Calais, France

Case Study: Calais, France


The town of Calais is situated on the north coast of France at a point that overlooks the narrowest stretch of the English Channel: on a clear day, it is possible to observe the ‘white cliffs of Dover’ demarcating English (British) landfall.  The town lies within close proximity of the Eurotunnel entrance near Sangatte, and includes the Eurostar and SNCF freight terminals at Frethun.  It is the largest port on the north coast accommodating foot passengers, cars and general freight traffic – particularly lorries – most of which are destined for, or arriving from, the UK.  To this end Calais has featured prominently in the media over the last ten years for its association with immigration and its location as a leading hub for illegal immigrants who treat the area as a ‘staging post’ for illegal entry to the UK.  Much of the debate has revolved around the opening of the Red Cross Centre near Sangatte in September 1999 and the resulting consequences of its closure in December 2002.  As a general means of deterrence the closure was part of an overall package agreed by the then home secretary David Blunkett and his then French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy (now president of France) in July 2002 that would, amongst other things, see the introduction of stronger border rationales in and around Calais.

Not surprisingly the borderwork on offer in Calais is rich and numerous, and manifest in two distinct ways.  Usual border practices are being replaced, or at the very least complemented, by the implementation of seemingly stronger, less traditional, borders.  The UK government, with French cooperation, is deploying juxtaposed borders, processes of ‘remote control’ and control zones, in order to manage the flow of people trying to gain entry to the UK from Calais.  However, this form of borderwork remains, of course, traditional in the sense that it is still state centric, and to this end the next example involves the ‘borderworkers’ themselves.  Ranging from individual companies (haulage and transport), the media, immigrant groups as well as various NGO’s working on the ground in Calais, these non-state ‘borderworkers’, to differing extents, challenge state border processes by actively aiding the very people the state borders are being deployed to stop.

While the two examples are intrinsically connected, it is the later that is of most interest here.  The ability of citizens and ordinary people to participate in the making of borders and the empowerment that can result from this bordering activity has important and intrinsic implications for borders and the study of them.  And, in terms of this particular study, it will be argued that a traditionally mundane border is changing because of this.  In other words, Calais – what could previously be described as a non-border – has not only become more prominent by the deployment of stronger borders in response to a supposed increase in migration, but is also a new border in the sense that it is changing beyond all proportion directly because of non-state borderwork activity.  Indicative of many borders that have been identified elsewhere in this project, it is a border that no longer dances solely to the tune of the state; rather many different (non-state) actors have learned and been empowered to play the right music.

This report will examine the role of non-state actors involved in bordering activity in and around Calais. It seeks to make visible for future study the implications that such bordering activity is having, not only in Calais, but also for the study of borders in general.  The report will describe, evaluate and present selected data collected from national newspapers and other news organisations, NGO and charity websites, and government publications, as well as other web based sources, in order to approach the following questions:

  1. How is the Calais border changing from a ‘non-border’ (or mundane border) to a new, dynamic, border?
  2. Who is involved in the bordering activity taking place in Calais and for what reasons?
  3. What are the implications of these bordering activities for border studies in general terms?

The first section will place the case study in context by examining the history of the Red Cross Centre near Sangatte.  It will examine the need for the centre and the controversy surrounding it, as well as focusing on the installation of new and stronger border rationales – the British border in Calais – in the wake of the centre’s closure.  The second section will look at the political and humanitarian ‘fallout’ from the closure and examine the controversy surrounding the infamous refugee camps in and around Calais.  The third section will focus on the individual borderworkers and examine their role, impact and ideologies in the bordering process taking place in and around Calais.  The report will conclude by alluding to possible ramifications of such borderwork in general terms.

Sangatte and the Calais border in context

Although Calais has long been a favoured stepping stone for immigrants wanting to gain access to the UK given the frequent ferry services and the presence of Eurotunnel in the area, it is perhaps the issue surrounding the opening and subsequent closure of the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte that has attracted most media, political and academic attention.  Originally set up to look after migrants who were sleeping rough in the area and clearly in distress, it was seen as the right thing to do, the obvious solution to a humanitarian problem.  The situation, however, became increasing political and sensationalised until its closure in December 2002, due to issues such as cleanliness, overcrowding and its proximity to leading international transport hubs particularly the entrance to Eurotunnel.

Many academic papers have been written on the subject of Sangatte in relation to immigration including ‘Asylum Seekers: Sangatte and the Tunnel’ by Liza Schuster, ‘Tomorrow Inch Allah, Chance! People Smuggler Networks in Sangatte’ by Henri Courau and a University of Sussex Centre for the Study of Migration working paper entitled ‘Images of Sangatte: Political representations of asylum seeking in France and the UK’ by Mark Thomson.  It is not, therefore, the intention of this first section to produce an exhaustive history of Sangatte, but rather place the area in context in relation wider issues concerning the border and issues of borderwork.  This report  argues that the rather mundane border at Calais has become more prominent and visible, particularly after the opening of the refugee centre near Sangatte.  In other words, the media attention that increasing fell upon Sangatte throughout its short history inadvertently brought the once insignificant border into the public, media and political consciousness.

The Red Cross Centre near Sangatte

In 1999, due to the visible plight of a number of Kosovan ‘illegals’ in the Calais area, local voluntary organisations arranged for the requisition of a large hanger, previously owned by Eurostar, to house the Kosovan families and their children.  Approximately half the space in the hanger was made available for this purpose, and the facilities were very basic with no heating, very few toilet facilities, and only tents for accommodation.  In the beginning the centre largely went under the public, media and political radar, and even had local support from those who wanted to lend a helping hand to others by donating food, clothes and money (Schuster, 2003, p. 508).  However, as the population of the immigration centre increased, and conditions began to deteriorate, the centre began to be more and more criticised (particularly by Eurotunnel) and politicised (particularly by the media) until its closure in December 2002.

Liza Schuster in her paper entitled ‘Asylum Seekers: Sangatte and the Tunnel’ comments that in the first months of operation, the Sangette refugee centre was not a political issue and thus relatively unheard of in UK and French media (Schuster, 2003, p. 508).  Indeed she states: ‘For the British government, Sangatte was for a long time an irrelevance […] The people who were staying there only became a problem if they reached Britain’ (Schuster, 2003, p. 508).  This changed however in 2001 when images of refugees openly climbing security fences and running across tracks towards the trains became more commonplace in the press.  Media coverage intensified in August 2001 when Sangatte residents managed to get several miles into the tunnel causing Eurotunnel and Eurostar services severe delays (Schuster, 2003, p. 508).  The UK paper The Sun summed up the general tabloid feeling over Sangatte as it became more of an issue:

‘THIS was a tranquil village until the Red Cross centre opened three years ago.  Tourists enjoyed stopping off en route to or from the nearby Calais ferries. Local children played on the beach. Now murders, shootings, stabbings and sexual assaults are common in Sangatte. The tourists don’t stop any more and the beaches are left to refugees and their rubbish’ (The Sun, 23 May 2002).

