PARIS (AP) – President Emmanuel Macron is making a foray into the symbolic heart of France’s migrant problem with a visit Tuesday to the port city of Calais, where hundreds of people hide out while trying to make an end run to Britain.
The northern city, laced with high fences and a wall, is the closest point between France and Britain, with two cross-Channel transport systems, the Eurotunnel and ferries that are a magnet for migrants.
Macron wants changes to the 2003 Touquet Accords that effectively moved the British border to Calais and have left France with the problem of dealing with migrants refused entry into Britain. He is meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on Thursday.
Negotiations over changes to the accords are in progress, including creation of a French-British team to handle cases of migrants with “legitimate” reasons to go to Britain, according to a top official in Macron’s office who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Just over a year ago, Europe’s largest migrant slum, on the edge of Calais, was dismantled and some 7,000 migrants sent to centers around France.
With 400 to 700 migrants there today, the situation is in many ways worse, said Francois Guennoc of the aid group Auberge des Migrants.
“It’s catastrophic,” he said, both materially and mentally because migrants have no right to pitch tents, to ensure no new camps spring up.
Auberge des Migrants, a leading migrant aid group in Calais, is one of two associations that have declined to take part in a meeting with Macron.
The president’s trip is a foretaste of a tough new immigration and asylum bill to be presented to the Cabinet in February. Macron is visiting a migrant center before meeting security forces in Calais.
An encounter with Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart may be his biggest challenge. She has spent years, with some success, pressing the government for funds, police and other help in dealing with migrants.
The migrants’ living conditions are deplorable, but “they choose it,” while Calais citizens live with the “constant offenses” of migrants trying to sneak to Britain, Bouchart said Monday on BFM TV
May’s spokesman, James Slack, declined comment on any new deal before Macron’s visit to Britain.
A leading immigration expert, Patrick Weil, defended the Touquet Accords in an interview with The Associated Press, saying they are in the interests of both Britain and France.
Without them, he said, Britain would be checking everybody crossing the Channel. “It would take hours to get to London.”
Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.