Report on the mission in Zeebrugge on 31 January 2002

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in the framework of the preparation of the report on capacity and reception conditions of asylum seekers in European seaports.

Why Bruges?
The main port having problems with the arrival and transit of clandestine migrants in Belgium is Bruges. In the year 2001, 4 838 illegal immigrants were caught in the port area while they were trying to leave the country, mainly to reach the United Kingdom. The main nationalities are Iran (Kurdish origin), China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Albania and Yugoslavia. Most of them, after being apprehended in Belgium, do not apply for asylum. Some of them have already a pending asylum application in Belgium or even refugee status in Belgium. Their objective is to go to the United Kingdom (according to the explanation given by some police officers, this is because they have an impression that the UK is very rich, they know that they will not need an ID and consider that it will be easier to disappear, they would have access to wider welfare rights).

In the morning of my visit 4 clandestine migrants had been found hiding in a trailer. The police and port staff said that every day at least 4 people are caught in the port area.

The reason why the port of Bruges is particularly targeted is that there are direct ferry lines to Dover and Bruges can be easily reached by train from all over continental Europe. Apparently one route is from Italy via Germany, while another one goes from Eastern Europe via Poland and Germany.

Measures to detect potential clandestine migrants/asylum seekers
What makes it difficult to detect people hiding in the port area of Zeebrugge is that it is an open port, extremely extended, crossed by a big commercial road. It is not possible to monitor constantly access to the port area.

Given the high number of containers that need checking and the limited number of staff only outbound containers are searched, to the exclusion of the inbound ones.

Some people reach the port area just walking along the beach and then hide in containers waiting to be loaded. Others are already in the container before it arrives at the port. 1 out of 4 containers is checked just before loading. The seals of the container are checked in various points, also to verify that have not been cut and then glued. Then a machine to detect CO2 is introduced in 3 different points of the container. The machine is not expensive but its effectiveness is limited since it cannot be used with containers containing vegetables or paper (which also produce CO2 emissions) and with metal containers. The only way to detect people in a metal container whose seal is intact would be to use X –ray scanners. Apart from the fact that this equipment is extremely expensive (10 million euros per machine), it could not be used in the Port of Bruges because a special trailer is needed to scan the container and there is no physical space for it.
The port authorities and shipping companies pointed to the responsibility of lorry drivers and/or loading companies: if someone is caught in a container whose seals are intact this clearly implies that he had entered the container with someone else’s assistance at the stage of loading. Nevertheless, who pays the fine for transporting clandestine migrants is the shipping company. Also the port pays a cost out of this, because when it is possible, commercial traffic would move to other ports where the problem of clandestine migrants is smaller. In a nutshell, the presence of clandestine migrants represents a major distortion of competition.
It goes without saying that metal containers are the most dangerous, because there people inside do not have enough air. The recent incident where 8 Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin, including two children, were found dead in Wexford (Ireland) happened because they were hiding in a metal container and thought that that container would be loaded on a ship bound to Dover. The journey instead lasted much longer. Also, and this confirms the general information about routes that I was given during my mission, in the case of Wexford the group of clandestine asylum seekers had arrived to Bruges by train from Italy via Germany.

The port authority of Bruges has already spent 2.85 million euros to build fences and install other security measures to prevent access or detect clandestine migrants. They complain that the port is taking all the financial burden as a private company, whereas immigration control falls within the competence of the State.

For the port the main issue is how to establish an effective control system which does not interfere with commercial traffic and how to get the State to share the financial burden. The Port Authorities of Ostende and Zeebrugge have issued a joint Declaration asking for the financial support of the State. Informal attempts to involve the European Union have not proved successful since the EU argues that, in compliance with the principle of subsidiarity, the issue falls within the competence of national authorities. Port authorities do not share this opinion since there are organised transnational networks involved in the smuggling of migrants and a co-ordinated effort is necessary to combat them. It is a problem involving all European countries, even if each country is involved in a different way.