In the same article, the paper subsequently interviews a British couple living in Calais:

‘Brit Christine Price, a resident since 1991, used to serve food to Kosovan refugees in Calais town centre. Now she will not go out alone at night. Two years ago daughter Amy, then 14, was sexually assaulted by four refugees. Christine, 43, said: “A neighbour rescued her. Otherwise she might have been raped.” She and mechanic hubby Alan, 43, have written to the Oxfordshire villages warning of the problems of refugee camps. She said yesterday: “What happened here will happen in England. That is the reality.” Sangatte residents say they do not object to refugees being cared for properly. But there are 1,500 in a village of just 900’ (The Sun, 23 May 2002).

Here the supposed calmness and even tranquillity of Calais is being brought into question by the most popular UK newspaper in terms of sales.  By highlighting and sensationalising the negative aspects of what migrants allegedly get up to in Calais, the Sun not only tacitly suggests ‘this could happen right here in the UK, wherever similar centres are built’, but also makes visible a border that was once a non-border in the sense that it was relatively unimportant and benign.  In other words, once a place where locals and tourists alike could enjoy what the area had to offer, presumably without being conscious of the border, it is now a sinister border town, a ‘staging post’ for those that should not be there.  The ‘border as a barrier’ mentality is brought to the fore and made visible in what was previously an irrelevant border town.

Sangatte and Eurotunnel

The Red Cross Centre also became increasingly unpopular with transport companies operating in and around the Calais area.  The refugee centre was approximately half a mile from the Channel Tunnel entrance, which immediately placed pressure on the Eurotunnel facilities.  In 2002, in what was to be a media-intensive year for the centre in terms of coverage, the UK broadsheet The Guardian stated:

‘Eurotunnel claimed it stopped some 18,500 refugees trying to smuggle themselves into Britain in the first half of last year alone – some 200 a night – and that the vast majority of them were from the camp’ (The Guardian, 21 May 2002).

Eurotunnel became increasingly frustrated with the lack of urgency both British and French governments placed on the issue.  Again Schuster suggests that it was not only the lack of government care that was frustrating, but also the UK government’s emphasis upon carrier liability forcing private companies to secure border routes themselves or face heavy fines.  Schuster suggests that Eurotunnel began to use the ‘migrant hungry’ UK press, as well as the courts, to place pressure on the UK government to take up the issue with the French and thus close the centre (Schuster, 2003, p. 509).  To add fuel to the fire, the manager of the Red Cross Centre, caused controversy when he remained unrepentant about what the inhabitants of the centre were getting up to.  Concerning a failed refugee attempt to enter the UK via Eurotunnel on Christmas Day 2001, the BBC report:

‘The deputy director of the Red Cross at the Sangatte refugee camp in northern France says he will not tighten security, despite a failed attempt by several hundred people to storm the Channel Tunnel. Michel Meriaux admits he knew the asylum seekers were assembling in the camp on Christmas Day, but he says it was not up to him to warn the authorities […] He said he did not have any duty to inform Eurotunnel of this as his organisation was not concerned with what took place outside the compound […] the camp was not a detention centre and residents were free to come and go as they pleased’ (BBC News, Dec 2001).

In August 2001 Eurtunnel went to the French courts to try and get the centre closed.  A report by the UK broadsheet The Independentsums up the reasons why:

‘Eurotunnel officials asked a French court to close a refugee camp which it claims is the centre of organised illegal immigration.  The camp, near Sangatte, Calais, presents a nightly security threat to the Channel Tunnel train terminal, say Eurotunnel, because a “stream of people” head for it when night falls’ (The Independent, Aug 2001).

Eurotunnel were arguing that the Red Cross centre was simply too close to the tunnel entrance and other facilities, thus becoming a major financial burden in terms of security increases and lost revenues.  A spokeswoman for Eurotunnel at the time stated:

Eurotunnel Spokeswoman, Anne Leva: ‘The events over Christmas prove that it is precisely because the Red Cross centre is so close that it made it possible for hundreds of asylum seekers to get on to our property’ (BBC News, 10 Jan 2002)

Also in January 2002 the BBC News Website ran with another story ‘Asylum Seekers cost Eurotunnel £20m’.  It stated:

‘Eurotunnel has said that disruption caused by asylum seekers, who have sought to hide on Channel Tunnel trains to reach Britain, has cost it £20m. The company, reporting a 6% fall in operating revenues, said that stowaways had “seriously disrupted” freight shuttle operations over the spring. But it said that “significant security measures” taken to keep out asylum seekers had “successfully restored service quality”’ (BBC News, Jan 2002).

However in February 2002 a French court in Lille rejected Eurotunnel’s plea – to have the refugee centre closed or at least relocated – for the second time.  The court stated that the problems at Sangatte were not severe enough to warrant closure. John Noulton, a Eurotunnel spokesman at the time, stated:

John Noulton, Eurotunnel spokesman: ‘The judge used legal technicalities to avoid actually coming to a conclusion about the issue we had brought before him, which is that the proximity of the centre represents a significant and difficult problem for us which needs a quick solution’ (The Independent, Feb 2002).

Furthermore, Eurotunnel were not the only company concerned by the situation in Calais.  EWS (what was English, Welsh and Scottish Railways and now DB Schenker Rail UK) hires out freight wagons for companies using the tunnel, and were losing customers stating safety fears resulting from migrants jumping onto moving trains.  In January 2002 the BBC news website covered the story:

‘Scotland’s only direct rail freight link with Europe is to be suspended because of safety fears caused by asylum seeker stowaways […] EWS operates the Euroterminal at Mossend, Lanarkshire and has lost its biggest customer, Company Nouvelle Cadre (CNC) […] That announcement came after the decision in November by the French rail operator, SNCF, to cut the total number of trains heading into Britain every day by two thirds […] SNCF said it was acting amid safety concerns linked to the number of asylum seekers trying to board moving trains heading for Britain through the Channel Tunnel […] Many of the asylum seekers were thought to have come from the Sangatte Red Cross Centre near Calais, which has faced calls for its closure on both sides of the Channel’ (BBC News, 2 Jan 2002).

A then spokesperson for the company stated:

EWS Spokesman: ‘[This situation] has decimated the Channel Tunnel Service and as a result customer confidence has been severely dented because you are never sure what you will get out or when you will get your wagons back, so a number of companies are looking for alternatives. We are concerned that we cannot operate a service and we have been in discussions with the British and French authorities at all different levels […] How you deal with the refugee issue is nothing to do with the freight business, we just want to go back to running trains and the way to do that is to make sure everything is secure’ (BBC News, 2 Jan 2002).

