In the French port city of Calais, a few thousand people from the Middle East and North Africa live in shabby plastic tents. They’ve crossed the Mediterranean and traveled through Europe to arrive here.
About two-thirds of these people will try to enter Britain, while the remaining third are applying for asylum in France. In April, the French government said migrants would be tolerated at this site, known as “The Jungle.”
In the middle of the encampment, NPR’s Ari Shapiro spoke with Celine Schmitt of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Here are the highlights of their conversation.
What’s the U.N.’s role in this camp?
UNHCR has been working in France and Calais for many years. The situation now is that there are approximately 3,000 people who live here. The majority are fleeing conflicts, violence, persecution. They are refugees. And they are in need of protection. So for UNHCR, it is very important that they have access to asylum. We’ve been calling on the French authorities to shorten the delays for people to apply. To file an application can take months.
We were told that people arriving at the camp today can’t even submit an application for asylum in France until November.
The delay is long. The French government has already increased their capacity to shorten the delays. So now it is more or less two months, and then an additional three weeks to get access to accomodation.
This looks nothing like refugee camps that you see in other parts of the world. Is this up to international standards?
People here are living in appalling conditions. They live under plastic sheeting. UNHCR helps authorities to coordinate refugee camps in other countries, and “The Jungle” is not a refugee camp.
Whose fault is that?
We’ve been calling upon the French authorities to provide decent accomodation for the asylum seekers, but also there needs to be a more coordinated response by the European Union countries. Because the majority of the people here are among the 200,000 people who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea this year.
EU countries have to work together to find solutions for the refugees when they arrive in Europe. Those solutions mean more solidarity between the EU countries. For example, relocation of refugees. Greece and Italy can’t cope alone with the situation.
As you say, more than 200,000 migrants have entered Europe this year. If this camp has fewer than 3,000, why should the world invest its energy in this place that has such a small percentage?
Yes, we have to put the figures in perspective. Four million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. Europe has received so far this year 220,000 people, which is a relatively small number. But solutions have to be found at the different levels.
Since this camp opened in April, the French government has put up washing stations. People here now get one government-provided meal a day. Do you feel that the government is responding to your pressure?
Yes, they have opened a day center where people can go to take showers, wash their clothes, charge their phones, have a meal every day. So now they are distributing 2,200 meals every day. But more needs to be done to allow people to access asylum and give them decent accomodation.
You’ve been in many refguee situations around the world — what strikes you most about this one ?
You arrive here in France and see people living under plastic sheets, it is shocking. We’ve called the situation appalling.
Do you worry about what will happen here when it gets cold and the rains arrive?
The conditions here will be even more difficult during the winter when it’s cold. And that’s why we’ll continue to work with French authorities. We’ve told them we’re available.