The Refugee Drama of Calais Death and Freedom in the Channel Tunnel

Thousands of refugees are living in squalor in Calais, France as they seek to illegally make their way to Britain through the Channel Tunnel. They are looking for what they believe will be better prospects, but 10 people have died trying since June.

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By , , and Petra Truckendanner

Can this be Europe? Abud squints against the sunlight. A tent city sprawls in front of him, the makeshift shelters askew, dark and dirty. Or could it all just be a nightmare?

He stumbles past wooden huts wrapped in gray tarps. Empty plastic bottles litter the ground to his right. To his left, there are beer cans, a torn sweater, flip-flops, an oil barrel and garbage bags. It's a hot day in August. In the air, the smell of burning wood mixes with the stench of feces and rotting food scraps. Abud spots a woman squatting next to a leaky water pipe to do her laundry.

The tents and huts could be in any refugee camp in the world. But 24-year-old Abdurrahman Kurdi, nickname Abud, didn't wind up in Jordan or Sudan, but in Calais, in northern France, in a slum on the edge of the English Channel, the body of water that separates continental Europe from Great Britain.

Abud is a quiet, somewhat melancholy young man from Damascus. Five weeks ago, he fled his country because he didn't want to fight and serve in the army. His flight took him through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. As he arrives in Calais on this particular morning, he has nothing with him other than a small backpack. He's no longer a boy, but not yet a man.

His English is perfect. A cousin of his lives in Derby, near Birmingham, where he earns £7 (€9.88) an hour in a clothing factory. Abud wants to get to the other side of the channel too, along with most of the people in the camp on the outskirts of Calais. Here, people just refer to the camp as the "jungle."

Finding Order in Chaos

Approximately 3,000 men and women live here. There are three dozen toilets, 12 showers, several drinking water points and electricity produced by small diesel generators. The "jungle" is a state of limbo on the way to the United Kingdom. Sudanese live alongside Afghans, Iranians next to Pakistanis, Egyptians next to Somalis. Among them is Merhawi from Eritrea. At 21 years old, he's a young man full of fervor and zeal who dreams of studying medicine in England. There is also Maisa, an angry, desperate Ethiopian.

Like Abud, many residents of the "jungle" have relatives or friends who tell them how enjoyable life is on the other side, how easy it is to find a job in England and how quickly one's asylum application is accepted. Ever since security got tighter at Calais' port, most people inside the camp only see one way to England -- on a freight train through the Eurotunnel.

In the past few weeks, the "jungle" has not only come to symbolize a humanitarian catastrophe in the middle of one of the richest regions in the world. It also serves as a reminder of Europe's inability to find a strategy for dealing with the refugees. On top of that, the camp has started to weigh on British-French relations. France is responsible for defending part of Britain's external frontiers because the Brits want to prevent the refugees from making their way through the tunnel to the island nation on the other side.

Map: The Road to the Eurotunnel

Map: The Road to the Eurotunnel

In Calais, hundreds of police officers and security guards keep watch day and night. At the beginning of August, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and his British counterpart, Theresa May, declared the drama in Calais to be a "top priority." At the same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to allocate an additional €10 million ($11.1 million) to beef up security measures in the area. He promised to deploy more sniffer dogs and to reinforce the fences. It is an attempt to combat the hopes of thousands of people with brute force.

But that doesn't frighten anyone in the "jungle." Abud sits at the entrance of a camping tent where he spent his first night. He says he's ready. His father is a taxi driver in Damascus and his mother is a teacher. They hope he makes it to England. Had he not deserted, by now he'd be a soldier in the middle of Syria's bloody civil war. "You either kill or get killed," he says. The trip to Calais cost him €3,500. He's not about to give up so close to the finish line.

At second glance, the camp almost seems inviting to him. Abud sees the self-made mosques, the dome-shaped library, the Eritreans' church, the school, the restaurants, the stores and bars. When there's no government to ensure order, you have to create your own. That's the law of the "jungle." Even amid the chaos, there are daily rituals as reliable as the tides: washing, praying, drinking tea, charging mobile phones. The "jungle" lives and grows. In the evening from 6-7:30 p.m. there is free food, subsidized by France. It's really the least the French could do.

A City Within a City

When the sun sets behind the chemical factory, they get moving. Some ride rusty bicycles, but most just walk. It's about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to the point where they want to jump on the trains. The route winds through an industrial area, past people's homes, the city hall and through a shopping street. It's a nightly trek to which the residents of Calais have grown accustomed.

Some of the city's 73,000 residents bring bread, milk, sugar, lumber and old furniture to the camp. Others let the migrants use their showers or allow them to charge their phones. So far, there haven't been any problems other than a group of right-wing populists protesting against the refugees' presence.

But some people have complained, even if they prefer to remain anonymous. Calais could be a pretty city by the sea, one city hall official says. "Many people have the feeling that we are in a state of war," he adds. The official alleges that there has been an increase in aggression and that some girls have even been harassed by refugees. Crime, the person says, has risen as a result of the migrant influx.