Within the statement the spokesperson seems to be alluding to either the inability of the company to provide or indeed afford increased security, or a refusal to pay for what is essentially border security which traditionally falls within the remit of states. Whatever the issue regarding who should provide border security, the UK’s emphasis on carrier liability was, as far as Eurotunnel and EWS were concerned, bad for business.

Sangatte and the UK and French Governments

Not surprisingly Sangatte was increasingly and abruptly brought to the attention of the UK government through the media, opposition parties and Eurotunnel/EWS.  As far as the UK government was concerned Sangatte was a matter for the French and if transport companies did not want to pay liability then they should increase security on the French side of the border (Schuster, 2003, p. 514).  French officials, on the other hand, argued at the time that it was not the refugee centre at Sangatte that attracted migrants to the area, but rather the perception of UK policies on immigration and asylum as being relaxed and favourable to migrants.  The French maintained they were simply responding to humanitarian need (Thomson, 2003, p.23).  The UK government started to put increased pressure on the French to close the refugee from around September 2002 onwards, prompted by intense media and Eurotunnel pressure.  The Conservative party also brought up the issue of the Sangatte, in what was a general election year.  The BBC reported:

‘Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe has been refused entry to a holding centre for asylum seekers in France. The Kent MP had planned to tour the Red Cross centre near Calais where many immigrants stay before trying to cross the Channel illegally.

Miss Widdecombe said she was told that the International Red Cross decided to cancel her visit due to the impending general election in the UK. The Conservatives intend to highlight the issue of asylum seekers during the election campaign’ (BBC News, 12 Apr 2002).

In her paper, Schuster sums up the reasons why the fate of Sangatte was to sealed in 2002:

‘The Sangatte ‘crisis’ came about because of the coincidence of interests between the cross-Channel carriers, the Conservative party and the media. The [UK] government accepted that there was a ‘crisis’ and accepted the solution proposed by those parties, i.e. the closure of the camp and increased security of the port, Tunnel and terminals’ (Schuster, 2003, p. 522).

Mark Thomson in his working paper titled ‘Images of Sangatte: Political representations of asylum seeking in France and the UK’ points out that discussions on asylum surrounding the issue failed to acknowledge that living conditions in the centre as well as the French government failed to encourage the centre’s residents to enact their right to asylum in France under the much-cited Dublin Convention (Thomson, 2003, p.23).  Thomson states:

‘Sangatte appeared as a seemingly intractable problem with politicians in the UK declaring the centre itself to be a contributing factor in drawing migrants to the UK whilst their French counterparts insisted that Sangatte was simply responding to a humanitarian need. The desired effect by the French government of framing the centre as simply a humanitarian response, although living conditions inside were indeed poor, was undoubtedly to shift attention back on UK asylum policy and away from the centre’ (Thomson, 2003, p.23).

To this end, David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, was seemingly delighted with the deal that would result in the closure of Sangatte.  Describing the refugee centre as a ‘magnet’, Mr Blunkett openly talked about its closure in the media:

‘As part of the deal – intended to remove the “magnet” of Sangatte – the UK will take 1,000 Iraqi Kurds from the centre on work permits plus “a proportion” of Afghans with family in the UK.  Mr Blunkett said that the two sides had also agreed joint immigration measures at French ports, including the use of new technology. He told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, the deal had worked out well for the UK. The moving of immigration and security controls in particular was “a massive step forward […] It effectively pushes our border controls across the Channel to the French coast’ (BBC News, Dec 2002).

In 2002 the UK government published an impact regulatory assessment outlining a proposal to introduce stronger borders and immigration control at Dover, Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne seaports.  A summary of which is as follows:

‘On 12 July, the Home Secretary agreed with the French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, to establish juxtaposed controls at Calais and Dover to assist in reducing cross-channel illegal immigration and asylum claims.  The agreement was part of a package agreed with the French government to prepare for closure of the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte’ (Home Office, 2003, p.1).

‘The normal practice at ports is that powers under the 1971 Immigration Act and section 25 of the Immigration and Asylum Act are used to require the provision of facilities by port operators for immigration control purposes. This is the approach adopted at the two existing juxtaposed controls on rail routes. Provision for this in respect of juxtaposed controls at sea ports is contained in section 141 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.  This provides that port operators may be required to provide facilities free of charge for overseas immigration officers carrying out immigration controls under the Treaty’. (Home Office, 2003, p.5)

‘Establishing full juxtaposed immigration controls in relation to ferry services at Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk will reduce the number of inadequately documented passengers arriving in the UK. This can be demonstrated by the reduction in the number of inadequately documented passengers arriving at Waterloo from France following the introduction of juxtaposed controls’ (Home Office, 2003, p.15).


The Red Cross Centre at Sangatte became an increasingly emotive issue during the few years it was operational.  Sangatte, and the issues surrounding it, was taken up by the UK media, the opposition and Eurotunnel which effectively forced the UK government to act.  It subsequently became a point of contestation between the governments of the UK and France.  Again Thomson states:

Sangatte […] was indicative of a political crisis to which the UK government had to be seen to be responding. Yet the very nature of the changes to the UK’s asylum policy, ending the right to work for asylum seekers and removing welfare payments to ‘in-country’ asylum applicants, simply reinforced the message that migrants to the UK had previously been engaging in ‘asylum shopping’ (Thomson, 2003, p.23).

The ‘political crisis’ has brought to prominence a border that was mundane and insignificant.  The Calais border is now more visible in that it has received a great deal of media and political attention.  Even though the Red Cross Centre has closed, the border is more visible through stronger, increasingly more securitised, bordering practices.  The next section will focus on the aftermath of the centre’s closure.

After Sangatte

The logic behind closing Sangatte was simple, if not naïve.  Closing the Red Cross Refugee centre near Sangatte, complemented by the implementation of stronger borders, would discourage the build up of migrants in the area and prevent the ones that did travel to Calais from entering the UK.  However, closed at the end of 2002, Sangatte remains present through its absence.  The sans papiers (people without papers) continue to arrive in Calais, regardless of the closure of the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte, and regardless of new and stronger border rationales that replaced it.  The French government has subsequently made it illegal (article L622-1 of the French penal code) for anyone to provide overnight shelter, accommodation, money or food to immigrants in the area, and thus continue to criminalise the immigrants desperately trying to get to the UK as well as those offering them welfare.  This in turn has led to the spread of makeshift camps, including the infamous ‘jungle’ in and around the Calais area, which has differing coverage in the UK media.  What is happening ‘at the border’ in Calais continues to be a point of contestation between the British and French governments, various aid organisations and charities, as well as remaining an emotive and heavily politicised subject in the national medias of France and the UK.  This section will outline the situation after the closure of Sangatte, and selectively examine the continuing and differing portrayal of Calais in the media.  The section will also examine the implications of the situation on the border.

