Unlike most of Europe's illegal immigrants, the men in the makeshift camp known as "the Jungle" near the French port of Calais have hardly kept out of sight of the locals. Surviving under leaky plastic sheeting amid discarded food and dirty clothing, the men most of whom fled desperate violence and poverty have spent months, sometimes even years, as the most visible challenges to, and victims of, Europe's tangled immigration laws.
The Jungle lived up to its name on Tuesday as hundreds of French riot police stormed the camp and arrested 278 people almost all Afghan, and nearly half of them children. The French government says the raid was a much-needed crackdown on human traffickers. But even as police were leading immigrants out of the camp, refugee organizations warned that the action would do little to deter desperate people from making the hazardous journey across Europe, and instead blamed French officials for failing to deal with them. "The French government has effectively washed its hands of the problem and deliberately held back from bringing these people into the French asylum system in the hope that they will make it to Britain," says Dan Hodges, director of Refugee Action, a London-based charity. "This is a grotesque game of human pass-the-parcel."
The sight of Afghan men camped in squalid settlements around Calais is hardly new. Over the past decade and even before the 2001 Afghanistan war began thousands of Afghans have traveled illegally on epic journeys that last weeks and cross several borders. They all have one goal in mind: to sneak aboard container trucks on ferry boats bound for Britain, where they see their best prospects. With no national identity cards in Britain, illegal immigrants for years have found it easier to escape notice there than in France, where police frequently check immigrants' documents in the streets.
But crossing to Britain has become all but impossible over the years, as British immigration officials have increasingly tightened security, using sniffer dogs and carbon-dioxide detectors in the ports. As a result, thousands of immigrants have found themselves stranded along the French coast, living with little sanitation or clean water.
That still beats what many of them escaped. "If I go back to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill me," said Nasser Khan, 25, who fled last year after his parents and two brothers were killed in a raid on their family home. Stuck in France for nearly eight months, Khan describes feeling increasingly jittery and disoriented. "I have headaches. My family is gone. I cannot sleep at night," he said on Monday, standing in a clearing in the camp. "I close my eyes and see my family."
Sadder still is Najib Akhel Jabar, a rail-thin 12-year-old from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, who said his father sold a piece of land to pay smugglers to take him and his cousin, also 12, to Europe, after Taliban fighters had repeatedly tried to press the boys into fighting with them. French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said on Tuesday that the 132 children arrested would be housed in special immigration youth centers until officials determined whether they qualified for asylum. In the camp on Monday Jabar described how he and his cousin hid in container trucks for six weeks across Turkey, Greece, Italy and France, before arriving in Calais in early August. "I am very afraid that the French police will send me back," he said, adding, "I am less afraid of the French police than the Taliban." Dressed in a light raincoat, Jabar was among those who were arrested on Tuesday morning.
The dilemma facing France, and Europe more generally, is a difficult one not least because about 1,800 other illegal immigrants are still hiding under bridges, in abandoned buildings or in the woods elsewhere on the French coast. Under European law, refugees are required to settle in the first E.U. country in which they land. For the thousands fleeing Afghanistan and Iraq, that usually means Greece, where the government grants asylum to only about 1% of refugees. "There are huge, huge differences between countries in the chance of being recognized as a refugee," says Wilbert van Hövell, regional representative in Brussels for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has urged European governments to be flexible when implementing asylum laws.
Last December the European Commission proposed changing the law to allow each country to absorb refugees no matter which European country they arrived at. But that proposal came when most European countries were seeing big job losses from the recession, which has made immigration a hot political issue.
Before the police cleared the Calais camp on Tuesday, Immigration Minister Besson had failed to persuade Britain to take the men as refugees. That is a contrast to 2002, when Britain agreed to take 1,200 of the 1,500 immigrants living in a Red Cross center in Sangatte, a suburb of Calais. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was Interior Minister at the time, shut the center, saying it would stop immigrants from converging in Calais.
Sarkozy's plan has largely failed, and the immigrant flow continues. Refugee organizations and locals, who for years have witnessed the flow of immigrants, see little hope of success from Tuesday's crackdown. "They can destroy the Jungle, but in a month's time, it will be rebuilt," says Annick Decrinier, a retired teacher in Calais who has volunteered at a lunch program for illegal immigrants since 2001. "I am certain that the way we are dealing with this is not a solution."
As rumors of the crackdown spread throughout Calais on Monday, Mohammadullah Safi, an Afghan interpreter for the UNHCR, explained to immigrants how to apply for asylum in France. Safi himself a refugee who failed to cross into Britain in 2002 believes that thousands more Afghans will still try to make it to Britain, while thousands more will dodge police as they travel across Europe, hoping to make new lives there. No riot police can stop that, he says. "Change things in Afghanistan, and things will change here," Safi says. Until then, Europe's politicians will continue their bitter arguments over illegal immigrants.