Human wolfpack hiding in the woods of Calais
Published by The Mail on Sunday (2nd July, 2017)
First there was Sangatte. Then ‘the Jungle’. Now they hide out in the woods. Migrant men, women, boys and girls living like wild animals in a forest on the fringe of Calais, relying on handouts for food, bedding and clothes to keep them alive.
At night this human pack sleeps in stinking squalor. I wandered along paths in the trees littered with T-shirts, toilet paper, underpants, plastic bags and tin cans. A few ripped jackets and blankets festooned branches. Migrants pointed out where they slept on dank mud clearings between bushes.
They play a desperate game of cat-and-mouse as they duck and dive to avoid the squads of police who hunt and harass them.
Shortly before midnight I watched as five police vehicles swooped in while volunteers tried to dole out food and clothes. Two migrants were seized, followed by a tense stand-off between dozens of young men and officers armed with tear gas.
An hour later I was prevented from watching another police operation near the woods. An officer said it was for my own safety.
The migrants told me they were woken repeatedly through the night and routinely pepper-sprayed as they slept, which a lawyer from Human Rights Watch observing events told me was illegal use of force. Bedding and clothes are also doused with the spray, making them unusable.
‘A week ago I was sleeping and the police sprayed me. It was like I could not breathe and it hurt my eyes a lot,’ said 16-year-old Ajmal, from Afghanistan.
Another teenager, with a plaster on his cheek, said officers had chased him that afternoon, spraying and kicking him in the face after he fell. ‘It is suddenly getting much worse with the police,’ he said.
Welcome to Calais, which finds itself again on the front line of Europe’s migration crisis despite the dismantling of the infamous ‘Jungle’ camp and dispersal of 8,000 people around France last autumn.
As the holiday season approaches, hundreds of desperate refugees and determined migrants are hiding in forests around the historic port in the hope of outwitting police, slipping through fences and reaching Britain.
And tensions are rising after French President Emmanuel Macron sent in extra squads of armed riot police. This followed the death of a van driver two weeks ago after migrants put tree trunks on roads to slow traffic and sneak on to lorries.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal:
- There are at least 600 migrants back in the town, mostly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Many of them minors;
- Paramilitary-style police are creating a ‘hostile climate’ by disrupting charity relief efforts, destroying bedding and pepper-spraying even teenage girls in their sleep;
- British haulage firms are telling drivers not to stop within 150 miles of the coast for fear of attack by migrants and trafficking gangs;
- Fears are increasing of fresh trouble as families flood the ferries and pour through the Channel Tunnel during school holidays.
These events in Calais show how, for all the tough talk and promises of politicians, this has become a never-ending war against human beings on the move. It is a war with no winners.
The same problems flare up again and again in a struggle everyone is losing: the migrants, the town, the police, the border forces and the lorry drivers bound for Britain, who find themselves once more in a combat zone.
Lorry drivers like Radut Gigu. The Romanian was on his first run to Britain, taking a truckload of pharmaceutical goods. He stopped late at night to fill up with petrol in Calais. He had already thwarted one migrant trying to hide under his huge vehicle. Several more were watching from the shadows.
The diminutive driver begged me to stay with him until he finished. ‘Please don’t leave me,’ he said. ‘I am scared. This is a dangerous place for people like me.’
Even as we talked, one young man wearing a white turban split off from a group ambling along the road to duck around the back of the Irish-registered lorry. ‘Why do you stop us?’ asked his friends. ‘You are not police and we mean no harm.’
Young men in hoods, swarming around trucks, stop at nothing to get on board. That is the abiding image of the Calais migrant crisis. But many are people like Fanus, a shy 16-year-old girl in a pink hooded top I found perched on a rock beside the forest on Thursday evening. As she told me her pitiful tale, tears starting falling and at one point she had to stop talking.
She had fled Eritrea when faced with indefinite national service, which has been likened to slavery in the savagely repressive and secretive state dubbed ‘Africa’s North Korea’. Her father and uncle had already been called up for more than seven years.
Fanus spent eight months travelling through Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Libya, where, like every one of the others I spoke with, she had seen people die and been kidnapped, beaten and forced to make her family send money to escape.
