French police cleared out 'The Jungle' in SeptemberImage: AP
October 26, 2009
Last month, France razed a shanty town populated by illegal immigrants wanting to cross into the United Kingdom. Critics say the action has left one group of immigrants particularly at risk – children.
The undocumented migrants standing at a water pump in the French port city of Calais take particular care in washing themselves. This is because, later in the day, they will try to dodge the keen noses of border dogs as they hitch a ride under one of the thousands of freight trucks that pass through Calais, bound for the United Kingdom.
Very few make it through, as Afghan migrant Nassir Khan Nassiri knows from personal experience.
"(It's) very dangerous," he said. "Every night I try, seven months no chance."
Nassiri is among the estimated several hundred Afghani refugees in Calais who are determined to make it across to England where there is an established Afghan community.
"Normally people want to go places where they know somebody," said William Splinter of the United Nation's refugee agency, the UNHCR.
Because of this, Calais has become a cul-de-sac on the numerous illegal migrant routes that lead to England from places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. However, improved border controls in Calais in recent years have meant that fewer migrants make it over the Channel, a circumstance that has produced an accumulation of migrants in the port town.
Up until the end of September, hundreds of these illegal immigrants lived in a squalid sprawling shanty town known as 'The Jungle' on the outskirts of Calais. It was the largest migrant camp of its kind in Europe until French authorities decided to bulldoze it.
The French government said the camp was closed in order to demonstrate that Calais was no longer the last stop before England. But critics like Sylvie Copyans of the migrant aid organization Salam, say the government's action hasn't solved the problem.
"They thought that destroying 'The Jungle' would stop the migrants coming but they were not coming for 'The Jungle,' they were coming because right opposite us is England," she said.
In Calais, undocumented immigrants older than 18 are in hiding. They sleep in empty apartments and warehouses and avoid Calais and its heavily-policed streets. Under-age immigrants, however, are immune from deportation and are therefore less wary.
Children sleeping rough
The result is that downtown Calais has become a kind of nightmarish Neverland - with mostly under-age Afghan migrants, some as young as 12, taking refuge under its bridges and in its parks.
Most of these children are brought to France by a relay of people smugglers that stretches back to Afghanistan. The entire journey costs between 7,000 and 10,000 euro ($10,000 to $15,000), released in stages when the child arrives at a given destination and calls home.
Now, however, without the shelter of the camp, children arriving in Calais are more vulnerable than ever, according to Splinter of the UNHCR.
"They are kids and they need special protection and special treatment," he said. "This is something that needs to be addressed urgently regardless of the status of these kids; whether they are migrants (or) refugees, it doesn't really matter."
After seven fruitless months trying to cross from Calais to the UK, Nassir Khan Nassiri has now given up and is now applying for asylum in France after fleeing from Taliban persecution in Afghanistan. In fact, though, he would prefer to be at home than anywhere else.
"I like my country, Afghanistan," he said. "I like my life, I like my family. But life in my country is big problem - if I go back, they kill me."