LONDON (Reuters) - Britain needs to overhaul the generous welfare system and lax identity controls that are making it a magnet for illegal immigrants who see it as “El Dorado”, the mayor of the northern French port town Calais said on Tuesday.
Last week French riot police in Calais used teargas to ward off hundreds of immigrants seeking to jump on trucks bound for Britain, where growing concerns over immigration threaten Prime Minister David Cameron’s prospects of re-election.
Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart, who has called on the British government to provide more funding for security in the port area, said migrants were hearing from others who had made it to Britain that they could easily find work.
“The people have gone through and they will call and say ... this is El Dorado, we are here and we are staying here,” she told a committee of British lawmakers, likening Britain to the mythical lost city of gold.
“There are no identity papers, population flows are not checked in the same way. So there hasn’t been a message from the British government or elsewhere to say this is no El Dorado.”
Immigration is one of British voters’ top issues ahead of a national election next year in which the rise in popularity of the UK Independence Party threatens Prime Minister David Cameron’s chances of returning to power.
Cameron and other party leaders have hardened their stances on the issue in response to UKIP, which backs strong curbs to immigration and Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Britain and France have agreed to improve border controls to prevent migrants fleeing humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East from crossing the English Channel. Bouchart estimated there were around 2,500 migrants in Calais.
Bouchart, who called for border controls to be moved to the British side, said welfare payments for asylum seekers were more generous in Britain than other European countries.
“The real magnets are the benefits,” she said. “You really need to take your responsibility that if you have conditions that are attractive to migrants you need to be thinking about changing those.”
Last month Britain said it would donate 20 km of steel fencing used at the NATO summit in Wales to help French authorities with the problem, but Bouchart dismissed this saying “Fences make everybody laugh”. [ID:nL5N0R80K7]
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Dominic Evans