Migrants at the Port de Calais walking to a food distribution centre
Migrants at the Port de Calais walking to a food distribution centre
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At 10am, on a busy Friday morning at the Port de Calais, I watch a line of lorries drive on to the P&O ferry Spirit of France. Four yellow-vested security staff with a sniffer dog weave between the waiting vehicles, which have already passed through two sets of hangars equipped with heartbeat detectors. This is their last check before they roll off at Dover and head up the motorway. In France, the UK border is in Calais.

According to the Home Office, “In the year to April 2013, 11,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally were prevented.” In Calais, according to the deputy mayor Philippe Mignonet, this translates to between 40 and 50 people caught each night and six or seven people getting through, hidden inside any one of the 3,500 trucks that cross to England every day.

“It’s very simple,” says Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president of the Côte d’Opale Chamber of Commerce, which runs both the ports of Calais and Boulogne. “England does not belong to Schengen [the agreement to relax border controls], so the cost of the border is here.” Calais port security has documented 130 different nationalities among those caught crossing illegally. Since the Schengen agreement was first signed in 1985 by just five countries, it has been rolled out over most of Europe and Scandinavia but Britain and Ireland remain outside. Some of the migrants who reach Calais are unaware that they can go no further.

Calais has been the magnet for illegal migrants intent on crossing the Channel since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. “It started with three or four hundred Yugoslavians sleeping in front of the town hall,” Mignonet says. “Within a year, the population had reached 2,000 and included Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds.”

In 2002, the overburdened Red Cross camp at Sangatte was closed by Nicolas Sarkozy. Migrant numbers dwindled. Then a new settlement emerged. Known as – “the jungle”, the makeshift camp held about 800 migrants sleeping under plastic tents. In 2009, it was dismantled, this time by Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais. Bouchart, who belongs to the centre-right UMP party and is a member of the French Senate, has been outspoken in her bid to dissuade migrants from settling in Calais. When she was re-elected in local government elections in March, illegal migration was at the top of her agenda.

At the port, Puissesseau’s challenge is to balance border security with “fluidity”– no jams or hold- ups due to controls, “because that will be a negative point to the image of our port”. Naturally, on busy nights, the migrants and their mafia minders take their chances. “The mafia here is mainly Albanian, whMo are trying to get 100 per cent of the business,” Mignonet explains. “What to do? There’s no solution …Have you seen the tents?”

The largest camp in Calais is currently home to about 200 migrants – Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Eritreans, Ghanaians – a sea of black plastic tents on land owned by the port next to a disused industrial railway and a truck park. Inside one of the tents I drink tea with a decorous group of Afghans, among them Zaib, 24, a tandoori chef, and Sahil, 27, their spokesperson. Sahil left Jalalabad in 2004 after his father died and there had been clashes with the Taliban. His family sold land enabling him to pay €9,300 to Albanian smugglers to reach Italy. The family was counting on him for their survival.

Sahil reached Calais and then London in 2005. Britain’s extensive informal economy is an important “pull” factor in cross-Channel migration. For three years he worked as a chef in East Croydon until, one day, the police came. He was deported back to Afghanistan. A local restaurant manager told me that the police check most of the Asian restaurants in Croydon once or twice a year. Sahil’s story is not uncommon. The Afghans, who mostly wash dishes, are deported but then return. “They change their names,” the manager said.

In Jalalabad, believing Sahil was returning a rich man, the locals kidnapped his younger brother and demanded a ransom. Then his mother tried to arrange a marriage for him – the last straw, he says. He paid the ransom within a year and returned to Calais with Italian papers. Over the past month he has been caught 21 times on trucks in the harbour. “Sometimes the police beat you,” he says, “but we help each other …I hope tonight [I’ll cross].”

Outside, the rain is a reminder of the chilling appraisal of shelter for migrants by the deputy mayor: “We know that if we open somewhere in Calais for 10 people, the day after there will be 30, 40 or 50. That means we’ll have to put staff in those places 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Who pays?” He claims the city has spent €3m since 2008 providing for migrants. The humanitarian problem appears to dissolve in the face of other concerns.

Today, the humanitarian problem is the battleground for opposing political factions. Mathieu Abt, a doctor working in Calais for Médecins du Monde, claims most migrants are suffering from a lack of hygiene and untreated psychological problems. Two were recently crushed to death by lorries; others have broken limbs trying to board. When they try to find shelter they are often badly treated.

I visit a squat in the south of Calais occupied by Migrant Solidarity, an affiliate of the No Borders network, which campaigns against immigration controls. The squat shelters about 30 migrants, most of whom are Eritrean women. I am here to interview Sarah, who is 25 and from the Eritrea, and has been up all night in a truck park trying to cross to England, without luck.

“Nobody could cross,” she says. She had travelled alone, first to Khartoum, then on to Syria, where she had worked as a maid for four years before the war. From there she travelled to Turkey and Greece, always paying something to the growing clan of migrant smugglers who profit from the opportunities misfortune offers.

“I am tired,” she says. “I want any peace. I just need to rest.” She goes off to bed, leaving Chiara, an Italian volunteer for No Borders, to help me navigate the Sudanese “jungle” behind a nearby supermarket; there is a rumour that police have destroyed the migrants’ tents. As we arrive, a huddle of men stands around a white van belonging to the charity Secours Catholique. Some of the charity workers are talking to a group of six or seven Sudanese men whose trousers are covered in mud.

Two come forward as spokesmen: Sala, 38, a smallholder from the Nuba Mountains, and Sadih, 36, from Darfur, who has worked as a charity facilitator. They tell us that police had arrived in the rain at 8am, destroyed nine tents that housed 35 migrants and taken their blankets and clothes.

I check later with Vincent de Coninck, head of Secours Catholique in Calais. He replies by email: “I cannot confirm and after investigation we have discovered that it was not the police. It could and might be an employee of the municipality but I’m not sure of that (no proof). Private things have been destroyed and it happens too often.”

There were no more tents to be had, so those remaining huddle in a shack they had built under a motorway and tell their stories. Sala is married with four children that he hadn’t seen since 2008; Sadih has left behind two children, aged two and four. He claims to be fleeing the regime of President Omar al-Bashir and shows me a gunshot wound on his shoulder. “Every day I have strong hope that tomorrow will be better,” he says.

“We share our hope, talking about tomorrow.” Sala adds: “We are human. You see animals have rights. We are here, people and rats together. But the police say the rats are better than us.” Pointing at his face he says: “We cannot choose this colour. Only God can.” As we talk, some of those who had been made homeless that morning are setting off to the port.

Not everyone is hostile. Séverine Mayer, a local author, runs a Facebook campaign called “Calais, Ouverture et Humanité”. She started it last year, when “there were death threats against migrant people”, who were being portrayed as paedophiles, thieves and rapists. She wanted to bring dignity to those in need, believing that migrants are further stigmatised when they have little access to hygiene or shelter. She claims there are 500 social apartments and a hospital lying empty in Calais.

“There is a dog shelter paid for by the people of Calais but we are unable to shelter our human beings,” says Joel Loevilleux, a human rights campaigner from nearby Coulogne. “One day,” he adds, “if the sea level rises, the people of Calais will have to migrate.”

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