For thousands of migrants, the French city of Calais is a gateway to Britain.

French police have cracked down on smuggling networks.

But the dangerous crossings continue.

Four years after it became a symbol of Europe’s failures, migrants are still stranded in Calais

There was a surge this year in attempts to cross from France to Britain by raft

There are still desperate migrants stranded in the “Jungle” of Calais.

Four years after French authorities demolished the sprawling migrant camp, a squalid symbol of Europe’s failure to manage the wave of humanity seeking refuge on its shores, the northern port city remains a congregation point for migrants hoping to cross the English Channel. Except now, to prevent the reemergence of a camp numbering in the thousands, French police regularly raid the successor “Jungle” and other sites where migrants sleep, confiscating their belongings.

There’s concern this month that migrants will try to sneak aboard trucks backed up at the port -- the result of stockpiling in Britain ahead of a potentially disruptive Brexit. But many migrants now, instead of trying to stow away on trucks, ferries and trains, are risking the channel crossing on small boats and rafts.

Migration to and across Europe was down this year, as countries shut their borders to control the coronavirus. But channel crossing attempts by raft surged. More than 8,000 people reached British shores that way in 2020, more than four times the number in 2019, according to data analyzed by the PA news agency. And those are the people who made it across. French authorities say they stopped an additional 5,000 people this past year. Some get caught by police on the beach, before ever boarding a boat. Others are intercepted, or capsize and have to be rescued, along the way. In October, a Kudish-Iranian couple drowned along with their three children.

Britain and France responded last month with an agreement to double police on French beaches, increase surveillance technology and further tighten border security.

“We should not lose sight of the fact that illegal migration exists for one fundamental reason: that is because there are criminal gangs — people traffickers — facilitating this trade,” said British Home Secretary Priti Patel.

But humanitarian groups question the approach of the two governments.

“This package of surveillance, drones and radar sounds like the government is preparing for a military enemy,” said Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais. “These are ordinary people — from engineers to farmers and their families. They are not criminals, and they do not want to make this terrifying journey.”

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Across Calais, fences and barbed wires are common, as police constantly patrol the city and its surroundings. Under a new agreement with Britain to try to curb migration, France is doubling the number of officers on the ground.

A fortress city

Before this assignment, I had never been to Calais. I didn’t expect the seashore to be so beautiful, nor did I expect the city to feel so barricaded. Everywhere I went, there was barbed wire — in the harbor, along the highway, even around regular houses.

There was also a surprising number of police vans. They were parked along the beach and next to the “Jungle.” They would drive slowly past me as I worked.

One day, I walked along the ferry port and photographed it across two layers of barbed wire. A private security car promptly arrived. “We’ll call the police if you don’t leave,” said a man. “But that’s a public place,” I replied. “I know it’s a public place,” he said. “But that’s how things work in Calais.”

Living from raid to raid

A. suddenly went quiet, his hand suspended in midair in the cold early morning. “Shhh,” he whispered. He was completely still, carefully listening to any sound, his dark eyes alert, just like prey perceiving the approach of predators. “Police is coming,” he said after a few seconds in a low, stressed voice.

A. had already asked for silence a few times during breakfast, when he heard voices or movement in the trees and brush surrounding us — there’s a reason it’s called the “Jungle.” Is that police? he’d muttered a few times, and all of us would stop talking and drinking the milky coffee that was getting cold in the cans or plastic bottles cut in half that here stand in for mugs and glasses. Like other migrants interviewed for this story, he agreed to speak if he could be identified by his first initial rather than his full name, for fear of being apprehended.

But this time it wasn’t a false alarm. Police were approaching, as they do at some point almost every day. They chase the migrants they can see and search the wasteland for others.

A migrant warms his hands in a camp outside Calais.

When they hear members of the gendarmerie, the migrants pick their bags and flee.

They are often forced to leave behind tents, food and some of their belongings.

A. and his companions — all migrants from sub-Saharan Africa — quickly grabbed their backpacks and a few belongings. They know that after a raid, any tent, sleeping bag or jacket the police find is thrown away. At least 319 tents were confiscated in October alone, according to Human Rights Observers, a nonprofit organization in Calais.

In less than a minute, the migrants had left the makeshift camp, vanishing into the brush, heading toward a nearby highway. The police were getting closer. “There’s another one over there — get him!” Then louder. “HEY, YOU! COME HERE!” Followed by noises of running.

Half an hour later, I was standing with dozens of migrants outside the camp, now guarded by heavily armed French police. A young Syrian was trying to talk his way inside to grab his jacket. An officer stared at the shivering man and said: “Negative.” “What’s ‘negative’?” asked the Syrian in Arabic. As I was photographing the scene, the police officer took out his smartphone and began filming me. Local journalists and humanitarian workers say efforts at intimidation are frequent in Calais.

The gendarmerie round up a group of migrants.

Most of the migrants won't be arrested.

But they won't be allowed to return to the camp to pick up clothes and belongings left behind.

In the background, a bulldozer had started to deforest the “Jungle.” A few days later, not a single tree would be standing there anymore.

“This is just like Tom and Jerry,” a young Afghan said with a bitter laugh. “They chase us every day.”

A few steps away, a Ghanaian was visibly frozen. “I can’t do this game anymore,” he kept repeating, his arms wrapped around himself.

It started to rain. People were wet, cold and exhausted. Some suspect that’s how France, and Europe, want them to be: uncomfortable enough they’ll consider going back to their countries.

Just after another police raid, migrants wait in line for new sleeping bags and clothes.

At the same time, members of a cleaning crew clear the camp.

And less than a week later, the land has been cleared, trees included, to prevent the establishment of a new camp.

