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August 23, 2015
By Karine G. Barzegar – Special to The Washington Times
CALAIS, France – The famed white cliffs of Dover are a tempting destination for residents of a tent city that is at the center of the refugee crisis on the English Channel.
“Do you think they will let us cross soon?” asked Solomon, a 20-something Eritrean who arrived this month at the ramshackle refugee camp that migrants call the New Jungle.
The likely answer to Solomon’s question is no. British and French authorities recently announced an $11.2 million plan for additional security guards, higher fences, more surveillance cameras and new floodlighting, as well as infrared detection technology to prevent the approximately 3,000 refugees in Calais from attempting to cross to Britain.
The security measures are in addition to a 13-foot-high border fence, hundreds of guards and cameras that officials claim have reduced the number of migrants seeking to enter Britain through the Channel Tunnel.
Countries across the European continent are having to deal with a growing migrant crisis, but the clash seems especially acute here, in part because the crush of immigrants trying to cross illegally into Britain has received heavy coverage in the British press and has become a main political talking point of the summer. But the daily life here shows how people, even in the most precarious of situations, manage to endure.
About 10 people have died trying to make the 30-mile underground crossing since early June, according to officials. Today, authorities stop people attempting to walk the length of the tunnel or stow away in trucks or trains about 150 times every night, according to Eurotunnel. That’s a significant decrease from late July, when the company halted about 2,000 attempts. It’s not clear how many migrants have made it into Britain successfully.
“I’ve heard that it’s hard, that the barbed wires are higher and higher, that there are more and more police,” said Solomon, who wouldn’t disclose his last name out of fear of retribution against his family back home.
While Solomon and others contemplate how to enter Britain, where they hope to find jobs and a safe haven from their economically depressed or war-ravaged countries, the migrants have established a community in the New Jungle, a grim moniker that means for many simply “home.”
Women wash clothes in buckets. Men sit around smoking, their faces tired and tense. Some migrants sleep in tents. Others have cobbled together shacks with wooden loading pallets and plastic.
“I think people are trying to do something to feel better, to feel a little bit like home,” said Zimako, a Nigerian migrant, speaking in impeccable French although the language is not used in his homeland. Like Solomon and everyone else at the camp, he asked that his last name remain withheld.
Last month, Zimako founded a French language school – the Secular School of the Chemin des Dunes – in the New Jungle with the help of humanitarian associations and local teachers. Under a small tent, a few adult students sit behind rickety wooden desks listening to volunteer teacher Virginie Tiberghien pronouncing a few basic phrases such as “Comment allez vous?” (“How are you?”).
The school illustrates how the migrants are making the best of their precarious situation, creating a neighborhood within Calais even as many hope to escape to Britain, Zimako said.
“There are mosques for Muslims, a church, too, shops, Afghan supermarkets, a disco, a few restaurants, bars, a little of everything really, even a hospital,” he said.
Accordingly, exhausted by months or even years of journeying from North Africa and the Middle East, some migrants in the New Jungle have set aside their dreams of England and sought asylum in France.
After leaving Mauritania in 2005, Alpha traveled through Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece before arriving in France. He has spent the past eight months in Calais in a colorful makeshift cabin he calls “the blue house on the hill.” He would be happy to stay now.
“I designed it to respect myself and to respect the country where I am,” he said. “Everything is clean to show people that not everyone is bad.”
In front of the house, a satirical sign tells visitors: “Here we sell the vaccine against racism.”
As he waits for his asylum papers, Alpha wants to build a school to teach drawing and painting next to Zimako’s French school.
Risking life and limb
But the precarious status of the New Jungle is hard to ignore.
Reinforced fences separate the tents from a highway ramp. Along the road overlooking the New Jungle, policemen use binoculars to monitor who comes and goes from the site. British and French officials have raised concerns about smugglers, organized crime and other dangers lurking among the refugees.
Residents line up for hours a day for toilets, showers, clothing, shoes, blankets, medical care and food. Samira, a 26-year-old Eritrean, was walking through the camp in her burgundy hijab carrying a toiletry bag and a pink blanket under her arm. “I just washed,” she said. “It felt so good.”
Daniel, 25, and his wife, Kebron, live in a small hut in the camp. He left Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, five years ago, he said, fearing persecution as a critic of the government.
“Ethiopia looks like a democratic country, but it is not really a democracy,” said Daniel. “If you have ideas against the government, they put you in jail. Maybe, if they want to, they kill you. That’s why I had to flee.”
The couple trekked across the Sahara to Libya, where Daniel was imprisoned briefly before they crossed the Mediterranean in a tiny fishing boat that almost sank before they reached Italy.
Now, they have been trying to go to Britain every night for two months, except Sundays.
They are lucky. Despite their numerous attempts to make it through the tunnel, they are uninjured.
In front of a medical tent in the New Jungle run by the humanitarian group Medecins du Monde, migrants with broken arms and legs, cuts, pneumonia and other ailments from their failed journeys to Britain line up for medical care. Most intend to try again once they are healthy.
“Each Sunday, I go to the church here, and I pray for me and for my wife, for the future,” said Daniel. “Every night, we try to get to the U.K. If I get there, I’d like to become a pastor. But it doesn’t matter. Any job will do.”