PARIS (AP) — They are in the wrong place for the wrong reasons.
Basic rights, and sympathy, are in short supply for thousands of migrants around the northern French city of Calais, even though the travelers — many fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere — live in what may be the European Union’s biggest and most squalid ghetto.
They dream of ending their long journey in Britain by illegally crossing the English Channel, but Britain doesn’t want them and France has been hoping for more than a decade that the migrants would just stop coming.
With the world’s eyes on the more than half-million migrants flooding into Europe this year, France is finally beginning to take notice of the filthy Calais camp and the plight of those forced to bide their time in what they call “the jungle” — a network of makeshift shelters without water or other basic amenities.
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With winter approaching, the government is sending a medical mission to Calais on Wednesday to evaluate the situation because “health protection is a fundamental right for each person on French territory,” said a statement signed by the Interior and Health ministries.
For Doctors of the World, an NGO that maintains a mobile clinic in Calais, the effort is welcome — but overdue.
In Calais, “we are doing urgent work … like in the context of war or a natural catastrophe,” said Jean-Francois Corty, a doctor who heads the group’s French operations.
“For us, this is a health crisis, 4,000 people who have trouble keeping themselves clean, feeding themselves … and suffering from war traumas in their countries, violence in the camp,” Corty said.
The NGO is overwhelmed, treating some 70 patients a day at the Calais camp, mainly for illnesses like respiratory and skin infections linked to their precarious lives, or cuts and fractures from failed bids to board a truck, train or ferry crossing the Channel.
Calais Hospital is far from the camp and “saturated,” Corty said. The only other medical service is a two-hour daily window to see nurses at a state-approved migrant day center, where about 100 women and children stay.
“What is needed today is to put in place doctors, psychologists, nurses, dentists,” Corty said. “We’ve been denouncing this for months. We’re doing the work of the state.”
The French and British governments have focused on securing the Calais port and the Eurotunnel freight and passenger train site to keep migrants from sneaking rides, turning those sites into fortresses with towering fences topped with barbed wire.
The reinforced security has increased risks. Since June 26, 14 migrants have been killed, including a Syrian electrocuted Sept. 17 at the Eurotunnel site. The latest victim identified was a Moroccan who tried to swim to a ferry.
Britain signed an accord with Paris in 2003 designed to keep migrants in France, and the French government has bulldozed smaller camps in the past. But migrants keep coming. Up to 4,000 people languish sometimes for months in the Calais camp or in nearby towns.
The intense desire to reach Britain and a palpable sense of desperation inside the camp feed the risk-taking.
“Some people die here, some people break legs,” a 19-year-old from Darfour, in Sudan, Mustafa Ali, said recently, assessing his situation after a life-threatening journey to reach Calais. “This jungle is not good.”
He said he would forego his British dream and apply for asylum in France if the government could put a roof over his head. But many of those who have been granted refugee status, and should by law be housed, must live outdoors — long the lot of migrants in Calais.
Jacky Veringan of Secours Catholique, who helps asylum seekers process their requests, says the migrant influx has prompted the state to speed up the normally long waiting time to rush Calais candidates through the system.
The process is becoming so fast that some migrants receive their prized refugee status without ever having been housed. With the process complete, “they are like the homeless French,” Veringan said. “There are refugees living in the jungle.”