CALAIS, France — A young Ukrainian mother and 41-year old man from South Sudan had similar stories to tell on a recent morning in the northern French city of Calais. Both described fleeing war: Yuliia Vyshnivecka had escaped the Russian invasion with her 4-year-old daughter; Ahmed had left amid a civil war. Both were hungry, exhausted and faced the possibility of never reaching their desired destination: Britain.
“If I don’t get the visa, I’ll go back to Ukraine,” Vyshnivecka said, close to tears.
But by the end of the day, the two refugees’ fortunes had dramatically diverged. Hours after arriving in Calais, Vyshnivecka and her child were welcomed by British immigration officials and put on a bus headed for the United Kingdom.
Years after arriving in Calais, Ahmed remained stuck.
“They’re European,” Ahmed said of the Ukrainian refugees, rolling up the sleeves of his hoodie and pointing at his skin. “Africa — that’s different.”
Few places have come to symbolize Europe’s restrictive immigration policies better than Calais. And now, as the first refugees from Ukraine arrive, few places more vividly illustrate the differential treatment refugees are receiving.
Calais is notorious as a place where police frequently confiscate tents and sleeping bags from refugees and migrants staying in desolate camps on the outskirts of the city. Long stretches of barbed wire are supposed to keep asylum seekers away from the Channel Tunnel that connects Britain to continental Europe. Still, hundreds have died trying to cling onto British-bound trucks, or risking a hazardous water crossing in small dinghies. Those who make it to England have generally received a cold reception by a British government determined to put an end to the influx — if necessary by sending in the Royal Navy.
But whereas prior waves of refugees and migrants faced lengthy and often unsuccessful asylum procedures, European governments have rushed to bend and suspend existing rules to host Ukrainians. While others paid smugglers to cross the Mediterranean, European railway companies have waived ticket fees for Ukrainian refugees.
The French government has launched a website to connect the refugees with volunteers willing to host them. In Calais, though the tent camps still exist, the city is housing refugees from Ukraine in a hostel at the central beach.
For refugee aid groups that have worked in the city for years, the differences have been astonishing. They had pleaded with consecutive British governments to open asylum application centers on the French coast, to prevent people from risking the treacherous crossing by boat or truck. In one of the worst incidents, 27 people drowned when their boat capsized in November.
Refugee advocates had also urged French officials to offer more humane shelter, or to at least stop police officers from taking people’s sleeping bags in the middle of the winter.
“We were always told it was impossible,” said William Feuillard, a coordinator with the L’Auberge des Migrants NGO in Calais. Accepting those demands, French and British officials long agreed, would only encourage illegal migration.
But overnight, what was long impossible no longer is — even if only for one group of refugees.
Aid groups applaud the more welcoming treatment of Ukrainians, yet they want to see others be granted the same degree of humanity. The groups acknowledge differences between the Ukrainian refugees and other groups in Calais. Whereas many of the new arrivals are women and children, the vast majority of refugees and migrants who have been stuck in the outskirt camps are young men from the Middle East and North Africa. Humanitarian groups dispute the common suggestion that those groups have different motives, or that one is more universally deserving.
L’Auberge des Migrants and other local NGOs are considering a lawsuit against the city over what they sees as legally shaky hypocrisy.
In private, Calais officials are candid about the distinctions they’re making.
“You can’t compare [the Ukrainian refugees] to other refugees here. They’re just passing through, waiting to get their visas,” said a man at the hostel who introduced himself as a government worker monitoring refugee arrival procedures.
In an interview with The Washington Post, conservative Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart rejected accusations of a double standard. Refugees who arrived in Calais long ago could request to be sheltered in other towns, but have chosen to risk the journey to England instead, she said.
“We can’t let them kill themselves on train tracks or small boats,” she said. “There are places to accommodate those refugees — while the Ukrainian refugees accept this, the other refugees refuse the state and humanitarian aid.”
There is sparse evidence, however, that migrants and refugees in Calais have rejected government or NGO support. Many are here because their asylum applications were rejected elsewhere in the European Union. Their chances of legally entering Britain — no longer an E.U. member — are close to zero. But staying here legally may not be possible, either. If they apply for asylum in France, they risk being sent back to the country where they first entered the E.U.
That rule, known as the Dublin Regulation, has been suspended for Ukrainian refugees. The E.U. is offering them temporary residency, along with the right to work and access public services, in any E.U. member state for up to three years.
Getting from Calais to Britain is not without its obstacles. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his government “will be as generous as we can possibly be” toward Ukrainians. But his country — which left the E.U. in part to control its own borders — has not followed the bloc in waiving visa requirements for Ukrainians. The latest figures show Britain has granted about 5,500 visas, compared with the nearly 2 million people who have crossed into Poland from Ukraine.
Ukrainians in Calais were deeply confused by the process last week, and many appeared uncertain until the end that they would gain admittance to the United Kingdom. As they waited for visa approval, they sat around in small circles, jumping up every time they received more news about airstrikes and bombardments in Ukraine, and praying for the relatives they had to leave behind.
Only in the face of public backlash has Johnson’s government gradually expanded the universe of who is allowed in. Initially, it was Ukrainians with close family members already in Britain, and they had to go to specific biometric centers to get their fingerprints taken. Britain’s Home Office pointedly said it wouldn’t set up a visa processing center in Calais because of “the risk from criminals actively operating in the area.” The government suggested refugees could take a free Eurostar train from Calais to a visa center in Lille. But, as the Independent newspaper noted, no Eurostar trains stop in Calais.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who pursued hard-line immigration policies in the past, accused Britain of a “lack of humanity” toward refugees “in distress.”
Johnson’s government has since relaxed its rules to allow fully digital visa applications. It is also rolling out a new visa route, called “Homes for Ukraine,” that allows Britons to volunteer to sponsor and house a Ukrainian refugee they identify.
Yaroslava Stojkiw, a 55-year-old nurse practicing in England, said it was an ordeal to get her Ukrainian family to Britain.
She called a government hotline to find a way to resettle her relatives, who were stranded in Poland after fleeing the war. But she couldn’t get through to anyone. “Beep, beep, beep, beep,” she imitated the sound of the hotline.
In the end, Stojkiw, who has long COVID and suffers from breathlessness, flew to Poland to pick up her sister-in-law and nephew herself. They then took a 20-hour bus ride to Calais, only to learn that rules in place at the time required them to go in-person to a British visa center. It took another four days before they were allowed to cross the Channel.
After two years in Calais, 41-year old Ahmed said he was still hopeful he would make it to Britain. But with the visas available for Ukrainians closed to refugees like him, a crossing attempt that could cost his life remained the only realistic option.
It’s not fair, he said, nodding toward a police car on the other side of the road that was watching the tent camp.
Ahmed called it “a miserable life.”
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.