Migrants still hiding in Calais a year after slum camp razed

October 26, 2017

Migrants carry their belongings near the old makeshift camp in Calais, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017. Desperate dreamers keep coming to northern France one year after Europe's largest slum camp for migrants in Calais went up in flames following a forced evacuation. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

CALAIS, France (AP) — A Pakistani walked for six months to Europe after the Taliban killed his father and brother. An Ethiopian survived a disaster on the Mediterranean as he fled his homeland. One year after Europe’s largest slum for migrants went up in flames following a forced evacuation, hundreds dreaming of a new life in Britain are still coming to the northern French port city of Calais.

President Emmanuel Macron has his own dream — he wants to clear all migrants from the streets and byways of France by year’s end. But aid groups say that northern France, with its ports and Eurotunnel to cross the English Channel, will always be a magnet for migrants.

Official estimates of the number of migrants currently in Calais range from 600 to 1,000 — far lower numbers than the nearly 8,000 forced to evacuate in October 2016 from the makeshift camp known as “the Jungle.” Many thousands more remain in cities including Paris, which has taken tens of thousands of migrants off the streets over two years.

The clearing of the squalid Calais camp was officially deemed a success, with most of its former residents accepting offers to be bussed to centers around France for a chance to apply for asylum. Today, a ghostly silence hangs over the vast expanse of sand dunes where the camp once stood. Bulldozers have erased the winding alleys as the land is transformed into a sanctuary for birds.

The hundreds of migrants remaining in Calais now find shelter in hidden places, taking refuge amid clumps of trees or in a gravel pit.

That migrants keep coming to Calais and to a forest in Grande-Synthe, outside Dunkirk to the east, shows there is no easy way to deter them from trying to get to Britain.

“We are not crazy to leave our country. If one leaves, there must be solid reasons,” said Umar, a 24-year-old Pakistani who said he has tried to sneak to Britain in trucks four times in 10 days. The recent arrival in Calais had taken a six-month journey from his homeland, marching through deep snow in Iranian mountains and going without food and water in eastern Europe.

Umar — who asked for his last name to be kept secret for safety reasons — said his father and elder brother were shot to death in 2014 because his family refused to offer a son to the Taliban.

He choked back tears as he spoke of the day his mother was informed her husband and son were killed.

“My mother said I saw your brother, your father die,” he said. “I don’t want to see you die.”

Other migrants just never left Calais, or have circled back, despite complaining about police harassment and the lack of facilities there.

Many say they are routinely awakened by officers who take their clothes, sleeping bags and even shoes, and use tear gas on them without just cause.

A report ordered by the Interior Ministry in response to a complaint by Human Rights Watch concluded it was “plausible” that excessive force, notably with tear gas, has been used, the ministry said Monday.

However, it also said there is no evidence “to link the injuries reported by some migrants with law enforcement action.”

Matthieu Tardis, a migration expert at the French Institute of International Relations, said Macron’s vision of a France without migrants languishing in the streets is impossible to achieve without major changes — including more housing.

“The French system has been deficient for decades,” he said.

The French government announced in July it would create places for 7,500 more people in housing over the next two years as part of a new migrant plan.

Tardis is also concerned about the clear dividing line Macron draws between unwanted economic migrants and refugees with an automatic right to asylum.

“We’re no longer in the 1950s when people fled Communist regimes,” he said. Today, people’s lives “are often not black and white,” he added.

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