‘We’re not in a world of Care Bears’

When I met with Michel Tournaire, the deputy prefect of Calais, the 60-year-old was wearing a dark suit and sitting at a large wooden desk, in front of an official portrait of President Emmanuel Macron.

I asked Tournaire about the current migrant situation, and he noted the exponentially growing number of sea crossings. He talked about local economic hardship and the “bad image” migrants gave the city. “It used to be known as ‘the largest slum in ِEurope,’” he recalled.

But when I asked about the living conditions of migrants in his city, his tone went dry. “What do you mean? This isn’t the real story here,” he said.

I also asked him about police relations with migrants and about the accusations some migrants have levied against officers, including in dismantling their tents. He said the police were primarily concerned with people-smugglers, who posed the greatest danger to migrants. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a world of Care Bears,” he said. “You have mafias. Criminal networks. This is the real topic.”

Michel Tournaire, deputy prefect of Calais.
Michel Tournaire, deputy prefect of Calais.

Across the water

H. called me shortly after lunch: “We’re hanging out on the beach. Why don’t you come?” So I joined them on the flat, seemingly endless seashore between Calais and Sangatte. H. and three other Syrian migrants stood at the water’s edge, sometimes stepping back to keep their worn-out shoes away from the waves. It almost seemed like a normal day at the beach, a group of guys looking at the sea, enjoying the sunny weather. H. was humming a song about Syria.

Then his face changed, his smile replaced by an expression of bitter fatigue that’s so common here. “If I don’t make it to Britain this week, I’ll go back to Syria,” he said. “Here, it’s like a nightmare, and you can’t wake up.” He was no longer contemplating the colors of the sea but studying an enemy that he’d have to defeat — or that would defeat him.

The coast of Britain was less than 20 miles from us. It’s right there, and it’s terribly far. On a clear day, you can see it. But, as much as we tried, all we could see that day were waves and small vessels on the horizon. When they enter the harbor, those vessels reveal what they truly are: car ferries, behemoths of steel, gigantic compared with the boats migrants use to try to cross the English Channel. H. and his friends kept silent as one passed by. On the hull, “Spirit of Britain” was written in black letters.

H., a Syrian migrant, tries to see the English coast from a beach in Calais.

H. looks at the sea with a mix of fear, hope and weariness.

Each time a ferry makes the crossing between France and Britain, H. and his friends wish they could be on board.

A place of refuge

At Maison Sésame, the fire in the living room contrasts with the cold rain outside.

Sylvie Desjonquères Heem, who opened the house in 2019, has white hair, a big smile and lots of energy. She grew up here, in this small village near Dunkirk. “When my parents were no longer home and it was time to sell the house, it just seemed impossible, with all those people desperately in need for a place to stay,” she said.

The place can host up to 15 people. When I came, families from Chechnya, Syria and Iraq where living together along with three volunteers. Three kids sat on the carpet in front of the fireplace, playing a board game called “Jungle Speed” — and I couldn’t help finding the name ironic.

Léa, a volunteer who runs the house, warned me that what I experienced was a “happy” day. There are more difficult ones: when a pregnant mother loses a baby, for example. Or when a family departs for Britain, only to get caught by the police, coming back to Maison Sésame feeling dejected. “This journey is incredibly hard,” said Léa. “Here, we give them a chance to pause, to breathe on the way. To rest, to sleep under a roof, feel safe for a little while. And then, when they’re ready, they’ll leave.”

Sylvie Desjonquères Heem started Maison Sésame to help migrants and their children.

It hosts up to 15 migrants at a time, including, in October, this Syrian woman and her husband and two children.

The house offers a respite for families who have been forced to live in squalid conditions in camps for weeks at a time.

Bound for Britain

Why would migrants and asylum seekers who have already traveled so far, already risked such danger, board flimsy inflatable rafts, even in the worst weather, and try to cross the English Channel?

Some are seeking to reunite with family. Others see greater opportunities in an English-speaking country.

They certainly don’t get a warm reception in France.

During my two weeks in Calais, several migrants I came to know attempted channel crossings. It was always the same scenario. They would let me know at night: “I got a call from the smuggler, I’m leaving tonight.” Or I would find out the next morning, from the ones who stayed behind. And then, there was silence. Their phone numbers didn’t work anymore.

M., a Syrian, was one of them. I met him on a Thursday morning, and he left to cross the channel that night. I didn’t hear from him for 10 days.

S. got caught by police trying to board a boat on a cold night. He called me the next morning, saying he was soaking wet and discouraged. “I just want to sleep,” he added. I pictured him lying down in drenched clothes, with rain falling on this tent. At least he still had a tent.

Early one morning, I went to La Pointe aux Oies, a frequent departure spot. At dawn, the bay was stunningly beautiful. Once more, I tried to distinguish the British coast on the horizon and saw nothing but the sky and the sea blending together. But on the shore close to the dunes were two jerrycans and what appeared to be a piece of a door. Had they been used by migrants boarding a boat? Were the jerrycans filled with motor fuel? Or had it been something completely different?

Many migrants embark on flimsy boats from this spot on the Pointe-aux-Oies beach near Wimereux and Calais.
Many migrants embark on flimsy boats from this spot on the Pointe-aux-Oies beach near Wimereux and Calais.

I never found out. But that evening, I received a message from an unknown British number. “It’s M., from Syria,” said the message. “I’m in London.”

A few of them make it to England, like M., a Syrian, who texted from London.
A few of them make it to England, like M., a Syrian, who texted from London.

About this story

Photography by Emilienne Malfatto for The Washington Post. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Story editing by Marisa Bellack. Design and development by Yutao Chen.