The Jungle and other refugee camps

The closure of refugee centre at Sangatte did not stop the flow of people heading towards Calais and subsequently the border, and issues surrounding it, remained prominent in the media.  The construction of ‘camps’ by the refugees in the wake of Sangatte have become just as infamous, and while there are many ‘makeshift’ camps, it is perhaps ‘The Jungle’ that attracts most attention.

The depiction of the ‘jungle’ camp in the UK press is negative, particularly in relation to immigration and the perceived porosity of the UK border, in that it attracts the same criticism as the Red Cross centre before it was closed.  The same old debates have come to the fore, if they ever went away.  A large part of the UK media focused on ‘The Jungle’ as a lawless area that French authorities either ignore or struggle to contain.  A report in The Times newspaper sums this up:

‘Sher, a tubby Afghan in his late twenties and one of the most notorious of the gangsters who smuggle stowaways into Britain, told an undercover reporter: “We were raided by the police and they burnt the camp down. But we set up a new one the following day.” He and his helpers had already handed out blankets, quilts and pillows to the 70 or so young Afghans who had paid him the going rate of €300 (£203) to €1,000. Makeshift tents, lashed together from bin-liners, were once again standing in the woodland’ (The Times Online, Apr 2007).

The article reflects the common division made by the media between migrants that are paying and the people smugglers who are being paid.  Moreover, many of the tabloid papers based in the UK make the point that Calais, and subsequently ‘The Jungle’, is not that far from Britain’s southern shores.  The (notorious) border town that Calais has come to be in the UK press – rather than a tourist or ‘booze cruse’ destination as it was once depicted – is imposing on the British border itself. Following a particularly infamous event at the camp the UK tabloid newspaper The Sun reported:

‘A NOTORIOUS camp for would-be immigrants just 35 minutes from the UK coast was thrown into the spotlight this week after the rape of a 31-year-old British woman. The journalism student was investigating the shanty town on the outskirts of Calais when she was brutally attacked. Now it’s feared the beast who assaulted her may have fled to our shores […] This is The Jungle, as it has become known locally – the waiting room for would-be immigrants preparing to sneak into England’. (The Sun, Aug 2008).

Writing in the same month and year, and on the same events, the UK newspaper The Mail, in its own way, makes a similar point:

‘They have already crossed continents to get to the north of France, smuggling themselves on to a lorry, boat or train from troubled villages or towns in the badlands of Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa with little more than the rags they stand up in. Now, they hide in makeshift camps in the woods or under the railway arches near the port, waiting for night to fall when they can try to clamber on to a ferry, train or lorry travelling to Dover […] There have been stabbings and bitter near-fatal fights […] The truth is that many of the asylum seekers come from countries where criminality is commonplace, corruption rife, and the equality of women or girls an alien concept.  In parts of Africa and Afghanistan, it is, after all, the custom-to imprison or even stone to death an innocent woman who has been raped. Why should they change their ways in Calais, or later, in Britain?’ (The Mail, Aug 2008).

By using terms such as ‘crossed’, ‘makeshift’, and in the previous article ‘fled’ and ‘waiting room’ the three articles, perhaps inadvertently, draw attention to issues of mobility, something of which the border in its current form is failing to stop.  In this way the articles suggest that the migrants almost have an ease of movement, a kind of determined un-fixity, that makes them dangerous in the sense that they are difficult for the border to stop.  Moreover, ‘they’, the inhabitants of ‘The Jungle’, are uncivilised, and exactly the type of people the border should be capable of stopping.  However, a report conducted in 2001/02 at the Sangatte Centre led by French sociologist Smaïn Laacher (see appendix), published in the UK by the House of Lords, stated that most refugees in Sangatte were relatively well-educated (only 20 per cent had no secondary education; 15 per cent had achieved qualifications equivalent to the baccalaureate and 26 per cent had gone beyond that).

While the migrants are undoubtedly mobile, as is the border employed to stop them -which will be touched upon in due course, the BBChas observed that the migrants in and around Calais seem to be involved in boundary construction themselves:

‘Ad hoc international and ethnic boundaries have sprung up across the town of Calais. Afghans live in a desolate place known as “the Jungle”, Iraqis have their own encampment not far away. East Africans live in a terrace of derelict buildings in the town centre […]Ethnic disputes break out frequently. One man was recently murdered here by someone from another tribe. His friends have built him a memorial made from old breeze blocks’ (BBC News, Mar 2009).

From this perspective Calais, as a traditional border town, is changing in that the migrants are themselves engaging in a kind of borderwork, albeit a kind that does not directly involve the French/British border.  In this way it perhaps possible to talk about the bordering of Calais itself, the migrants simultaneously lay down borders while at same time attempting to cross other borders.  Although this provides an extra dimension to the borderwork already going on in Calais, the amount of evidence available is minimal form the point of view of this report.  Further study would therefore be required to uncover the extent and implications of this particular borderwork such as interviews in and around Calais.

Many newspapers depicted the plight of immigrants having to live in the camps, and the harrowing tales of failed attempts to cross the border and evade detection.  The New York Times is indicative of many reports of this type:

‘The migrants are desperate. On a recent night, a group stood around a fire in a derelict sawmill behind the Calais train station as melt from a late spring snow dripped through the roof. One 22-year-old, fleeing open-ended military service in Eritrea, drew a glowing metal rod from the embers and dragged it slowly across his fingertips, searing off his fingerprints. “It doesn’t hurt,” he said, displaying hands yellow with scar tissue. Like other migrants interviewed for this article, he would not give his name. Others, also hoping to dodge the European fingerprint database, use razor blades’ (The New York Times, Apr 2008).

In the same report the journalist also interviewed truck drivers in Calais:

‘Truckers like Juan Antonio Santiago of Spain, sipping coffee at a gas station at 1 a.m. one night early this month, face hefty fines or even jail if stowaways are found in their vehicles, or clinging to a ledge under the truck. “It’s a fear we all have,” he said. “But the greatest risk is taken by the migrants, because of the danger of falling off”’ (The New York Times, Apr 2008).

Stronger borders

The issue of mobility observed above is interesting in that the stronger border regimes put in place after the closure of Sangatte are seemingly not perceived to be working. By drawing attention to distance, time and ease of movement, many of the newspaper articles cited above suggest that if ‘they’ have already crossed continents, why should the British border in its current state pose a significant problem.  On the one hand immigrants and asylum seekers are still attracted to the UK, and on the other hand, the border that is supposed to deny them access, or the very least prevent them from gaining illegal entry, is perceived not to be working.  France, it seems, also perceives this to be the case:

‘France has called on Britain to toughen up its act against the tide of illegal migrants crossing the Channel. During a crisis visit to Calais, France’s hardline new immigration minister Eric Besson criticised his London counterparts. He claimed that lax security in the Channel Tunnel and at ferry ports was encouraging thousands to try to enter Britain illegally, causing huge problems for the French’ (The Mail, Jan 2009).

