World·In Depth

Migrants at unprecedented numbers in Calais

Tensions are growing in the French port of Calais, home to some 3,000 migrants who've risked everything to find a better life. They say they are facing growing intolerance as they struggle to survive. Local authorities say the migration problem is damaging the city's image.

Some 3,000 migrants live in French port, many hoping to reach the U.K.

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      The old lighthouse in the centre of Calais is the first thing Abu Ahmed sees from his bundle of blankets on the concrete steps of the church just opposite when he wakes up every morning.  It has been for three months.

      Viewed as a beacon of hope by most, the lighthouse has for him become a symbol of his own failure.

      Life for refugees in Calais


      5 years agoVideo
      Margaret Evans reports from an unofficial refugee camp on the north coast of France 2:56

      "[It] is good and all beautiful," he says. "But every day in the same place, it is not good."

      The 40-year-old Syrian has been sleeping rough on the church steps in the French port city with about a dozen other Syrian refugees. Their numbers fluctuate depending on their luck.

      Abu Ahmed speaks with Margaret Evans. He left Syria after ISIS took over his hometown, has been sleeping rough on the steps of a church in Calais for three months. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

      All are trying to smuggle themselves on to a truck bound for Dover on the other side of the English Channel.

      "I think England is the good country," says Ahmed when I ask why he hasn't tried to reach Sweden or Germany, countries that traditionally take more refugees. 

      "I have some little English," he says. "For me, it's difficult to start to learn another language at this age." 

      Ahmed left Syria six months ago, paying smugglers to take him by boat to Greece and then making a long and painful journey overland through Macedonia, Hungary and beyond.

      He says he kept expecting the war to end. But when ISIS took over his hometown of Deir ez-Zor he decided the time had come to try and build a new future for his family. 

      This is where Abu Ahmed sleeps, on the steps of a church in Calais with other Syrian refugees. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

      Three children and a wife are still back in Syria depending on his success, he says, so he can send for them. He still hasn't told his wife he's sleeping on the streets in France.

      The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees says more people are being forced to flee their homes because of conflict or persecution than ever before in recorded times, nearly 60 million last year alone. 

      Syrians make up the largest part of that figure.

      Ahmed is one of more than 4,000 refugees and economic migrants thought to be living rough in and around Calais.  Most live in a squalid camp on the outskirts of town called The Jungle.  

      Tatty tents and plastic lean-tos are scattered amidst a scrub landscape. The French police have razed it before, but that hasn't stemmed the flow of migrants to the port city from which the white cliffs of Dover are visible on a clear day. 

      "But for Calais, it's a huge number...and it keeps on increasing." - Maya Konforti, L'Auberge des Migrants 

      Between them, local aid agencies try to feed as many as they can once a day. Some days, that means only bread and a banana.

      "When 4,000 people arrive in one day in Italy, about a week later we get about five, six or seven per cent of them," says Maya Konforti, who works with L'Auberge des Migrants. 

      "But for Calais, it's a huge number and it's the highest number we've ever had and it keeps on increasing."

      Growing tensions 

      The camp residents say local hostility towards them has been growing, and many report police brutality. 

      "French nationality boys hate black boys," says 16-year-old Xavier from Eritrea. "It's very difficult. There's no freedom."  

      The growing number of people in the camp has also increased tensions within it. It has its own internal organization with refugees from Afghanistan in one area, Sudanese in another, Somalia in another. And so it goes.

      A man walks through a camp known as The Jungle. It's home to some 3,000 people, most of whom want to reach the U.K., where they are convinced they will find a better life. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News)

      One reason Ahmed is choosing to stay on the street in town, he says, is that the number of Syrians is small compared to some of the other nationalities, making them more vulnerable to theft or intimidation. 

      Police vans parked on a freeway overpass above the camp are a constant presence, but not necessarily to keep an eye on problems within the camp. 

      Despite the belief by most migrants that they'll receive a warmer welcome in the United Kingdom, France is under enormous pressure from Britain to stop migrants from crossing the Channel.

      Truck drivers face stiff fines in the U.K. if they arrive in the country with stowaways on board, whether they knew they were there or not. 

