CALAIS, France — Ibrahim’s odyssey has taken him over the hot sands of the Sahara and across the vast Mediterranean in a death-defying, thousands-of-miles-long quest.
Now the 21-year-old from the Sudanese region of Darfur is so close to his destination that he can see it shimmering on the horizon — his dream, his salvation, his England.
It beckons to him, and it taunts him.
If Ibrahim were a day-tripping tourist, a jaunt from this French port city across the English Channel would take 35 minutes in an underwater train. But because he’s an asylum-seeking refugee, getting to Britain means braving coils of barbed wire, clouds of tear gas and an illicit journey wedged between a truck’s axle and the racing pavement.
“It’s very dangerous,” Ibrahim said softly as he prepared for his latest attempt to cross. “Maybe I’m going to die.”
Whatever the risk, it has not deterred Ibrahim or the more than 2,500 other refugees who have made Calais their temporary home. Drawn from the world’s worst crisis zones, they are contributing to a new crisis in the heart of Europe, on the watery border between two of the planet’s most affluent nations.
Only months ago, the refugee population in Calais numbered in the low hundreds. But worsening conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, plus a dysfunctional European system for managing the influx of refugees, have conspired to fill desolate woods on the fringes of town with a new-growth forest of makeshift camps.
There, increasingly desperate refugees shelter under tents made from sticks and black plastic tarps. Huddled together against autumn’s chill, they plot ever-more-perilous routes to Britain, where they are sure that a better life awaits.
The refugees in Calais could apply for asylum in France, but that has never been their aim. Some speak English proficiently, or have friends or relatives who already have settled in Britain. Others see potential for prosperity working in Britain’s black-market economy, or think they have a better shot there at winning asylum.
None have come as far as they have only to hit a dead end in Calais, an industrialized port city that has long thrived on the tourism and trade that come with being continental Europe’s easiest gateway to Britain.
The booming refugee population in Calais is symptomatic
of much broader troubles. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported in June that the number of people forced to
flee their homes worldwide had topped 50 million for the first time since World War II. The refugee population in Calais includes emissaries from just about every major conflict zone — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan — and represents a one-stop tour of a planet’s worth of human misery.
“What we are seeing in Calais is an expression of a global refugee crisis of historic proportions,” said Franck Düvell, a scholar with the University of Oxford’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society. “The neighborhood around Europe is up in flames.”
Many refugees end up marooned in Calais for weeks, months or more, especially as Britain and France tighten security and make it harder than ever to illegally cross by stowing away on a truck, train or ferry for the 21-mile transit. Neither country wants the migrants, and each blames the other for their presence in Calais while seeking to make life as inhospitable as possible.
British politicians were aghast late last month when Calais’s mayor suggested creating a modest shelter to provide refugees with medical services, an occasional meal and a place for women and children to sleep. French residents of Calais, meanwhile, are demanding that the army be called in to clean out the camps and get control of what they say is an increasingly violent refugee population.
“It’s killing this city,” said Philippe Mignonet, Calais’s exasperated deputy mayor for security. “And it’s getting worse all the time.”
Mignonet said that Calais’s problems are beyond the control of city officials and that European leaders need to come together to find a solution. But Europe, which has rigorously managed regulations for everything from pollution control to potato harvests, has proved shockingly unprepared for the human exodus that has come its way.
Approximately 130,000 refugees have washed up on the continent’s shores this year via a treacherous Mediterranean crossing — more than double the number in all of last year, which was itself a record. Thousands have died en route.
Those who survive are, according to the law, supposed to apply for asylum in whichever country they land. But the nations that ring Europe’s southern periphery — principally Italy, Spain and Greece — have been overwhelmed by the rising tide and are ill-equipped to integrate the migrants into their already struggling economies.
With no assistance coming from the more affluent countries of Europe’s north, officials on the southern rim often look the other way as wobbly migrants come ashore after days at sea, find their footing on dry land and set off for the next phase of their journeys.
“There’s no coordinated European system for managing the dispersal of migrants,” Düvell said. “So the migrants take dispersal into their own hands.”
