Cassandra Vinograd, NBC News, November 6, 2014
One of the first signs something is not right are the clothes–they’re everywhere. Worn and often tattered, they hang to dry on trees, fences, bushes, train tracks and any surface lining the otherwise normal road.
Stepping off that two-lane road into a seemingly impenetrable forest takes you straight out of France and into “The Jungle.” It is here, in the port city of Calais, that hundreds who’ve fled war-torn circles of hell find themselves stuck in another.
Mohammed Fakhridein sat on the edge of his tent, waiting for night to fall so he can try–as he does every night–to conceal himself under a truck that will cross the English Channel and escape the trash-strewn encampment he’s called home for three months.
“Everything in England is comfortable–not like Sudan,” Fakhridein says of the country he fled. “The war destroyed everything for my family.”
After making his way to Libya and undertaking a dangerous ocean crossing, Fakhridein is desperate to keep going.
“What is this,” he said, pointing to the broken eggshells, discarded tins, battered shoes and crude fire before him. He said his small tent–made for one–often sleeps up to four fellow migrants. He often rummages through restaurant garbage bins for food.
“In France, we are suffering from staying in this forest,” he said. “The weather is very cold–no water for shower, no water for toilet, no water for everything. We need to go to England.”
The migrants in Calais are a patchwork of global turmoil: Syrians desperate to start new lives away from the bombs raining down on Damascus, refugees from Sudan’s Darfur, Afghans fleeing their nation’s decade-long conflict, political asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Ethiopia.
On a recent afternoon, about a dozen young men lined a small path leading down to a filthy, tire-strewn canal. They waited patiently for their turn to strip down to underwear and wash themselves with the help of broken plastic jugs then scrub their worn clothes.
This is the closest many come to a shower in Calais–part of a burgeoning crisis aid agencies warn is inhumane and unsustainable. The U.N. refugee agency in September sounded an alarm about the worsening humanitarian situation, noting that a record number of arrivals across the Mediterranean Sea over the past five months has “dramatically” increased the number of migrants taking shelter in the port city.
The mayor of Calais has pleaded for urgent action, saying that the number of migrants in her city has reached 2,500 and the local population also is suffering.
“We need to do something now,” Mayor Natacha Bouchart told a committee of British lawmakers last week. “It is an international human tragedy. It is also a human tragedy for the population of Calais who for 15 years have been suffering for others. We think that the problem is going to get worse anyway so we need to do something to contain it.”
Bouchart also laid some blame on the U.K. for having an “attractive regime” that appeals to desperate migrants.
“These people are prepared to die to come to England,” Bouchart added. “You really need to take your responsibility; if you have conditions that are attractive to migrants you need to think about changing those.”
Like nearly all of the migrants dotting the landscape of Calais, Omar believes he has a better chance finding work in England than in France. For one, there is the language: he and many of the others already speak English. Learning French takes time–which many migrants feel they don’t have.
Most migrants in Calais also believe it will be quicker to get work papers in England. Just ask Karam Hassan Hassan.
“In England, once I go, it will be very easy for me, you know, to get my papers there,” the 26-year-old told NBC News. “They will give me a house, a place to stay . . . This is not possible here in France. I have to stay outside, homeless.”