Smuggling of migrants
In the first 18 days of 2002, 6 people had been arrested in connection with smuggling of migrants, which in Belgium is a crime punishable ut to 5 years of detention.
In Ostende all the lorry drivers of a Lithuanian company have been arrested in connection with smuggling.

It seems that smugglers and potential smuggled conclude a ‘contract’. 3 attempts of crossing are included in the contract for a fixed amount of money. The money paid depends on the service provided: some buy false passports or ferry ticket.

Smugglers shift ‘their clients’ to other ports every time better security measures are introduced (so-called port shopping). This clearly happened in the case of Calais, where reinforced security measures were introduced with the result that most smuggling activity moved to Belgian ports.
Other times smugglers change technique. For instance, since ports are better and better equipped in terms of security, the smuggling of migrants by small boats (which use small ports) in increasing.

Treatment of clandestine migrants/asylum seekers caught hiding in the port area or in containers
As soon as they suspect (from the fact that the seal is broken or because the CO2 machine indicates a human presence) that someone is hiding in a container, the port staff calls the maritime police. They do so without even opening the container because otherwise they should ‘apprehend’ the clandestine migrant to avoid his escape and this is a task for law enforcement authorities and not employees of a private company. There is a police station in the port area but the staff is limited and, given the size of the port, sometimes busy patrolling or apprehending people in other areas. In any case the waiting period is just a matter of minutes.

Those apprehended by the police are taken to the police station where they are given a form (which is available in different languages) that they should fill in with their details, including nationality. There is no interpreter available. The interpreter is provided only if the person concerned applies for asylum or when the police think that useful information could be obtained with a view to identifying the smugglers. Less than 1% of people who are caught apply for asylum.

The police informs the Ministry of Interior, asking for instructions. The Ministry of Interior generally replies in 3 or 4 hours. In the meantime people wait in the police station.

Those who apply for asylum in Belgium have access to the procedure and to the attached socio-economic rights (accommodation in reception centres, and so on).
Those who do not apply for asylum in Belgium are served with an order to leave the country in 5 days. In the expulsion order it is explicitly mentioned that they cannot go to any other Schengen country. Then they can leave the police station.
This is a very delicate stage: according to what the police authorities said, some people would be in need of protection but do not apply for asylum in Belgium because their aim is to reach the UK and apply for asylum there. Others are not in need of protection but definitely need assistance: a police officer told me about the case of a young woman who was seven-month pregnant and had been caught in a container. Those who do not apply for asylum in Belgium are not entitled to any form of assistance. Accommodation cannot be provided. There are NGOs which could provide accommodation in reception centres but their capacity is very limited. The consequence is that, out of a sense of humanity, the police sometimes offer accommodation to some people who have been served with expulsion orders because they would not know where to go. In these cases accommodation is provided with some mattresses in the changing room of the police station itself, and access to bathroom and showers is ensured. I think that this issue raised by the Police is very important. Their complaint is that they are law enforcement officials but when faced with compassionate cases, in the absence of any authorised form of assistance, they find themselves to act as social workers, contacting NGOs or hospitals in search for accommodation or providing accommodation in their premises. Furthermore, even if going beyond their duties they provide accommodation; this is not adequate and also deprives police staff of the use of their own facilities.
This problem is particularly acute when unaccompanied minors are concerned. Once again, for those who apply for asylum there are no problems: a judge for minors is appointed and accommodation is provided. For the others, the Ministry of Interior is not responsible. The judge for minors is appointed but nobody can ensure that they go to see him.
The other consideration is that those who are served with the expulsion order often try again to leave Belgium hiding in containers. Their destination is always the UK, also because it is the only non-Schengen country reachable from Belgium.

Programme of the missionMeeting with the representatives of the Port authorities of the Bruges, Antwerp, Ostende, Gent; as well as representatives of maritime police officers of Ostende and Bruges and the Secretary General of the European Seaport Organisation (ESPO).

Visit of the Port of Bruges and demonstration of the functioning of security devices used to detect the presence of people in containers or other facilities.

The visit was extremely informative. The authorities were able to give a complete picture for the whole of Belgium and official statistical information was provided. This experience will be useful also to give a better framework for next visits.

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