Tensions mount as record numbers crowd French migrant camp

There are few facilities for the migrants, and supplies are growing scarce, aid organizations said.
Michel Spingler/ Associated Press
There are few facilities for the migrants, and supplies are growing scarce, aid organizations said.

CALAIS, France — Tempers are flaring among migrants squeezed in record numbers into a shrinking slum camp in France’s port city of Calais, where they spend hours in line waiting for food and showers.

For the increasingly desperate and weary travelers in the camp known as ‘‘the jungle,’’ the path to Britain — where most hope to go — appears blocked.

Two migrants have died in fights within a month, and the future of the sprawling makeshift camp looks increasingly precarious. It was drastically downsized in March, when authorities razed its large southern sector of more than 1,000 shelters and shops, displacing at least 1,000 migrants. This summer, officials began closing dozens of camp shops and restaurants, the only available amenities.


Despite that, the camp’s population has soared to its highest-ever level since taking root on the edge of Calais in April 2015. The prefecture, or state authority for the region, said after a one-day count this month that it found 6,901 people living in the camp. Aid group Auberge des Migrants reached its own figure after four days of recent counting: 9,106 people, compared to 7,000 in early July.

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The rising numbers reflect the durability of the global migrant crisis, as the flow into Europe continues despite efforts to contain it.

Britain and France agreed Tuesday at a meeting of the countries’ interior ministers in Paris to further increase security at the Eurotunnel and port. More than 1,000 French police already patrol the high barbed-wire fences lining the facilities and highways.

The squalid camp built within the sand dunes of northern France draws migrants from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, and elsewhere, most driven by dreams of life in Britain, where some have family or friends. After often harrowing treks via Libya to Italy or overland through eastern Europe, paying smugglers along the way, most reach a dead end in Calais, unable to find a way across the English Channel.

More than 300 have accepted money for a voluntary departure since the start of the year, the prefecture says, but most remain stuck in limbo. More than 2,000 migrants have applied for asylum in France since 2015 and more than 2,700 have been ‘‘removed’’ from France, the ministers’ statement said. But most migrants don’t consider applying for asylum an option because they don’t want to stay in France.


‘‘They are broken inside because they were here with lots of hopes . . . and in the jungle they’re not seeing their bright future here,’’ said Tariq Shinnari, a 26-year-old former civil servant from Afghanistan here since March.

He has given up his dream of going to Britain and is applying for asylum in France. With that new goal, and his work as a volunteer for the British aid organization Care4Calais, he avoids the desperation of other migrants in the camp, though the situation is not lost on him.

‘‘They are saying we don’t have war here, but we are like in a kind of prison.’’

With security forces closing in, migrants increasingly resort to dangerous tactics to jump onto trucks heading across the English Channel, throwing branches and other objects onto the roadway to stop traffic. Of the 11 migrants who have died in Calais this year, seven were hit by a car or truck, according to the prefecture.

In the camp, supplies are growing scarce, according to two aid organizations, and migrants say they can spend up to three hours in line to get a shower of six minutes. They spend hours more in lines for food.


The Kitchen in Calais, one of several volunteer dispensaries, served 800 dinners a day in April and is now dishing up 1,500 meals. It is seeking permission to expand to serve 2,000 meals daily, said Jamal Ismail, a Briton who runs it.

In the camp, a sense of despair lingers in the dusty alleys. Now, authorities are trying to demolish the 72 restaurants and shops that migrants say make it livable, with places to socialize, charge cellphones, and, in some cases, sleep.

‘‘Nobody is functioning at full blast,’’ said Maya Konforti of the Auberge des Migrants.

Police guarding the camp refuse to allow building materials inside, so instead of plywood shelters, tents are going up in every available space. Up to 2,500 people now live in tents, according to Konforti.

With resources lacking, mounting tensions have created new dangers. On Aug. 23, a Sudanese man in his 30s was killed in a fight with Afghans.

New arrival Marhawi Tesfay, a 17-year-old Eritrean, said he was afraid.

‘‘I think there’s not safety 100 percent,’’ he said.

Tesfay is among a record number of children alone in the camp. Aid organization France Terre d’Asile said Tuesday that the number of children under 18 on their own there has reached a record of 861 — well more than twice the 343 counted in May. The youngest is a 10-year-old Afghan.