to be a priority, adding they would contribute to better management of the EU’s external border.

But this weekend, senior Home Office sources said that the declaration of a hotspot to deal with the Calais situation was a “non-starter”. Britain has sent experts to Italy and Greece to help process asylum claims of those who have made it across the Mediterranean but it has been said that such a system is “doomed to fail” if it happens on Britain’s borders.

Why is the UK so opposed to this approach in Calais?

Theresa May’s whole asylum policy has been to minimise the impact of the European refugee crisis – the biggest since the second world war – on Britain and has so far largely succeeded. The root cause of the Calais crisis lies in her refusal to open up a legal route for refugees who have made it to Europe, often risking the sea crossing in open boats, to claim asylum in Britain.

The latest asylum figures show only 2,563 Syrians made it to British shores to claim refugee status in the 12 months to this June – the sixth-largest group. A further 2,682 Syrians were brought directly to Britain from the Middle East through Britain’s vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.

These are tiny numbers compared with the 300,000 Germany expects to take in this year. The one opening in this “fortress Britain” policy – a concession to child refugees in the Calais camps with close family links in Britain – has yet to lead to any significant number being brought to Britain.

So what can be done with the people in the so-called Jungle camp?

If the home secretary, Amber Rudd, believes an EU hotspot solution to be a non-starter she could do well to revive the deal David Blunkett did with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003 to close an earlier version of the camp in Sangatte. Britain and France agreed that the UK would take the Iraqi Kurds and the Afghans in the camp with British family links in a process overseen by the UN. The refugees were given four-year work visas.

The deal paved the way for the Le Touquet treaty and Britain agreed to pay the security bill for the security fences at the port of Calais and the Eurotunnel entrance.

Calais camp evolution

Why don’t the 10,000 refugees in the Calais camps claim asylum in France?

A significant number have made claims to stay in France but many others only speak English or have strong links, including family, with Britain and so want to come to the UK.

So what is the crisis?

Security at the port has broken down in recent months when French port workers have taken industrial action because of a dispute over a British company taking over a French ferry line. This had improved but the unions are threatening a fresh blockade next week that will heighten the crisis.

Are May and Rudd likely to give serious consideration to any solution that involves allowing refugees in France to claim asylum in Britain?

No. May outlined a new asylum strategy in her Tory party conference speech last October – designed not only to further reduce the numbers of asylum seekers reaching Britain but also to deny any right to settlement to those that do successfully claim refugee status in the UK. She attacked those who reached Britain as the “wealthiest, luckiest and the strongest” and argued that only temporary protection should be provided to all but the “most deserving” refugees.


Alan Travis Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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