Stranded In France, Migrants Believe Britain Is The Answer

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn our attention now to Europe where migration from war-torn countries is changing the face of many cities, like Calais, France. Migrants use Calais as a staging ground to reach Britain where they believe asylum conditions are more favorable. But few succeed in crossing the English Channel, and Calais has been turned into a migrant bottleneck. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent us this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Once known for lace making, tourism and being the nearest French port to England, Calais has now become the face of illegal immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR)

BEARDSLEY: Merci.

BEARDSLEY: Philippe Mignonet is Calais' deputy mayor in charge of security. He drives me close to the ground's ferry terminal.

DEPUTY MAYOR PHILIPPE MIGNONET: There are an average of 5,000 trucks crossing a day through the ports of Calais. And that's an average. Sometime it goes to 12,000.

BEARDSLEY: Mignonet stops in an intersection where a couple dozen migrants are sitting beside a fence.

MIGNONET: They just are waiting for trucks coming from the petrol station because the trucks have to stop right there, and they turn right to get to the port. And when the truck stops, they get into the trailer.

BEARDSLEY: While migrants have been coming to Calais for the last 15 years, the problem has worsened over the last six months. An estimated 2,000 people are here, including some women and children from countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan. They live in squalid, makeshift camps and roam the town. An official Red Cross center for the migrants was shut down in 2002. But that didn't stop the flow. Mignonet says the migrants are actually a European and even an international problem, but no one is doing anything.

MIGNONET: The image that is given of the city and what the citizens are feeling now is that Calais is sacrificed and left alone to face that situation, blamed for that situation.

BEARDSLEY: During the day, migrants come to a center run by a Catholic aid group where they can drink tea and play dominoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINOES)

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Un.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #: Deux.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Deux.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #: Trois.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Trois.

BEARDSLEY: Some are taking French lessons. The migrants come all the way to Calais in the hopes of reaching Britain which they think has more favorable asylum policies and offers better economic prospects. Migrants are able live and work illegally easier in Britain than France because there is no system of national ID cards. But European law allows migrants to apply for asylum only in one country, so many migrants remain in limbo for years in France hoping to eventually make it to Britain to seek asylum there. Some eventually give up the struggle and try to settle in France.

KHIALI MAROFKHAL: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Khiali Marofkhal came to Calais 8 years ago from Afghanistan when he was only 14 years old.

MAROFKHAL: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: He says he broke his arm trying to jump into a truck and spent months in the hospital. He has requested asylum in France and has a paper to prove it, but the request expired two years ago. Marofkhal stays on in a kind of limbo, sleeping in a migrant camp known as the jungle. He says life is very hard in Calais, but it's still better than going home.

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BEARDSLEY: Local residents recently marched through Calais demanding to take their city back. Unemployment is 18 percent here, and the migrant population makes it difficult to attract investment.

BRIDITTE LIPP: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Calais resident, Briditte Lipp, says her neighbors are scared. She says most people feel the migrants should be helped, just not here. That's clearly not Lipp's philosophy.

LIPP: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Walking through her house, Lipp shows where she charges the migrant's cell phones. She reckons up to 100 a day. Every corner of her house is filled with extension cords, and there are telephones plugged in everywhere.

LIPP: (French spoken).

BEARDSLEY: All day long, Lipp meets migrants at her front gate taking in and returning cell phones - their only lifeline to families left behind. Lipp says if people knew what the migrants had been through, they'd be more sympathetic.

LIPP: (Through translator) The ones who make it here have already escaped death several times crossing war-torn Sudan, then the Libyan desert, then packed into rickety boats on the Mediterranean Sea. So what can they possibly be afraid of in Calais?

BEARDSLEY: The French and British governments recently pledged more money and greater cooperation in Calais, but Lipp says more security and higher fences won't do anything to keep desperate migrants from coming. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Calais.

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