CALAIS, France – Hijrat Hotak’s parents sold the family home in Afghanistan, paying a smuggler $15,000 (C10,200.61) to help buy a bright future in Britain for their 15-year-old son.
Instead, after a long, perilous journey, he lives in “The Jungle,” a squalid encampment in Calais where Hotak and hundreds of other hungry migrants nourish dreams of sneaking across the English Channel.
And even that will not last.
Hotak’s humble shelter here will be gone within days, when the camp will be razed by French authorities who see it as a public-health nightmare, a haven for human traffickers and a point of contention with the British, who want the border to their country better sealed.
But critics say the effort to stop it through destruction is futile. They point to the dismantling in 2002 of a Red Cross-run camp in nearby Sangatte, which had been used by illegal migrants as a springboard for sneaking across the Channel in freight trains and trucks. The migrants kept coming back even after the camp was shut down.
Britain is viewed as an easier place than France to make a life, even clandestinely, a view perpetuated by traffickers and family members or friends already there. Calais became a magnet for migrants a decade ago when refugees from the war in Kosovo flocked here; today, it is a magnet for Afghans. That Afghan migrants sometimes speak at least broken English makes Britain all the more attractive.
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson announced plans earlier this year to dismantle the camp. Last Wednesday, he said it would be razed by the end of the following week.
“This is a lawless zone and a logistical base for smugglers,” Besson said on French TV. “We say that no one will be getting across the Channel from Calais.”
Some migrants refuse to believe their risky, and costly, journeys to France were for naught. They hope that Britain or France will have a change of heart and take them in, or that the destruction will simply be called off.
“We are afraid, we are scared. But this is better than other places,” said another Afghan, Mohammad Bashir, 24, who claimed he had been held last year by the Taliban but escaped.
Scores of makeshift tents built from sticks and sheets of plastic sprout from the sand and brush in the camp. Piles of garbage litter the scrubland.
The illegal migrants, mainly Afghan men and boys and some as young as 14, bake flat bread over a fire in a tin drum. The only amenities are a spigot of water at the entrance, a homemade toilet hidden behind plastic and, in a scrupulously cleared area, a mosque made of blue tarp and ringed with pots of flowers.
Smaller camps scattered about the region shelter Iraqi Kurds or illegal migrants from other trouble spots.
France’s immigration minister has promised to offer options to migrants. If they leave voluntarily, they can get a stipend. If they meet the profile, they can demand asylum in France. Otherwise, they are to be expelled.
The migrants try to elude the elaborate border security network, complete with heat sensors and infrared cameras, at the port and the Channel tunnel that carries the Eurostar trains and other undersea traffic. Nearly a decade ago, many thousands made it across by hopping a ride to Britain. Today only a few make it, but enough to sustain hope.
French authorities have not said when they will move in, but a half-dozen border police exiting the camp Saturday said they had been counting heads.
Some 800 migrants were in the main camp as of June, officials say. However, the number has since dwindled to about 300, leading to speculation that border police have been turning a blind eye to illegal crossings to make it easier to clear out the jungle.
“Even if the jungle is shut down tomorrow, migrants will continue to arrive,” said Jacky Verhaegen of aid group Secours Catholique. “Migrants are already en route, in Greece, in Italy, in Turkey. I don’t think they’ll stop in their tracks. Their goal is Britain.”
Philippe Blet, president of the Calais region, said, “We are in a surrealistic and incomprehensible situation.”
He criticized a 2004 accord signed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, which authorized deployment of British immigration officers in Calais and Dunkirk.
“Today, the British border is effectively in Calais,” Blet said.
In the encampment, tales abound of journeys by foot, in trucks and boats to reach Calais and of efforts to slip inside or under trucks crossing the Channel only to be tripped up by high-tech equipment or sniffed out by a dog.
But hope remains despite the announced crackdown.
“My family said you go to England and make your future by hard studying,” said Hotak, who comes from Laghman province, where Taliban and U.S. forces have clashed. “My family is old. They said our life is finished … You make our future.”
Though the adolescent showed visitors his shelter, he refused to be photographed because “if my mother sees this is my home, she will cry.”
For Blet, such reactions are normal. Young migrants often set off for the West with the family’s blessing and “it’s an honour,” he said. “He will save the family. He has a mandate.”
But in Calais, “They are all 40 kilometres (24.86 miles) from happiness. That’s the real drama.”