"I cannot approve of what is going on here," says Calais' mayor, Natacha Bouchart. She is only reachable by telephone while she vacations on the island of Le Réunion, far away in the Indian Ocean. "We are suffering from this situation and we aren't even being economically compensated." She demands the British pay €50 million to the city of Calais for its troubles.

Madame Bouchart sees herself as being on the good guys' side. After all, she was the one responsible for giving the migrants the "jungle" in the first place. She found the space for it on a former landfill. Of course, she's also concerned about protecting her citizens. The police dismantled all of the small camps that were once located around the city. The mayor planned for there to be a center for humanitarian organizations on the edge of the city where the needy could go and get help. Bouchart wanted a place where people could feel at ease. Not a slum. But her plan never made it to fruition.

"The government does not want an official refugee camp," she says. The "jungle" is meant to act as a deterrent. Thus, crime and misery flourish on the city's outskirts. She doesn't believe in further arming the police, just as she doesn't believe in more fences and more barbed wire. "What is this supposed to be? A prison?" Bouchart would prefer to open the tunnel to everyone. Then the Brits would see how difficult it is to take care of 3,000 people. Her citizens have just as much of a right to live undisturbed as anyone else.

Pointing Fingers

In Calais, everyone blames someone else for the current situation. The mayor blames her government, the aid organizations blame the police, the Brits blame the French -- and everyone else blames the British.

But the real losers are those who have nothing to lose.

Merhawi, the young Eritrean, is among those who left the camp at sundown. He wears sneakers, a dark jacket and a wooden cross around his neck. Merhawi is his nickname. His flight to Europe lasted four months and cost him several thousand euros. Now he's run out of money. With a dozen friends, he heads westward. Abud, from Damascus, joins them. No one in their group is older than 25. There's even a pregnant woman with them. They look less like refugees and more like youths on their way to a music festival. They stop in front of the city hall to take photos. A look at their fun-loving faces reveals a sense of resolute hope. Europe can build all the fences it wants -- nothing is going to stop them. "I firmly believe that I will make it," Merhawi says. "God will help me."

At the same time, on the other side of the fence, the men whose job it is to defend the tunnel are getting ready. This, too, belongs to the nightly ritual of Calais. One of these men is named Claude Verri. The 52-year- old is the head of a unit of the riot police CRS. Sometimes he's deployed in the suburbs of Paris, other times in Marseille -- wherever things are particularly inflammatory. He's been stationed at the Eurotunnel since the week before last.

"I've known the situation here for 15 years," he says. "It's never been as bad as it is now." In the past few nights, he watched hundreds of refugees storm the fence from all directions. "They come in big groups." There's no chance of stopping them all. Verri and his colleagues cover an area of 6.5 square kilometers -- it's simply too big to ensure complete control. Verri's uniform doesn't help the fact that he's powerless.

The police presently have 500 men deployed. That force is augmented by 200 security guards, paid for by the company that operates the Eurotunnel. More reinforcements are due to arrive from England soon. Although the units are coordinated by a joint operations center, questions of jurisdiction arise constantly. The area around the Eurotunnel belongs to the French Gendarmerie, the riot police and the border police. but while the Gendarmerie is responsible for the area outside the fence, Verri is stationed inside. There have been instances when the Gendarmerie has observed intruders but was unable to stop them because they were behind the fence.

Last Line of Defense

When Verri and his colleagues begin patrolling in the evening, they're armed with helmets, batons and tear gas. "We used to forego the helmets because they can provoke people," he says. But a few days ago, a colleague was wounded on his head after migrants threw stones at him. Verri was attacked, too.

As a deterrent, the policeman is only allowed to use tear gas. If he arrests any migrants on the train tracks, he has to let them go soon after. Verri simply brings them back to where they tried to climb the fence. The same refugees often attempt to jump on a train three or four times in a single night. There are some 2,200 attempts per night.

Verri feels abandoned by the government. "Before, if somebody had pelted me with a stone, he would have gone to jail." His irritation is also aimed at leftist groups, who he says incite the immigrants against the police.

One of these groups calls itself "Calais Migrant Solidarity." They aren't a formal organization, says one young Brit with a mohawk who doesn't want to give his name. He used to help migrants in Great Britain until he moved to France three years ago. Now he lives in the "jungle." His group publishes stories online of refugees who report being locked up in police cars, sprayed with tear gas, beaten and kicked. Human Rights Watch has documented similar allegations. "These people have no papers. They can't go to the police and complain," the activist says. He thinks the official death toll is too low.

Last year, 16 people died trying to get from Calais to England. This year, 10 have already died since early June. One of them was Houmed Moussa, a 17-year-old Eritrean who drowned in a lake near the train tracks. Achrat Mohamad, 23, from Pakistan, died in the tunnel. Three Eritreans were run over on the highway. An unborn baby died when his mother fell off a truck and suffered a premature birth. Others have broken bones or cut themselves deeply on the fences.

The Eurotunnel is a source of death and freedom. Merhawi knows this. So does Abud. But they also know the stories from people who have made it. On the English side, in Kent, authorities have picked up 400 migrants in the past five weeks. The British chief of police says seven out of 10 migrants made it through the tunnel within four months. Do Merhawi and Abud need to know more?

