Tensions high as record numbers crowd migrant camp
Calais, France — Tempers are rising among migrants squeezed in record numbers into a shrinking slum camp in France’s port city of Calais, where they spend hours in line waiting for food and showers.
For the increasingly desperate and weary travelers in the camp known as “the jungle,” the path to Britain — where most hope to go — appears blocked.
Two migrants have died in fights within a month, and the future of the sprawling makeshift camp looks increasingly precarious. It was drastically downsized in March, when authorities razed its large southern sector of more than 1,000 shelters and shops, displacing at least 1,000 migrants. This summer, they began closing dozens of camp shops and restaurants, the only available amenities.
Despite that, the camp’s population has soared to its highest-ever level since taking root on the edge of Calais in April 2015. The prefecture, or state authority for the region, said after a one-day count this month that it found 6,901 people living in the camp. Aid group Auberge des Migrants reached its own figure after four days of recent counting: 9,106 people, compared to 7,000 in early July.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd was meeting Tuesday with her French counterpart and they were expected to discuss French-British cooperation in Calais.
The squalid camp built within the sand dunes of northern France draws migrants from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and elsewhere, chased from home by danger or destitution, most driven by dreams of life in Britain, where some have family or friends. After often harrowing treks via Libya to Italy or overland through eastern Europe, paying smugglers along the way, most reach a dead end in Calais, unable to find a way across the English Channel.
More than 300 have accepted money for a voluntary departure since the start of the year, the prefecture says, but most remain stuck in limbo. Many don’t consider applying for asylum an option because they don’t want to stay in France. Numbers indicating how many have been deported were not immediately available.
“They are broken inside because they were here with lots of hopes … and in the jungle they’re not seeing their bright future here,” said Tariq Shinnari, a 26-year-old former civil servant from Afghanistan here since March. He has given up his dream of going to Britain and is applying for asylum in France. With that new goal, and his work as a volunteer for the British aid organization Care4Calais, he avoids the desperation of other migrants in the camp, though the situation is not lost on him.
“They are saying we don’t have war here, but we are like in a kind of prison.”
Riot police line the highways leading to the ferry port or Eurotunnel trains crossing the English Channel, aiming to deter migrants who might try to sneak across. Some have resorted to increasingly dangerous tactics to jump onto trucks, throwing branches and other objects onto the roadway to stop traffic. Of the 11 migrants who have died in Calais this year, seven were hit by a car or truck, according to the prefecture.
In the camp, supplies are growing scarce, according to two aid organizations, and migrants say they can spend up to three hours in line to get a shower of six minutes. They spend hours more in lines for food.
The Kitchen in Calais, one of several volunteer dispensaries, served 800 dinners a day in April and is now dishing up 1,500 meals. It is seeking permission to expand to serve 2,000 meals daily, said Jamal Ismail, a Briton who runs it.
The rising number of needy reflects the durability of the global migrant crisis, as the flow into Europe continues despite efforts to contain it.
In the camp, a sense of despair lingers in the dusty alleys. Now authorities are trying to demolish the 72 restaurants and shops that migrants say make it livable, with places to socialize, charge cell phones and, in some cases, sleep.
“Nobody is functioning at full blast,” said Maya Konforti of the Auberge des Migrants.
Police guarding the camp refuse to allow building materials inside, so instead of plywood shelters, tents are going up in every available space. Up to 2,500 people now live in tents, according to Konforti, some of them in summer tents “not at all appropriate for winter.”
With resources lacking, mounting tensions have created new dangers. On Aug. 23, a Sudanese man in his 30s was killed in a fight with Afghans. The next night, scores of migrants were seen at an intersection of two camp walkways and several Afghans armed themselves with long wooden sticks.
New arrival Marhawi Tesfay, a 17-year-old Eritrean, said he was afraid.
“I think there’s not safety 100 percent,” he said.
Tesfay is among a record number of children alone in the camp. Aid organization France Terre d’Asile said Tuesday the number of children under 18 on their own there has reached a record of 861 — well more than twice the 343 counted in May. The youngest is 10-year-old Afghan.
Calais became a magnet for migrants in the late 1990s, when refugees from the war in Kosovo flocked to northern France. Afghans fleeing war followed. Migrant numbers spiked when a Red Cross shelter in nearby Sangatte took in 68,000 refugees over three years.
The Sangatte center was closed in 2002, and France and Britain drew up an accord that puts British police, customs agents, sniffer dogs and high fences in Calais.
After it became a flashpoint in Europe’s migrant crisis last year, authorities made new efforts to deter or resettle migrants.
In January, the French installed containers in the camp to house 1,500 people, and provided 400 places for women and children. They set up a bus service to take migrants to 148 welcome centers around France, to reconsider their futures. The buses are increasingly filling up — despite warnings from some migrants that the trip is a trap with expectations they apply for asylum, and risk expulsion if rejected.
The message is clear. What remains of the “jungle” will eventually be demolished. Prefect Fabienne Buccio says no more than 2,000 migrants can remain in Calais — the number the official dwellings can hold.
“We can’t do (anything). We are refugees. It’s their country,” said Abdul Wali, who is among community leaders for the camp’s large Afghan population. “Right now everybody hates us…
“Every night I’m scared, from police, from people, from everyone.”