In Ibrahim’s case, that meant sneaking aboard northbound buses and trains in Italy and France as he edged ever closer to the country he has long dreamed of making his home: Britain.
Ibrahim — slim, boyish and quietly determined — was born into a well-to-do family of farmers in the Sudanese region of Darfur. But the family lost its livestock — and its land — during the fighting that plagued his youth.
British aid workers came to the family’s rescue, offering food and shelter, but a trajectory toward poverty had been set. When Ibrahim decided that he needed to leave Sudan last month to get a better job than the one he had driving a motorized rickshaw, there was only one place he considered.
“In Britain I can finish my education,” said Ibrahim — who, like many refugees in Calais, declined to give his last name for fear that it will cause problems in his new life. “Do I want to drive a rickshaw until I die? No, it can’t be. If you want to change yourself, you must have an education.”
Ibrahim hasn’t been dissuaded by the signs, nearly everywhere he looks in Calais, that Britain wants nothing to do with him.
The ever-higher fences. The police armed with sniffer dogs and heartbeat sensors. The canisters of tear gas fired to beat back migrants who try to storm the port.
Britain has responded to the ballooning population at Calais with promises of $19 million in aid — not to help the refugees, but to help the city beef up its security to ensure fewer migrants successfully cross.
Even city officials doubt it will make much difference. “We can put up fences all the way down to South Africa. But these people will still come to Calais,” said Mignonet, the deputy mayor. “They’ve traveled thousands of miles. Now they’re 20 miles away. England is their dream, and they have nothing to lose.”
Calais’s mayor, Natacha Bouchart, told a British parliamentary committee late last month that the real problem is Britain’s overly generous welfare system, which she said has turned the country into an “El Dorado” for migrants. French officials have urged Britain to cut back on benefits and to send a clear message to migrants that Britain is cold, wet and inhospitable.
British politicians, in turn, have chastised Bouchart for suggesting that the city may create a shelter to meet migrants’ basic needs.
As it is, there is almost nothing for the migrants in Calais. A Red Cross-run refugee center closed more than a decade ago under pressure from British politicians who felt it had become a magnet. Local charities, staffed primarily by volunteers, offer a meal or two a day served in an abandoned lot, and migrants line up hours in advance, even in the rain.
“They come here only because they have nothing else,” said 65-year-old volunteer Christian Salomé as he surveyed a line of 600 people that wound through the lot one recent afternoon. “In a poor country, this is normal. But in a country that is considered rich, like France?”
Some in line said they had been in Calais for months — with little hope that they would ever make it out.
“We have so many problems here,” said Alizabi, a 45-year-old Syrian who looked to be at least a decade older.
The former journalist said his house in the Syrian city of Daraa had been destroyed by a bomb, and he sold everything — his wedding ring included — to pay smugglers to take him across the Mediterranean. But as he shuffled toward the front of the meal line, he said he doubts he has the physical strength to stow himself away on a British-bound truck.
Despite the challenges, some do manage to make it across — even if they barely survive.
In September, a group of students from the British city of Birmingham found a 35-year-old Sudanese man slumped beneath their bus in the school parking lot. The man had apparently climbed aboard in Calais and clung to the front axle for 250 miles before collapsing. He was arrested on the spot.
Far from a cautionary tale, the man’s experience was, for Ibrahim, an inspiration to keep trying even as the doubts crowd in. He worries that he has arrived in Calais too late and that the security has grown too intense.
Scoping out a parking lot where trucks are known to idle one recent day, he assessed the odds before spotting a police cruiser.
“No chance,” he said sadly. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get to England.”
But Ibrahim is sure of one thing. If he does make it to that shining island just over the horizon, the people there will embrace him with the same generosity and warmth he felt from the aid workers of his youth.
“We love the British. And they love us,” Ibrahim said as he walked slowly back to the worn blanket, laid on the stone-hard ground, that would be his bed for another night. “They just don’t know it yet.”
Virgile Demoustier in Calais and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.