An Unpleasant Guest

After two hours, their group has arrived at a roundabout in the south of the city near the A16 highway. Police vans patrol the streets. The girls among them want to rest before crossing the most dangerous section of their journey. After 10 minutes, Merhawi says: "Let's go."

He jumps over a guardrail and runs through chest-high undergrowth. As soon as he hears voices or engine noise, he ducks. After 15 minutes, he reaches a tunnel approximately 100 meters long that passes under the tracks. "Be quiet!" he whispers. The tracks are only a few meters away.

Maisa has attempted more than 30 times to jump on a train. The fact that she's pregnant hasn't stopped her from being a veteran of the tunnel. She sits in a parking lot behind a supermarket in the city. Maisa, 30, hails from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where she worked as a women's rights lawyer. Her story is that she had a conflict with the police there and spent time in prison. That's why she fled.

Three people from their group made it the night before. Presumably they're on the other side. Maisa and the others were hiding underneath a car being transported by freight train, but their escape was foiled when a group of Afghans climbed up near them and drew the attention of the police, who attacked with pepper spray. The police have become more aggressive, Maisa says. "Sometimes they beat the men with batons."

Maisa has been on the run for two years. From Ethiopia, she went to Sudan, Libya, Italy and now France. She says that even in Sudan the refugee camps were more humane than here. At first, she lived in a section of the "jungle" reserved for women and children that was run by a charity organization. But space was scarce and she wasn't a pleasant guest. "I wanted them to help me apply for asylum," she says. When nothing happened, she organized a protest. Since then, she has been living in a parking lot. The only advantage is that her new quarters are closer to the tracks.

"I have the feeling that I'm going to die here," she says. Death also came for her friend Zeinab, a woman from Sudan who was run over on the highway near the tunnel. She had been sprayed with tear gas and couldn't see anything. Maisa says the police killed Zeinab.

Exploitation and Escrow

The tunnel may be the most popular, but it's not the only way in. Some of the refugees have tried to climb aboard trucks taking the ferry across the channel to Dover. According to aid organizations, truck stops are firmly under the control of smugglers. A spot in one of the trucks goes for €1,000 or more. Crossings in refrigerated trucks are much more expensive because the police's x-ray machines are apparently unable to see inside. As a rule, money only changes hands if the customer has made it to England. Once inside, he or she calls an escrow holder, who passes along the money, minus a fee, to the smugglers. Whoever can't afford a smuggler has to try his or her luck jumping on trains.

Back on the tracks, Merhawi is only a few hundred meters away from his target. Before him, a fence rises into the evening sky. He tosses his bags to the other side, then climbs over himself. Before disappearing into the darkness, he turns around. "I'll call you from England," he says. Abud runs after him.

Tonight, the two of them will climb over a second fence and a third. Abud will also sprain his left ankle. They will get to within a few meters of the freight trains to England, but in the end, the police will stand in their way.

The next day, Merhawi and Abud are back in the "jungle." Abud says he'll try and find a smuggler. He can afford to pay €1,200. Merhawi wants to rest. He can't afford such help. His only option is to try and jump the fences until he makes it.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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hootcow 08/15/2015
1. Is the EU working this year
After watch the new for most of this year and seeing the uncontrolled asylum seekers through out the EU I must ask why do so many Europeans support the EU? What has the EU done to stop the flow of of illegal refugees to Europe, and why do they always bring the refugees to Europe instead of returning them to there departure location. I heard that there will be a meeting in November to discuss the situation, is that all the EU can do is discuess situations while the EU is over ran with refugees which will cost a hell of a lot more to remove them. Is the EU on vacation or what, face up Europe your paying a lot of money for this EU and only getting another layer bureaucrat do nothings.
nsmith 08/16/2015
2. Problem solved...
Want to keep people out of the Tunnel?-- That's easy. Clear the camps. By simply allowing this unfettered accumulation to continue under the false hope that this is the way to get to Britain, is like waiting for an accident to happen.
spon-facebook-10000061525 08/18/2015
Thank you Mr. Bush and company, for destabilizing Northern Africa and most of the middle East. Now the EU is surrounded by civil wars and failed states. I mean what could possibly go wrong
ageingandrew 08/19/2015
4. The EU has failed us all
We Brits really need to control who comes here to minimise the impact of their arrival. Our education, health and housing systems are on their knees already, an influx of thousands of mostly unskilled labour will not benefit us. The 'jungle' and similar camps should be closed. The EU should treat this influx as an EU problem and encourage these people to move on to places outside of Europe. They do not have to come here and we do not have to accept them.
Suzy61 09/09/2015
'The French Mayor blames the French Government (actually she blames the British more), the NGO's blame the Police, the Brits blame the French - and everyone else blames the Brits'. And this suits the EU perfectly. While we are all busy blaming each other - the EU's lack of policy and foresight is out of the news and they are allowed to grind on blamelessly. The EU imposed Shengen. The EU imposed a Common Asylum Policy. Now, as it falls to utter pieces - they blame the National Governments and (helpfully) the National Governments blame each other. What a shambles this is.
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