Eric Besson, French immigration minister: ‘I will meet with British officials in the coming days and I intend to make the ferries and channel tunnel watertight to illegal immigrants. Our British partners must commit themselves more actively in the reinforcement of checks and security at Calais, in their own interests and ours’ (The Mail, Jan 2009).

However in May 2009 BBC news reported on the ‘strength’ of technology being employed at the Calais border:

‘Some of the latest pieces of hi-tech kit to help in the fight against illegal immigration are being used by the UK Border Agency at the Eurotunnel terminal just outside Calais in France. Whether it’s as straightforward as scanning a passport or using a microphone so sensitive it can detect a person’s heartbeat the team there will use it […] Rachel Bramley is one of the officials who help with the searches. She said: “Obviously getting within the load, if there’re a lot of them, you do get quite a lot of adrenalin because it can be quite scary. It is satisfying when you actually catch them but you do feel a bit sorry for them, especially if there are children involved but at the end of the day we’re just here to do our job”’ (BBC News, May 2009).

To compliment the border, local French police have been taking an increasingly hard line and many in the press have commented on this:

Around 300 French officers cordoned off a wooded area known as “the jungle”, home to hundreds of migrants, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. They seized 150 people there and 33 at motorway rest stops outside the city […] The three-hour raid came two days before Eric Besson, the immigration minister, was due to visit Calais for talks on the situation following complaints from local politicians, who say they can no longer bear the brunt of the problem alone […] A police spokesman said: “It’s an attempt to dismantle people trafficking networks. It’s an operation to destabilise the networks and try to find the smugglers,” he said (Telegraph, Apr 2009).

The New York Times, a year earlier, interviewed a local police officer:

‘One officer, who would not give his name, said the riot police in the region had two missions: to protect France against terrorism and “to deal with clandestine immigration”(The New York Times, Apr 2008).

In April 2008 charities negotiated ‘calm-zones’ near the port in order to distribute food and advice without harassment from the police.  However, despite the implantation of a stronger border, put in place after the closure of Sangatte, it was deemed more had to be done, given the extent of the situation in Calais and the perception of a weak, and unintentionally porous, UK border:

‘During an Anglo/French summit in Evian, Gordon Brown announced a £15 million fund for new technology to search vehicles and goods heading for Britain.

A pilot scheme will be trialled at the port of Calais, before the system is extended to Boulogne, Dunkirk and the Channel Tunnel terminal at Coquelles. In return for the Prime Minister’s pledge, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, announced that France would step up the removal of illegal immigrants to their home countries […] Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, added: “We have one of the strongest borders in the world, and today’s agreement with our French counterparts has made it even more secure’ (Telegraph, Jul 2009).

This agreement coincided with various reports in March 2009 concerning a proposed holding centre within Calais docks.  More specifically it would be situated within the UK control zone and thus ‘inside Britain’ in terms of immigration law and allow for cross-channel asylum seekers to be sent back to their countries of origin more easily.  The holding centre is a response to the fact that migrants are usually caught in around the dock area, only to be released to try again the following night.  The UK newspaper, The Independent, sums up the situation in an article titled ‘The Calais ‘Guantanamo’:

‘The holding centre would potentially allow London and Paris to use the ambiguous status of the British “control zone” at Calais to send the migrants home. If agreed, the centre is likely to attract the scrutiny of civil liberties and human rights groups.  The creation of an “offshore, on-shore” holding centre, which helps London and Paris cut through the thickets of asylum law, may invite parallels with Guantanamo Bay. Although the idea would be to hold the asylum-seekers for only a short time in humane conditions, the immigrants would have fallen into a legal limbo of their own making […]  [British Immigration minister, Phil Woolas] said Britain and France were discussing a new “detention centre” in Calais where illegal immigrants would be held “after passing through British immigration controls” within the Calais docks. They would be sent back to their home countries on charter flights’ (The Independent, March 2009).

Under the proposals when someone enters the control zone they are effectively under UK jurisdiction although are on French soil.  The Independent states: ‘The negotiations are believed to focus on the ambiguous bi-national status of this “British” zone in the Calais docks, the first “British” toehold in Calais for 500 years’ (The Independent, March 2009).  The introduction of a holding centre in Calais would ‘change the rules of the game’-create a grey area-insomuch as ‘illegals’ could be sent home without them falling under British or French law, or alternatively it may ‘encourage’ migrants en route to the UK, to stay in France and claim asylum or be sent home.


This section has described the situation in Calais after the closure of Sangatte in 2002.  In many respects the situation has worsened as migrants have continued to turn up in Calais by way of getting to the UK and, in this way, Calais has become synonymous with asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigration.  Many makeshift refugee camps have been set up around the Calais area that continue to pose a problem for the French and UK authorities.  The various refugee camps, particularly ‘The Jungle’, have become infamous in the UK media in particular, being portrayed as dangerous places situated not far away, geographically and temporally near, just on the other side of the border.  Again the border is made visible.  On the one hand the border needs to deter and stop those who want to cross illegally, while on the other hand there are clear humanitarian issues that need to be dealt with.  It is unclear as to whether the two can be resolved together.  While for many the border is not trusted, deemed unsatisfactorily porous by many, increasing border security fuels the humanitarian problem.  In this way the French and the British are constantly at loggerheads about what to do at the border.

The Borderworkers

As the previous two sections of this report suggest, there has been massive interest into what was previously Sangatte and what are now the various refugee camps in and around Calais.  Much of the media and academic attention has concentrated on the camps operating as undesirable staging posts for illegal attempts to enter the UK, or issues of migration and immigration in relation to Calais and the UK, or the humanitarian crisis occurring within Calais.  The aim of this section, however, is to outline and examine the role of the aid agencies and charities that actively work on the ground to aid the migrants in their plight, in relation to the French/UK border present in Calais.  In this way the French/UK border has not only become more prominent in and around Calais for reasons already outlined, but it has also become more dynamic, in the sense that non-state actors are undertaking bordering activity.  While the state powers of France and Britain struggle to really conceptualise the border in Calais, often reacting to highly politicised and sensationalised events portrayed in and by the media and political opposition parties, the non-state borderworkers have a clearer sense of their focus and role within the bordering activity in Calais.

The aim of this final section is to uncover the individuals, agencies and groups working on the ground in Calais that are helping the migrants in various ways.  The help on offer ranges from simply providing food and basic shelter to the people living in the camps, to other groups that offer legal advice outlining what rights the migrants have in France as well as Britain should they make it across the English Channel.  The section will attempt to place this activity within the context of the French/UK border as well as the borderwork project in general.  The beginning of this section will outline the groups active within Calais and the surrounding area.  It should be acknowledged, however, that many of these groups have very little promotional presence, and often have basic websites.

