PARIS - Authorities in Belgium reportedly detained dozens of migrants trying to cross the border from France on Wednesday, adding to a widening European Union migrant crisis and further threatening an already-shaky passport-free Schengen zone.
That dilemma was highlighted Wednesday by Amnesty International, which denounced Europe's response to the tens of thousands of migrants who continue to pour to its borders as "shameful."
More than 80 mostly Afghan asylum seekers were detained near the North Sea coastal town of La Panne in the Flanders region, Belgium's Le Soir newspaper reported. Most had come from the French port town of Calais, where government efforts to raze a squalid tent camp known as the “Jungle" have sparked outcry on the part of migrant rights activists.
The camp has sheltered thousands of asylum seekers in recent months — the current figure is about 4,000 — who have been trying to cross the English Channel to Britain where they have family or friends, or simply hope for a better welcome.
On Tuesday, Belgian authorities announced they had "temporarily departed from Schengen controls" and re-established border checks, fearing the Calais migrants would simply cross the border into Belgium, hoping for better luck in reaching Britain.
Facing stiff border barriers in Calais, migrants often try heading to the Belgian port town of Zeebrugge, hoping for better luck in reaching Britain by ferry, or by truck via the Chunnel.
"The goal is not to have another Jungle in Belgium, on the Belgian coast," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told French radio Wednesday.
The migrants detained Wednesday were asked whether they wanted to seek asylum in Belgium. Those responding affirmatively were sent to Brussels to make a formal application, Le Soir reported.
Fate of Jungle
In France, the fate of Calais’ Jungle residents is on hold, pending a local court ruling on a plan to evacuate and bulldoze part of the camp this week.
Authorities originally gave Jungle residents until Tuesday evening to leave the southern part of the camp and be resettled in heated containers or other shelters that they say offer better conditions than the muddy shanty town, and that allow the migrants to have their asylum claims treated.
But critics have protested the move, saying the alternative is far from ideal, and offers the migrants no opportunity to seek asylum in Britain.
On Sunday, British celebrities including actor Jude Law and playwright Tom Stoppard visited the Jungle to draw attention to the plight.
In an open letter published in Le Monde newspaper a day later, dozens of leading figures and humanitarian associations called the containers "inhuman."
"One can either be standing up or lying down; furniture is banned, all intimate behavior is impossible," they wrote.
For many Calais-area residents, the migrants are increasingly unwelcome. While some have donated clothes and time to their cause, others have protested for their eviction. Prosecutors questioned three men this week for allegedly attacking the migrants with iron bars.
The asylum seekers have also been a years-long bone of contention between France and Britain. Well before the Jungle, there was Sangatte, a Calais-area camp closed down in 2002. Opponents warned at the time that the asylum seekers would simply move elsewhere — but the problem would remain.
"This didn't just appear,” said Yves Pascouau, migration analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “It's a 15-year-long problem and it's poisoning the French political landscape."
With its fallout now stretching into Belgium, Calais is just the latest chapter of Europe's widening and unresolved migration crisis. During a summit in Brussels last week, EU leaders failed to overcome deep divisions over how to handle the influx that has seen rising walls, tightening border checks and increasingly bitter diplomatic bickering.
"Calais is a humanitarian crisis which France must address quickly, because it's not sustainable to have people living in such a desperate situation," Pascouau said, "but it's only one element of a bigger issue. Europe is not able to find the proper solution to the migrant crisis because European Union member states have not been willing to prepare for it."
EU leaders are now planning to hold a special summit with Turkey on March 7, to address their options in stemming the flow.