Gunmen put her in a room with hundreds of prisoners, providing food just once a day and no showers despite the heat. ‘It is especially difficult for women,’ she said. ‘Sometimes the smugglers were high on hashish and would take women to abuse.’
Migrants are made to phone relatives to get ransoms, then threatened and attacked with metal bars while speaking. Fanus’s family scraped together $3,600 (about £2,700) demanded by her captors, only to be ordered to make another similar payment to win freedom.
She was beaten so badly that after the smugglers put her on a boat to Italy, she spent four months in hospital with a shattered leg. Now she aims to join her aunt and cousins in Britain. ‘I will try to get on a lorry. I am scared but I have no choice,’ she said.
Several other Eritreans, all fleeing the draft, told me similar horror stories. One said he had seen 17 young men poisoned in the Sahara after complaining of thirst. Another saw dozens drown when his boat went down in the Mediterranean.
Most are male, many with crosses hanging around their necks – and an estimated 200 are minors. I met migrants as young as 15 from both Eritrea and Afghanistan. I also heard of a 13-year-old rumoured to have reached Britain last week on a lorry.
Earlier, I saw policemen sitting in fields beside the roads fortified with razor wire that ring Calais. Britain spends about £70 million a year towards security and other costs. French interior minister Gerard Collomb sent in two extra police units – about 150 officers – after visiting Calais nine days ago. ‘We need extra security measures in Calais for the port, the railways, around the motorways,’ he said.
Nine Eritreans face manslaughter charges following the incident where they allegedly blocked a motorway with tree trunks, causing a Polish van driver’s death. Mr Collomb said he aims to stop similar incidents on the Calais approach roads.
It is thought there are about 1,000 security personnel in the port area. But relief workers argue the strategy is failing. ‘Britain is paying for France to create a climate of hostility that just drives these people to Britain,’ said Michael McHugh, a child protection nurse from London working with Refugee Youth Service.
A report jointly authored by the group found ‘lack of safety’ in France was the primary reason for not seeking asylum there. The country’s main human rights official, Jacques Toubon, has also hit out over ‘unprecedented violations’ of human rights.
French police deny using excessive force. ‘Our orders are very strict ones – there can be no more migrant camps in Calais,’ said a senior police union official. ‘All of us deny any brutality or violence of any kind.’
Help Refugees, a UK-based organisation, told me it tries to persuade people not to make illegal efforts to enter Britain, even bringing in migrants who have made their home in France to promote life in the country.
But they say they have been frustrated by huge delays to the processing of applications for family reunification. The group has also launched a High Court challenge against the British Government’s decision to severely restrict numbers of unaccompanied child refugees.
One Eritrean laughed as he told me tales of refugees hiding on lorries ending up in Amsterdam rather than London. Others claimed some East European drivers offer to take them over the Channel hidden in their cabs for thousands of pounds.
British lorry drivers are furious that this problem has erupted again, complaining of constant attacks on vehicles. The Road Haulage Association tells members not to stop within 150 miles of Calais and is calling for troops to be deployed in the area.
Yorkshire-based haulage firm Brian Yeardley Continental diverted its fleet of 50 lorries to ports in Belgium and Holland last year after one cab was speared by a scaffolding pole in Calais. This cost the family-owned firm £300,000 in lost profits.
After two more incidents this month, the firm may make similar moves again, despite extra costs of up to £1,200 a trip. ‘I feel desperately sorry for these people but my drivers are being frightened to death,’ said managing director Kevin Hopper.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for the people of Calais, living with waves of migrants, menacing fences and screeching police vehicles. ‘We are so fed up with all this – we just want our town and the tourists back,’ said one hotelier.
Natacha Bouchart, the Right-wing mayor of Calais, said the town was ‘traumatised’ by the renewed influx. She is refusing to follow a court order last week for officials to set up standpipes, showers and toilets and to allow food distribution.
One 17-year-old Eritrean, who had managed to sneak into the back of a tourist car only to be caught by border guards watching on cameras, told me: ‘We live like snakes. But there is no point in crying because no-one will hear our tears.’