Association Salam

According to their website, the Association Salam is a French organisation set up directly in the wake left by the closure of the Red Cross Centre near Sangatte.  They also have a permanent address in Calais: House For All, 81 Boulevard Jacquard, 62100 Calais. Their website states:

‘On November 5th, 2002, the French government ordered the closure of the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte which accommodated migrants present in Calais.

Most of them find themselves thrown onto the street on the eve of winter.

Volunteers gather to organize the distribution of food and clothing and decide after some time to give the effort a legal basis by forming the association SALAM. Today SALAM is a strong association of more than 200 members whose resources come from dues, donations and grants’ (Salam Website (translated)

Moreover, according to their website, the group state their aims thus:

  • To bring a humanitarian aid to the migrants (care, hygiene, food, clothing).
  • To inform and support their administrative needs in order to request asylum.
  • To inform and influence the public opinion on the situation of the migrants on Calais.
  • To fight all the forms of racism and discrimination.
  • To take action in favour of those whose country of origin is in difficulty.
  • To give judicial support to members of the association.

(Salam Website (translated)

The association produces numerous documents and press releases concerning their work and liaison with the French and city authorities.  The following press release from their website provides an interesting example of their stance as well as their thinking.  Originating from May 2007 it concerns negotiations for the reception of migrants entering Calais:

The SALAM Association is pleased to see an interest in the inhumane living conditions faced by migrants in France and especially in Calais.  However, the Association SALAM cannot accept the proposals made. Indeed, solidarity requires us to refuse to distribute items including meals outside unless volunteers would be safe. It is therefore essential to have:

  • A dining hall with a capacity of about one hundred people as has been agreed.
  • A courtyard of about 200 m.

On the other hand, the dubious location of the land proposed by the city, hidden to the public, cannot satisfy us. The attitude of the police concerns us and we cannot agree to provide extra provisions for the migrants. It seems to us particularly unfair to exclude them even more from the city and therefore deny them access to trade with the population.  For these reasons, it is essential for us to implement this project in the current official place of distribution: quai de la Moselle, or on a nearby site. We must therefore return to the project with:

  • A kitchen to make hot meals
  • Two employees that will gradually enable volunteers to find their place on the ground.

(Salam Website (translated)

Collectif de Soutien d’Urgence aux Refugies (C’SUR) (Collective of emergency Support for Refugees)

Judging from their website C’SUR provides information about, and publicises the plight of migrants living on the streets, or indeed camps, in and around Calais.  At the time of writing it seemed that their website was transition and was being redesigned.  They actively seek donations from the public and provide an extensive list of migrant requirements.  Their website states:

‘Each day, refugees from Calais and the surrounding area need to feed and clothe themselves with dignity, and they need your kind help. In the cold and rainy month of March 2009 the poor need blankets, comfortable shoes, pants, parkas, hats, gloves, scarves, and hygiene products. In summary, we need everything that could be suitable for young men, living outside in this area at this time of the year’ (C’SUR Website (translated). Available from:

Land of Wandering Association/France Terre d’Asile (France Ground of Asylum)

The Land of Wandering Association and France Terre d’Asile seem to be connected organisations.  Each having separate web presences the former, existing as a link on C’SUR’s website, state on their website:

We, the undersigned citizens and organizations, that refuse assistance to migrants is considered a crime. 
 We are outraged by the release on listening, intimidation and arrests of volunteers. 
We support and will support all those who are or will be harassed by the authorities to have reached out to men and women innocent, abandoned in our ditches by European states. 
We call for the establishment of a new immigration policy, a policy with a human face, anxious for the dignity and freedoms of everyone. 
The drama of the post-Sangatte has lasted too long (Land of Wandering Association Website (English version)

Like C’SUR they publicise the plight of the migrants living in and around Calais as well as requesting clothes and other donations from the public.

France Terre d’Asile (France Ground of Asylum) on the other hand are a major campaign group within France established in 1971 to promote and defend the right to asylum.  They are involved in mediation with the French government, as well as acting on the ground, and currently have around 467 employees.  On their website they state:

‘The association assists all persons in migration law, particularly those that meet the definitions of “refugee” and “stateless” specified by international conventions, including the first article of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 completed by the first article of the Protocol in New York from 31 January 1967 and the New York Convention of 30 August 1961, and those not granted refugee or stateless status’ (France Terre d’Asile Website (translated). Available from:

Furthermore, they state their aims as being the following:

  1. Promote, to the general public, all activities conducive to the development of asylum and migration law. To this end, it establishes all the useful contacts and develops relationships with national and international partners.
  2. To initiate and support any action on behalf of refugees. In particular, it participates in the reception and protection of asylum seekers and stateless persons, recognized refugees, beneficiaries and their families on French territory.
  3. To promote the integration of migrants, including those corrected, beneficiaries of family reunification, in terms of access to employment, housing and learning French.
  4. Greet, assist and protect unaccompanied foreign minors.
  5. Develop and participate in all activities and training in France and abroad for international protection and the reception of migrants.
  6. Participate in the support and reintegration in the country of origin for persons who wish to return voluntarily.

(France Terre d’Asile Website (translated)

In terms of Calais France Terre d’Asile is active on the ground trying to persuade migrants to seek asylum in France.  To this end the organisation was featured in a report by the UK broadsheet The Times in article titled ‘Asylum seekers in makeshift jungle camp in France seek British ‘Eldorado’:

‘In the month since the refugee body started its operation, only 120 asylum claims have been lodged — from about 1,000 people sleeping rough or squatting in the area. Yesterday Marie-Ange Lescure, a UNHCR consultant, was present at the bleak quay where the sandwiches are given out, along with an interpreter and Radoslaw Ficek, of France Tere D’Asile, the French refugee group.

“If you have been in danger in your countries of origin then you can seek protection here,” said Mr Ficek as several dozen Afghans gathered around him. When he asked who might be interested in a life in France, no one stepped forward. One of the men carefully tore a UNHCR information sheet into small pieces and threw it into a bin.

“The smugglers have been telling these people throughout their journeys that England is a paradise,” said Ms Lescure. “They say that as soon as you arrive in Dover there will be many people offering you a job; that you will be able to study during the day, work at night and send money back home. And they say there is no point in staying in France.” (The Times, 3rd July 2009).

Gisti (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés- Group information and of support of immigrants)

Gitsi was formed in 1972 from a meeting between welfare groups, militant associations in regular contact with foreign populations, and lawyers.  They publish documents on matters of immigration including legal advice, as well as publish a quarterly journal aimed at a wide audience covering French and European migration policies.  Gitsi, along with others, produced a report on Sangatte when it was operational, the following of which provides a flavour:

The conclusion of our investigation is the same as everyone else who experiences Sangatte. The unanimous opinion of the prefect, the state prosecutor, the administrator of the camp and the local charity groups points to a situation that is a humanitarian disaster with a legal facade.  The presence of thousands of undocumented foreigners is tolerated by keeping them undocumented.