      Getting ready to cross the Channel with a load of cork flooring in his truck, Euan Fleming says he's required by his insurance company to carry out a series of checks every time he leaves the vehicle unattended.

      Breaking into trucks

      He says the situation at Calais has become increasingly tense, sometimes with large groups of migrants trying to break their way into trucks destined for the port. 

      "You don't know if there's one person in there or 20 people in there and we're supposed to get in and get them them out," he said in an interview by the side of the road. 

      Dozens of people marched from their camp to the centre of Calais on June 17 demanding more protection. They were halted at one point during their march by local police. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

      "If we're caught with them it's a 2,000-pound sterling fine for every one that we have in and it's ludicrous. It's getting bizarre." 

      In the short time we stop to talk to Fleming, two young men manage to cut through the canvas roof of his tent and hide away. The truck driver found them during his checks. They eventually crawled out and down the ladder, disappearing down the street. 

      Philippe Mignonet, deputy mayor of Calais,  calls British pressure on France to police the port more strenuously "hypocrisy." 

      "We are doing their job in Calais and they just have to come over to face the reality. It's useless to only look at the news and see migrants running after a truck. Where do they want to go, those migrants? England. Why do they want to go to England?" 

      Mignonet says British policies are more generous to migrants than those in other countries, with an easier chance for illegal immigrants to find work on the black market. 

      The city of Calais can't cope...It is not our responsbility.- Philippe Mignonet, Calais deputy mayor 

      He also says the migrants have damaged Calais's reputation and issues surrounding their presence have taken too much of the city's time. 

      "The city of Calais can't cope with that because we don't have the money to do it. We don't have the time to do it. And we don't want to do it. It is not our responsibility." 

      A group of 40 or 50 migrants marched from The Jungle to city hall earlier this week chanting, "We are not animals."  They want help and protection from municipal authorities.

      Mignonet came down to shake the hands of police officers in front of the council while the demonstration was going on. But he made no effort to speak to protesters. 

      A migrant jumps off the rear of a truck as a French policeman stands near after a failed attempt to make a clandestine crossing to England through the Channel tunnel in Calais, France, May 22. Truck drivers have described the port as a "war zone." (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

      Asked why not, he said in an interview that the migrants were being used by political activists and international mafias. 

      The French government has ordered previous incarnations of The Jungle destroyed more than once over the past 15 years but it has always grown up again. 

      Konforti is critical of those who treat the presence of the migrants as though it is some kind of "invasion." 

      "It's an illusion that it's a danger. Migrations have always existed and all of a sudden everybody freaks out." 

      'We are not animals' 

      In The Jungle, there are signs that some here are starting to settle in. In one end of the camp men are putting up a wooden structure they say will be a school where they can try to learn French. 

      Not far away, a man named Alpha sits like an oracle in the midst of what looks to be a veritable castle when compared to the slum conditions of the rest of the camp. He's built an actual hut and decorated it himself. 

      He has a chicken hutch, in which his hens Jeanne and LouLou reside, their names painted on the outside. A tin can sits above a sign reading: "Attenion: Camera de Surveillance." And teacups sit on a ledge beside a round table for visitors.

      Sitting down for a chat with him has the feel of the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland, but Alpha is far from mad. 

      Alpha, who left his home country 10 years ago, says people like to read negative stories about the camps in Calais because it reinforces their stereotypes. (Pascal Leblond/CBC News )

      "I do it to respect myself," he says when I ask why he's taken so much time to decorate the small patch of earth that he is presumably trying very hard to leave behind.

      "Because I don't want people to say, 'Look this man, he want to beg.' I'm not a beggar and I respect myself and that's why I build."

      Alpha doesn't want to talk about where he's come from, beyond saying he left there 10 years ago. But he says his circumstances don't make him any less human.

      "People are fighting because they're hungry. People fighting because nobody care about them. People fighting because not enough water."

      He says outsiders are happy when they hear about trouble in the camp because it confirms their prejudices.

      "But we are not animals. We are intelligent people. We have personalities. We have minds." 

      About the Author

      Margaret Evans

      Europe correspondent

      Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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