Twenty slumping tents sit in an industrial park within sight of the port. Around them are three weeks’ worth of paper scraps and plastic bags, the remains of donations delivered by volunteer groups and locals. The camp is home to some 60 Syrians who have fled their country’s conflict.
“Three or four people sleep there,” says Thabet, 46, pulling back a tent flap to show a jumble of tightly packed sleeping bags. Thabet gets sick if he sleeps inside, though, so he pulls a mattress onto the grass. “It’s cold but I’m used to it. I wake up and make a fire.”
Like the others here, Thabet dreams of entering the nearby port and crossing the 33-kilometre swath of English Channel that separates France and Britain.
“I want to go to a new place and start a new life for my children,” he says. “They are young and they need to start their life the correct way.”
Thabet fled Damascus four months ago and left his family in Cairo, continuing alone to Europe. Another man, who introduces himself as Joe, 24, also made the journey. They describe a seven-day voyage in an open raft across the Mediterranean, where they had drinking water but no food and were guided by a smuggler using a GPS system.
“There were big waves,” Joe recounts with a weary grin. “Women and children were screaming. I thought we were going to die.”
But by the time the world was learning of the ill-fated rafts that capsized off the coasts of Lampedusa and Malta, Thabet and Joe had made their way from the shores of Sicily here to Calais, where they joined the other Syrians in blocking part of the port. Their two-day standoff became particularly intense when two of the Syrians threatened to jump to their deaths if a squad of French CRS riot police did not keep their distance.
The French government responded to the protest with an offer to open asylum requests for the Syrians. A delegation of British frontier police also arrived and announced they would offer passage to any of the Syrians who could prove they had relatives living legally in Britain. That was disappointing news for the majority of them, since few meet the criteria.
“We don’t have papers, so we can’t go there legally,” Joe says. But he and the others remain in Calais because the small port city offers many possibilities for crossing the Channel.
“We will try other ways, illegally,” he says. “By lorries, by the boat, by the train, we’ll see what we can do.”
With about 1,000 lorries crossing to Britain every day via ferries or the nearby Channel Tunnel, which also sees the passage of dozens of high-speed Eurostar trains, France’s historic gateway to Britain offers many opportunities for “getting on a truck”, as the migrants describe unauthorised passage.
In the early 1990s the city became a favourite destination for people fleeing violence, dictatorship and poverty. The French authorities have responded harshly at times, dismantling a Red Cross refugee camp in nearby Sangatte in 2002 and evicting a shanty town in 2009. Still people continue to arrive after fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere.
“At the moment there are Syrians coming and also Eritreans,” says Henni Miller of Calais Migrant Solidarity, an activist group that has opened squats for the refugees since 2009. “When the political situation in the world changes, it also changes the people here in Calais.”
Whatever their reasons for leaving their home countries, few consider the small port city a destination.
“If you apply for asylum here, you live in the street,” says Binyem, an Eritrean man in his 20s, standing outside one of the squats. “If I go to England, immediately they’ll give me a home, solve my situation, give me an interview and give me documents, and then my life will be changed.”
The situation frustrates city officials, who find themselves caught between tightened British border controls, a flourishing smuggling trade and migrants who, for the vast majority, have little desire to stay in France.
“It’s a complicated situation,” summarises Philippe Mignonet, the city’s deputy mayor and also France’s only official at the municipal level with an immigration portfolio.
He describes Calais as being in the inverse situation to Lampedusa, the Italian island that acts as an entry point to Europe from north Africa.
“We are the border of Europe,” Mignonet says. “I would say the exit gate of Europe, because the English border is in Calais.”
Britain has withdrawn from the Schengen Treaty, which guarantees freedom of movement within Europe, and tends to shrug off any obligation to the migrants who mass at is borders.
“Legal and illegal migration in France is the responsibility of the French authorities,” reads a statement sent from the British Home Office. “We work very closely on matters of border security with the French authorities to maintain the integrity of the controls.”
For Mignonet, this border policy is at odds with an asylum procedure that makes for an attractive destination.
“England says they don’t want any migrants, but once they’re there, they can work and have facilities,” he says. “We probably have to think of changing all the agreements and putting the English border back in England.”
The tough controls do little to break the determination of the migrants, who turn to the city’s elaborate smuggling networks. Mignonet estimates 300-400 people are smuggled across the Channel every month and the migrants themselves say the smugglers are easy to contact.
“They are everywhere here,” Thabet says. “It’s their work.”
Guaranteed passage comes at a high cost, though.
“Sometimes they concentrate in a group of 15 or 20, pooling together 15,000 or 20,000 euros or more and they are sure to pass,” says Philippe Wannesson of La Marmite aux Idées, a volunteer group working with the city’s migrants. “So, we think there is some corruption in the harbour.”
“It’s a bad situation,” says Thabet, who has already spent 10,000 euros to get from Damascus to Calais. “This money we spend on illegal ways to go to England could be used to improve our situation when we arrive.”
Smuggling is the tip of the iceberg for migrants who find their quest for a better life leads them into criminal circumstances. The longer they remain in Calais, the more likely their chances of facing arrests for lacking residency papers or living in squatted buildings and public places. They also risk coming up against racist violence.
“I got beaten by 10 people, French people, racist people. They stole my money,” says Baher Mohammed, a Syrian who’s been here for three months. “Everyone here in Calais says human rights and refugees and blah blah blah and we don’t see anything change. People are suffering here. It’s better for me to go back to Syria than to stay here in France.”
Such conditions have led others to become migrants in the first place. Sara, a 33-year-old Eritrean woman who left Africa in the early 2000s, lived for many years in Greece, but left when the crisis-hit country saw a rise of violent attacks on foreigners.
“There are racists, Chrysi Avgi,” she says, referring to the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. “For me, if anyone insults me because of my colour, I don’t care, but for my son, I don’t want.”
She and her son crossed the Balkans on foot and arrived in Calais by train in late September. Although she has good impressions of France – “no one disturbs us in the street, and everyone is so pretty” – she regrets the long process and lack of support in applying for refugee status. Still, she would stay, if conditions were better.
“I want to live one day as a human being, just a normal life, with an education for my child,” she says. “But I want to be a good person. I don’t want to be a criminal. I want to be here, but only the legal way, not in this situation.”