  1. France (and other European countries) do not want to resolve the following contradictions:
  2. Foreigners passing through Boulogne and Calais are virtually all genuinely fleeing repression. International law protects their flight and allows them to seek refuge abroad where they must seek official protection, under the Geneva Convention on refugees and the European Convention on human rights.
  3. By closing their borders in line with European Union policy, EU countries are blocking any permanent immigration of people, including those fleeing persecution.
  4. Since foreigners determined to emigrate eventually succeed, closing borders just makes them dependent on immigration racketeers and other crooks who take advantage of the border-closure policy.
  5. Such violation of international refugee protection law means that instead of constructively cooperating on a European-wide scale, such countries compete to defend themselves by pushing their deportees onto their neighbours after failing to stop them entering in the first place.

This inability to take into account both the situation and present law leads to simple camps being opened for refugees. In Sangatte, and also in Melilla, Ceuta and anywhere that geography gives refugees a greater chance of fleeing.

(Taken from Gitsi website (translated). Available from:

Gitsi is also a member of the ‘Migreurop network’ comprising of 40 member organisations formally constituted as an association under French law in 2005.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

The UNHCR originally left Calais in 2002 when the French government closed Sangatte.  However it has since been present in Calais regularly sending staff from its Paris office on a weekly basis.  They are, however, about to have a more perminant presence once again:

‘UNHCR plans to open a full-time presence from the beginning of July in the northern French port, which it left in 2002 after the authorities closed Sangatte reception centre. UNHCR staff have been staying in Calais for three or four days a week since early June, working with aid partner France Terre d’Asile to inform the people about a wide range of issues.  They explain asylum in France and how to apply for it; organize information sessions with British aid agencies about conditions in the United Kingdom and asylum policies there; and give data on France, Britain and countries through which migrants transit to get here’.

Francisco Galindo-Velez, UNHCR representative in France: ‘We have come here to help the migrants and asylum seekers to make an informed decision’

Monique Delannoy, local aid agency worker: ‘They no longer have any link to their country of origin, they need to know what is happening in order to decide their future’.

(Taken from the UNHCR Website. Available from: bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=4a3914c86&query=Calais)

Other organisations/activity

The situation in Calais is also reflected through the ‘No Borders’ campaign which has branches all over the UK.  On the 23-20 June 2009, along with other European organisations they held a Calais ‘No Border’ in the town.  A statement taken from their website outlines their motives:

‘The Calais border is an important focal point for the struggle between those who would see an end to all migration into the EU (by enforcing ever crueler borders control regimes) and those trying to break down the barriers between peoples, the borders that prevent the freedom of movement for all, not just the privileged few. The Calais No Border camp is an exciting joint venture between French activists and migrant support groups and the UK No Borders Network. It aims to highlight the realities of the situation in Calais and Northern France; to build links with the migrant communities; to help build links between migrants support groups and lastly, but not least, to challenge the authorities on the ground, to protest against increased repression of migrants and local activists alike’ (Taken from No Borders North East website. Available from:

They also hold meetings in different areas of the UK, for example Oxford and Bristol, the latter of which held a photo exhibition entitled ‘The Struggle for Calais’ highlighting the plight of migrants as well as the imposition of stricter border regimes.

Elsewhere the BBC has reported on a group in Kent who call themselves ‘the Kent Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers’.  Written in 2005 the article states:

‘Kent campaigners are gathering food and clothing for homeless asylum seekers living on the streets of Calais. Representatives of the Kent Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers visited the port this weekend, to see the work already being done by French humanitarian volunteers, who say hundreds of Kurds and Afghans have been left on the streets by the closure of the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte. John Flaig from the Kent group says there could soon be a repeat of last week’s sit-in by a hundred illegal immigrants at a derelict church hall’ (BBC News, Nov 2002).

The New York Times has been particularly active in reporting on the situation in Calais, including the work of aid agencies:

‘Bakers donate unsold pastries; high school students serve Middle Eastern dishes prepared by women from the Maghreb region of northern Africa; retirees drive 70 miles from Arras to peel 330 pounds of potatoes every weekend. Doctors of the World [the USA  arm of ‘Medecins du Monde’ and now called ‘Healthright International’] runs a clinic; a Catholic charity provides showers; a disused church has been transformed into a giant wardrobe of donated clothes.

Nan Suel, a worker at Secours Catholique: ‘It shouldn’t be up to charities to look after them […] regionally we close our eyes, France closes its eyes, internationally people close their eyes’ (New York Times, Apr 2008).


The situation on the ground in Calais, particularly in relation to the border, is complex. There are numerous organisations working in and around the Calais area aiding the refugees, and each one having a particular agenda ranging from abolishing borders altogether to clear humanitarian perspectives.  All the perspectives, of course, overlap.  The ability of the UK and French governments to control the border is being complemented by the organisations which take it upon themselves to outline the ‘grey’ areas in much of the bordering policy.  Moreover, the organisations help the migrants against the hard line taken by France in terms of tough policing and restrictive laws, and the imposition of stronger borders and control zones which continue to be put in place by the UK.

Concluding Remarks

The bordering activity present in Calais occurs on different levels.  The first section outlined the issues surrounding the opening of the Red Cross Centre at Sangatte and its subsequent closure.  It was argued that the centre became the subject of contestation between the French and UK governments, fuelled by media and opposition political parties in the UK.  Interestingly Eurotunnel lobbied hard to get the centre closed arguing it was spending millions on security and lost revenues.  In a deal between the two governments, Sangatte closed and new, stronger, borders were put in place including ‘juxtaposed’ borders – the UK passport control to be present France, and French passport control being present in the UK – as well as new advanced forms of screening, searching and detecting.  The implication of this increased awareness of Calais was an increased awareness of the border in what was a traditional port town.

Following the closure of Sangatte the situation deteriorated in the sense that migrants continued to head for Calais because of its position as a leading port and transport hub, and the many opportunities that this affords in terms of travel to the UK.  The only option available to the migrants was to set up camps in and around Calais that could be used for shelter when not actively trying to enter Britain.  The camps subsequently became infamous in the UK press, and used to outline the supposed weakness of the UK border even though it was arguably as ‘secure’ as it ever had been.  Indeed even the French government took this position, presumably as a response to criticism suggesting that they were being extremely heavy handed towards the migrants and were at a loss to find any solutions to the problem.  Another argument levelled at the French suggested that they failed to inform the migrants of their possible rights to stay and seek asylum in France.  Interestingly, many of the media reports concerning the camps, particularly ‘The Jungle’, focused on their close geographic and temporal proximity to the UK.

