Sunday 18 February 2018

I never thought I'd see a scene like this in prosperous Europe

Shanty town: A migrant camp in Calais, France Pic: Mark Condren
Shanty town: A migrant camp in Calais, France Pic: Mark Condren
A sea of tarpaulin at the camp in Calais, France. Pic:Mark Condren
A Sudanese migrant in Calais, France. Pic:Mark Condren
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The shanty town on the edge of Calais can only be compared to a refugee camp in a war zone or one of those tented towns that appear after a disaster.

When I came across this camp of 3,000 people huddled in a sea of tarpaulins, tents and makeshift shacks earlier this week, I was immediately reminded of the centre of the Haiti's capital Port au Prince after the 2010 earthquake.

Rubbish is strewn across the ground, tents are pitched on scrubland near a motorway, and over recent months there has been little in the way of running water and sanitation.

I never thought I would see a similar scene in a prosperous country in western Europe.

When I arrived, aid workers from four agencies including the Catholic charity Caritas were on the ground, planning their next move as if they were in a disaster zone in Africa or Nepal.

One of the aid workers told me they were planning to distribute hygiene packs for the camp residents, and build toilets and shower blocks.

The aid worker says: "One of the reasons we decided to act is that conditions here are worse than in some of the refugee camps we work in in places like Afghanistan and South Sudan."

Just on the other side of the road, there is a posh suburb of Calais with neatly-trimmed hedges and manicured lawns. The migrants are kept out of these gardens by a tall green wire mesh fence, running all the way along the road.

One cannot really blame the local residents for not being overjoyed to have 3,000 people suddenly living on their doorstep and wandering the streets. But then, when one learns of the plight of the migrants, one cannot blame them either for escaping poverty and terror in their home countries.

What is extraordinary about the camp, known locally as Jungle 2, is that the Calais enclave has become the hub for migrants from some of the world's worst trouble spots from Sudan to Syria to Afghanistan. Their persecutors, including Islamic State and the Taliban, read like a who's who of terror

When I came across Ismail from Afghanistan, he was nonchalantly shaving in the sunshine next to his ramshackle plastic tent, while peering into a broken piece of mirror.

It was only after a few minutes that I noticed that Ismail was missing his non-shaving hand. He told me through faltering English it had been hacked off by the Taliban.

He had to flee Afghanistan, leaving seven children behind him. Much of his seven-month journey to Calais had been on foot, and he hitched a lift where he could. Next to his neatly thatched house on the edge of the camp, Alpha from Mauritania says he has been travelling for a decade - up through Africa, by boat to Syria, on to Turkey and up through central Europe. He has almost given up hope of getting to Britain.

One of the puzzling aspects of the migrant crisis is that those fleeing poverty will go to such lengths and take such risks to get to Britain, rather than staying in another continental country.

Migrants can apparently find it easier to get work there on the black market through compatriots. There is also the attraction of English as a global language.

Jean, who fled from Syria, tells me: "We can build a better life in England. I love the music and the films."

Among the migrants, one of the most popular pieces of equipment is a supermarket trolley. All over the town of Calais, I saw men wheeling goods including pieces of furniture and old televisions through the town back to their camp.

The vast majority of the migrants are men, but there are also women and children who are given special treatment and are allowed to stay overnight in a disused holiday camp. Here, other migrants are also given food during the day. This problem is only likely to get worse, as thousands flee Africa and Syria, and the authorities seem powerless to solve it.

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