In hiding and dreaming of Britain: the displaced Calais migrants

'Destroying the Jungle does not solve the problem, it simply moves it somewhere else'
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The Independent Online

As police cars tore through the streets of Calais this afternoon with their sirens wailing, Rustam Mahfouz and his friends were keeping a low profile. Hidden from view below a quiet underpass near the main canal circling the old town, the 23-year-old and his group of nine fellow Iranians spent most of the day smoking cigarettes and quietly biding their time.

At dawn hundreds of riot police had poured into what was once their home, a squalid collection of tarpaulin tents on the outskirts of the city known locally as “the jungle”, carting off the predominantly Afghan inhabitants and bulldozing what remained. But knowing the raid was about to take place the Iranians had chosen to leave the night before and sleep rough. As they quietly watched the police roll by, Mr Mahfouz remained philosophical.

“We will wait and see what happens,” he said, in neat and concise English. “If the police do destroy the jungle we will build another one somewhere else. But I am very scared of sleeping outside. Now we are sleeping under a bridge and it gets very cold. We must try to find a truck to England.”

Like so many young men who ply the well-worn routes from the trouble spots of Asia or Africa to Western Europe, his friend Salim Marri said their ultimate goal would always be Britain. Wrapping a scarf tighter around his neck he repeated a commonly-held but false mantra given to them by the human traffickers that Britain would somehow welcome them with open arms - if only they could get across the Channel. “It's an open-minded country, they don't care if you are black or white, Muslim or Christian,” he said. “Once we get to UK, everything will be good.”

After months of claiming they would finally act to remove Calais' ever present network of migrants and traffickers, today the French government began a major crackdown on those who use the port town as a springboard to smuggle themselves onto lorries heading to Britain.

But while the jungle and its motley collection of unsanitary dwellings nestled in scrubland to the east of the town was bulldozed from the map, there were plenty places for migrants to wait for the current crackdown to blow over.

A short walk away from where the Iranians were hiding, Eritrean national Abram Senai was sunning himself outside a row of four dilapidated houses which the migrants refer to as “Africa House”. Earlier this year it was not unusual to find upwards of 120 asylum seekers and economic migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea crammed into the windowless, filthy rooms inside.

“Now there are maybe 30 to 40 people,” Mr Senai said. “We all want to try and get to Britain but it has become very difficult. I hear the police have cleared the jungle but we have not seen anyone here yet.”

On the walls inside the house the inhabitants had daubed the names “Sele” and “Afi” - two recent occupants, Mr Senai explained, who had recently made it to Britain by smuggling themselves onto lorries.

But while the east Africans remained relatively unmolested by the French authorities today, the same could not be said for the estimated 250 predominantly Afghan migrants living in the jungle.

The crackdown itself began at dawn as 600 riot police surrounded the camp. Most of the Afghans approached the police with fatalistic shrugs and quiet mutterings of “inshallah” (it is God's will). Few resisted the snatch squads and most had already packed the few belongings they had into bags in anticipation of being detained.

Only a small number of French pro-immigration campaigners appeared to put up any resistance and were quickly carted off amid brief but violent scuffles.

For some of the camp's younger occupants (half of whom it later emerged were minors) the site of hundreds of riot police was simply too much to bear. Many burst into tears as the police columns approached, others hid behind their older countrymen.

The last Afghan to be taken away was a terrified boy of 15 who was being comforted by two equally tearful volunteers from Salaam, one of two charities in Calais who feed the migrants each day. As police approached them the boy buried his head into the volunteers' chests and called out for his mother. One of the charity workers, who gave her first name Allie, cried out: “He is not a criminal, he is not an assassin. He has done nothing wrong. Please leave him be.”

Remaining an impassive observer ultimately proved too much for the volunteers, who eventually tried to spirit the boy away from the police and press. But he was later apprehended and placed in a police van along with everyone else.

Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the Prefect of Pas-de-Calais and the police official in charge of the clearance, later said a total of 278 people had been detained from the camp, 132 of whom had declared themselves under the age of 18.

Before police ejected the media, officers could be seen taking the names and fingerprints of those they had rounded up. Tree surgeons and bulldozers later leveled the site, including a carefully tended makeshift mosque.

During a visit to the cap later that afternoon, immigration minister Eric Besson defended his decision to announce the raid last week, allowing the vast majority of the camp's 800 residents to slip away.

“My objective was not to round up the greatest possible number of migrants by surprising them at dawn, but to destroy the continuous flow of trafficked human beings,” he said.

But charity workers condemned the raid and said it would do little to stem the flow of migrants to the area.

Dan Hodges, Communication Director of Refugee Action, said: “It seems that decision of the French authorities to advertise the closure of the camp weeks in advance has lead to many of the refugees dispersing to other areas. Only the most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly and the sick have been left behind.”

Helene Vantorre, from the French charity Salaam, added: “Destroying the jungle does not solve the problem, it simply moves it somewhere else. People will continue to come to the area because it is so close to Britain. They will simply set up another jungle.”

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