What has not received much attention is the role of organisations active on the ground within Calais and its surrounding area.  They seem to work against the French/UK state apparatus thus cancelling out, counter balancing or inhibiting bordering objectives and policy outcomes.  Therefore the borderwork that is ongoing within the Calais area takes place on different levels.  On the one hand the border is being strengthened and changed in the sense that is being modified to selectively scrutinise mobility through juxtaposition and the implication of detection technologies across Calais.  On the other hand the border is not simply and traditionally being imposed by the French and UK governments upon those seeking to illegally cross it.  There are new actors involved in the bordering process in Calais, the actions of which help to change the border in a way that may be detrimental or undesirable to the UK and French governments – the supposed dominant actors.  These new actors – borderworkers – do not simply highlight the humanitarian fall-out from the state bordering practices, but are also active on the ground, at the border and beyond it.  The evolution of these new non-state borderworkers at the Calais border has altered it beyond recognition in traditional border terms.  Once a traditional and seemingly fixed border has, for better, or for worse, become a dynamic and very visible border as a result of the borderwork taking place.


House of Lords – European Union – Thirty-Seventh Report (5th November 2002).  Available from:  Accessed on 1st July 2009.

Summary of Sangatte Research

“Foreigners in transit at the Sangatte Centre”

1.  This research was conducted in 2001/02 at the Sangatte Centre by a French sociologist, Smaïn Laacher and a colleague and completed in June 2002.

2.  The study was based on questionnaires administered to 284 residents by the “mediateurs” at the Centre, and on 50 interviews with residents and 20 with Red Cross staff.

3.  The sample used for the study (reflecting the population of the Centre at the time) was composed predominantly of Afghanis, Iraqis (Kurds) and Iranians.

4.  The main characteristics of the people sampled were that they were:

  • Mostly male (only 14 women)
  • Young (average age 25: 22 for Afghanis, 27 for Iraqis)
  • Single (but 83 were married, with a total of 204 children)
  • Relatively well-educated (only 20 per cent had no secondary education; 15 per cent had achieved qualifications equivalent to the baccalaureate and 26 per cent had gone beyond that).

5.  Other significant factors were that:

  • Most had travelled individually rather than in groups
  • Most had left their countries because of war or political persecution (only seven percent because of unemployment)
  • Half had been asked to migrate by their family
  • For most (80 per cent) the journey had taken over a month and for half over three months
  • The average cost was $6000; 53 people had paid over $10,000, ten of them over $15,000 (the Afghanis had paid considerably more than the Iraqis)
  • For most the payment had already been made in full.

Reasons for coming to the United Kingdom

6.  The report contains a lengthy section examining the reasons why those in the sample were determined to go to the United Kingdom. Most (62 per cent) said they had a specific destination in mind when they left their own country, although the great majority knew little or nothing about it. Of those who said they had chosen their country of destination most (58 per cent) had chosen the United Kingdom.

7.  Speaking English made little difference to the choice of destination. The only factor that correlated significantly with the choice of the United Kingdom was the presence of friends or relatives in the United Kingdom, although even this was not a determining factor. Nor was it just a matter of family ties: it was often because a family member in the United Kingdom had paid for the journey.

8.  The authors of the report believe that the most important determining factors in choice of destination are the experience of the journey itself (not least at Sangatte), including information from smugglers, and the reception accorded in the countries through which they have passed rather than a fine calculation of asylum procedures in different countries or of levels of benefit. Most of those in the sample had travelled through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France often (it was said) being subjected to (decreasingly) unpleasant experiences by the authorities in each. The United Kingdom was the end of the line and the only country which they had not experienced. At the same time the United Kingdom was regarded as meeting an asylum seeker’s basic needs (primarily accommodation but also access to work) more promptly and in a more dignified way than France. There was a lot of feedback to Sangatte from people who had made it to the United Kingdom.

9.  Most of the sample would stay in the United Kingdom if they succeeded in getting there. A small proportion (12 per cent) wanted to move on to the USA or Canada. Only a quarter would stay in France, if they failed to get to the United Kingdom.


10.  The authors do not believe that Sangatte is a magnet to people in countries of origin. The great majority of the sample had not heard of Sangatte until they were en route and over half not until they reached France.

11.  The authors believe that closure of the Centre, would have the opposite effect to that intended, leading to the reappearance of asylum seekers in the Channel ports in larger numbers than before. But they are concerned that it could be changed into a detention centre. They recommend:

  • Changing the reception arrangements
  • Radically improving the conditions
  • Excluding the people-smugglers.


12.  The author’s main conclusions are that:

  • The EU should not restrict but extend rights of protection
  • The smugglers not the victims should be criminalised
  • People in an irregular position should have some legal protection
  • Concentration on strengthening borders will not stop people coming
  • The combination of economic globalisation and the proliferation of international instruments are serving to “universalise” immigration and asylum

No solution is possible without a “redefinition of relations between ‘les pays dominants’ et ‘les pay dominés'”.

Sangatte Timeline: Crucial Events

Spring 1999 Kosovan refugees arrive in Calais en route to Britain and set up a shanty town.
August 1999 Police move refugees to a disused warehouse in the coastal village of Sangatte, leased from Eurotunnel and administered by the Red Cross.
February 2001 Riot as Afghan immigrants clash with Kurdish people smugglers.
July 2001 Eurotunnel demands closure of Sangatte refugee centre.
August 2001 Eurotunnel applies to a French court in Lille to force the French government to close Sangatte.
August 2001 44 people are picked up seven miles into the tunnel and returned to Sangatte, causing overnight closure of the tunnel.  The issue of Sangatte forces itself onto the UK political agenda.
September 2001 After an intense period of media scrutiny in the UK, most of which is directed towards the UK government, the then home secretary David Blunkett calls for the closure of the centre.
25 December 2001 133 people attempt to cross into the UK on foot through the Channel Tunnel. 40 are arrested and the remainder returned to Sangatte.
1st February 2002 Court in Lille rejects Eurotunnel’s plea.
7th February 2002 UK government publishes the White Paper ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven’ in to order to toughen up UK asylum policy, making Britain a less desirable destination.
17 May 2002 25-year-old Kurdish man is stabbed to death in major fighting inside Sangatte.  French police use tear gas on the residents.
23 May 2002 French declare that Sangatte closure is an objective.
12 July 2002 France and Britain agree to establish juxtaposed controls at Calais and Dover to assist in reducing cross-channel illegal immigration and asylum claims, as part of deal that involves the closure of Sangatte.
2 December 2002 Official statement announces that Sangatte will be closed by 30th December 2002.  As part of the deal the UK agreed to accept around 1000 Iraqi Kurds and around 200 Afghans from the centre.
December 2002 Nicolas Sarkozy, the then French interior minister, shuts the camp down.


Schuster, L. (2003). Asylum Seekers: Sangatte and the Tunnel. Parliamentary Affairs, 56(3), 506-522.

Thomson, M. (2003). Images of Sangatte: Political representations of asylum seeking in France and the UK. Sussex Migration Working Paper no.18. Sussex Centre for Migration Research. University of Sussex


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