On Sunday evening a British motorist, Abraham Reichman, 35, from Stamford Hill, north London, hit two Eritrean migrants who were trying to block the A16 outside Calais. They had leapt in front of his car, he says, as he slowed down to avoid dozens of migrants on the motorway. Terrified, Mr Reichman drove off at speed to the police station, where he later found out that one of the Eritreans had died. The police released him after several hours but he is under investigation for homicide involontaire.
It is not difficult to meet migrants so determined to get to the land of milk and honey on the British side of the English Channel that they are prepared to risk their lives and put those of drivers in mortal danger. You just have to wander around — as I did the other day — the illegal shanty town on the outskirts of Calais known as ‘The Jungle’.
Dusk was falling. Loud music came from a sound system powered by a generator. Some kind of open air party was going on in a muddy circle surrounded by a large group of Africans. In the middle, 30 or so young men were dancing as if in a trance.
They were Ethiopians, Eritrians and Sudanese mainly. A handful of women — the only women I saw all night, more or less — sat around the circle but did not dance. I got talking to a young Nigerian called Endurance Idahosa, who spoke good English, and he agreed to tell me his story. He got us some beers from somewhere for a euro each and a couple of chairs and we sat down next to a row of portable toilets.
He is one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of migrants from the camp who each day or more usually each night try to stop traffic on the approach roads to the port — often armed with iron bars, knives, even chainsaws — and get inside the lorries which are held up. A favoured tactic is to throw tree trunks and branches on the road and pelt cars with rocks. French police say they dismantle about 30 such barricades a day.
In his last attempt, Endurance says he managed to get inside a lorry which was carrying a cargo of fruit juice. ‘We stop a lorry with branches on the road,’ he said. ‘And we open the back of it and we get in. But the British police catch us with dogs. All of us. British dogs, they smell us.’
That was ten days ago, at a British passport control which, under the 2003 Le Touquet treaty between Britain and France, is in Calais. Endurance was soon freed, as all are, but he then got a bad cough and the aid workers in the camp took him to hospital, where he was given free antibiotics. He wants to get better before he tries again.
I was more afraid of his cough, I confess, than of being robbed or beaten up.
A month ago, he saw another migrant die when he was hit by a lorry. There have been 15 such deaths this year. Don’t the lorry drivers stop the migrants jumping on board?
‘They see us but they cannot do or say anything. We are too many.’
According to some estimates, about 200 migrants a week make it from Calais to Britain undetected. But nobody knows.
Endurance is a Christian, aged 25, from the Niger Delta. He crossed four months ago from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in a large rubber dinghy which was rescued by the Italian navy just outside Libyan territorial waters. There were 250 migrants on the vessel. His place on board had cost him €400 and he had spent a year in Libya, where he had arrived after a journey across the Sahara by car, truck and on foot.
From Lampedusa he was taken by boat and train to Milan where — incredibly — an Italian volunteer group paid for his bus ticket to Paris. There were no passport controls, he says, at the French frontier. He has been in the Jungle two months. He shares a shack with another Nigerian man and has, he says, no money. He eats in the free canteen provided by a government funded charity and has a mobile phone. He has not applied for asylum in France and so does not get the €341 a month government handout for asylum seekers.
In Nigeria, there is not much war apart from that waged by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in the north, so I asked him if he was a real refugee. ‘No, actually, but you see my country is no good for me because I am member of an association,’ he replied.
‘Cultists,’ he went on. ‘They want to kill me. I am with someone who kill someone. My mother said go.’ I got the feeling that he had been a member of a Mafia style gang and had seen or known too much.
There are up to 10,000 migrants in the Jungle living in squalid tents and shacks (with 72 completely illegal shops and restaurants, I read in the local daily La Voix du Nord, some complete with flatscreen TVs, which I saw). The camp’s very existence is a painful symbol of all that is wrong with France, as this great but troubled country gears up for the presidential elections next spring with the Front National’s Marine Le Pen ahead in the polls.
The Jungle’s continued existence destroys one of the myths put about during Britain’s EU referendum: that a vote for Brexit would mean the French cancelling the Le Touquet deal and the camp inevitably moving to the Garden of England. Even if the French did cancel the deal, it is difficult to see what difference it would make unless the British government agreed to take the migrants, or else the French government provided free dinghies and a naval escort to land them in Britain by force.
But anyway, President François Hollande on his first visit to Calais a couple of weeks ago vowed to dismantle the camp ‘by the end of year’ and move the migrants to 164 reception centres dotted about France. There are rumours that he will send in the bulldozers this week. But part of the camp was demolished in March, and it made no difference. Numbers soared afterwards to record levels.
Most of the Calais migrants are, like Endurance, young men from countries where there is no devastating war. I did not meet a Syrian here. You could, of course, say that anyone from anywhere in Africa or the Middle East has a pitiful life. But that is not the point. There was one question in particular I wanted to ask the migrants: what is wrong with France and why do they want to get to Britain? And so I asked Endurance.
‘I love England,’ he said. ‘England is my … Nigeria is my mother but England is my father.’
What about France? ‘I do not love France. I need to improve my education. In France I go back to being a kid. ABC. Ça va? No good. In England I can occupy my skills.’
Italy? ‘Even France is better than Italy,’ he said. ‘No work in Italy, no nothing.’
His passion is football and he was wearing a blue England football shirt with the famous Three Lions shield on it. ‘I am a central defender. I am very good. John Terry! He is my role model!’
Endurance has, he says, no identity documents at all. ‘I have a Nigerian passport but I left it at home. We move more freely without passports.’
I recalled what Stuart Corrigan, 49, a bosun on a tug in the port of Dover, had told me in the Dover Priory pub opposite the railway station on the other side of the English Channel the night before. ‘They’re just taking the piss. What’s wrong with France? And why do they want to come here? It’s got to be the welfare, hasn’t it?’
Most migrants in the Jungle are illegal, because they have refused to apply for political asylum in France, let alone in Italy or in Greece where they first entered the EU and where by law they should apply for asylum. Their goal is Britain.
They know that in Britain, unlike in the EU, there are no identity cards and so they can stay under the radar much more easily, with or without asylum. And they know that once in Britain, welfare money is automatic, unlike in other EU countries. Anyway, there is far more work. At 4.9 per cent, the unemployment rate in Britain is now the lowest in the EU apart from Germany’s. It is 10.5 per cent in France and even higher in Italy, let alone Greece.
I asked Endurance to walk the length of the camp with me. At its heart we saw the bright lights of a compound surrounded by a high fence. ‘Canteen,’ he explained.
He was, I feel, a decent enough bloke, if you ignore what he gets up to on the roads around Calais. But last week, in just two days, EU naval vessels ferried 12,000 boat people like him from Libya to Italy.
Europe has a moral and legal obligation not just to take in genuine refugees but to keep out illegal migrants. What is happening in the Sicilian channel and in Calais is the result of moral and legal mayhem. Europe can’t accommodate them all. Nor can Britain.