French Police Raze Camp Used By Illegal Immigrants

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Near the French port city of Calais, a squalid refugee camp known as "the Jungle" has been cleared by police. More than 270 young men — mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq — were detained when the camp was bulldozed Tuesday. For ten years, the camp has been a sore point between Britain and France. Desperate to reach Britain, the immigrants try to hide in trucks and cross the Channel Tunnel.


We hear now, about another group of immigrants trying to cross a frontier. The French government has closed a migrant camp known as the Jungle near the port of Calais on the channel between Britain and France. More than 270 young men, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, were detained when the camp was bulldozed.

Many of these men want to reach Great Britain by stowing away on trucks passing through the channel tunnel. Yesterday's episode has put the spotlight on France's increasingly hard-line policy toward illegal immigrants. NPR's Rob Gifford has the story.

ROB GIFFORD: Britain has long been a center of immigration for those like the Jews of Eastern Europe fleeing persecution to the economic migrants of recent years, looking for a better Anglo Saxon life. Historical connections of empire, family ties, a perception of a fair British justice system perhaps, and the generous British welfare system all have made the United Kingdom a magnet for migrants. But in recent years, the flow has simply become too great for many British people. Though refugee groups expressed concern about yesterday's moves, there did not seem to be too much criticism of Immigration Minister Phil Woolas and his tough message about Tuesday's clearance of the migrant camp in Calais.

Mr. PHIL WOOLAS (Immigration Minister, United Kingdom): These people have no rights to claim asylum in the United Kingdom. Indeed, I would question whether or not they are genuine asylum seekers. If they were fleeing persecution, they have the right to claim asylum in the first country of entry as they leave their own countries.

GIFFORD: But that's the point. The young Afghans and Kurds and Eritreans and Somalis who crowded the jungle near Calais didn't want to seek asylum in Greece or even France or Italy. They wanted to get to Britain. For many, Britain is the new America and the English Channel has become the Rio Grande. But the recent harder line British policy on migrants has lead to British border officials now being stationed at customs on the French side of the Channel and other harsher laws have been introduced regarding asylum applications too. The measures have been very effective says Tony Fuller of the Kent Refugee Action Network.

Mr. TONY FULLER (Director, Kent Refugee Action Network): Certainly, British policy has changed enormously and dramatically over the last nine years, so they were quite prepared to take very, very provocative and very repressive action, one might say, and they've been successful. The numbers have dropped by approximately 80 to 90 percent nationwide.

GIFFORD: And, more specifically, at the Port of Dover, where the channel tunnel emerges. There may be only 10 or 15 people getting through to seek asylum each week. Fuller says a decade ago that number was roughly 100 people every day. However, if a migrant's papers are in order, and they declare they're seeking asylum when they arrive, they are given help by the British system.

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GIFFORD: At a community center in Canterbury, a group of young men, mainly Afghans and Kurds from Northern Iraq is preparing for an English lesson provided by the local government. When you hear the stories of young men like Hatatollah(ph) Nazouri(ph), from Afghanistan, you can see why it's Britain they want to get to.

Mr. HATATOLLAH NAZOURI: When I come in this country I was surprised because very people good people and they treat us like good people. Speak very nice. They respect each other. In this country I have free doctor. I can get medicine and be housed and study. Everything is free. Very good government, you know, they help people.

(Soundbite of crowds talking)

GIFFORD: Refugee groups protest that the asylum seekers are only receiving $50 a week. But critics say that is on top of the free apartment to live in, money for clothing and food and free health care while their application is being evaluated. Twenty-year-old Nageeb(ph) Mezada(ph) came from Afghanistan as a 16-year-old - the usual overland route through Greece and Italy taking three or four months and ending up at the Jungle in Calais.

Mr. NAGEEB MEZADA: (Unintelligible) in Greece, yeah. They won't support you like here - in Italy too, as well. Yeah, they leave you on - live on the street yeah, and sleep on the park for a long, long time. They don't care and then so everyone's coming here and they're saying Britain is the best (unintelligible).

GIFFORD: Nageeb is smart, eager to work, eager to pay tax, eager to contribute, hugely grateful for the hospitality he has received from the British people. But even he says yes, maybe too many people were let into Britain and maybe it is right for the British government to get a little harsher on illegal immigrants.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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