Tensions mount as record numbers crowd French migrant camp

Calais — Tempers are rising among migrants squeezed in record numbers into a shrinking slum camp in France's port city of Calais, where they spend hours in line waiting for food and showers.

For the increasingly desperate and weary travellers in the camp known as "the jungle," the path to Britain — where most hope to go — appears blocked.

Two migrants have died in fights within a month, and the future of the sprawling makeshift camp looks increasingly precarious. It was drastically downsized in March, when authorities razed its large southern sector of more than 1 000 shelters and shops, displacing at least 1 000 migrants. This summer, they began closing dozens of camp shops and restaurants, the only available amenities.

Despite that, the camp's population has soared to its highest-ever level since taking root on the edge of Calais in April 2015. The prefecture, or state authority for the region, said after a one-day count this month that it found 6 901 people living in the camp. Aid group Auberge des Migrants reached its own figure after four days of recent counting: 9 106 people, compared to 7 000 in early July.

The squalid camp built within the sand dunes of northern France draws migrants from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and elsewhere, chased from home by danger or destitution, most driven by dreams of life in Britain, where some have family or friends. After often harrowing treks via Libya to Italy or overland through eastern Europe, paying smugglers along the way, most reach a dead end in Calais, unable to find a way across the English Channel.

An aerial view of the migrant camp in Calais (File, AP).

"They are broken inside because they were here with lots of hopes and in the jungle they're not seeing their bright future here," said Tariq Shinnari, a 26-year-old former civil servant from Afghanistan. He has given up his dream of going to Britain and is applying for asylum in France. With that new goal, and his work as a volunteer for the British aid organisation Care4Calais, he avoids the desperation of other migrants in the camp, though the situation is not lost on him.

"They are saying we don't have war here, but we are like in a kind of prison."

In the camp, supplies are growing scarce, according to two aid organisations, and migrants say they can spend up to three hours in line to get a shower of six minutes. They spend hours more in lines for food.

The Kitchen in Calais, one of several volunteer dispensaries, served 800 dinners a day in April and is now dishing up 1 500 meals. It is seeking permission to expand to serve 2 000 meals daily, said Jamal Ismail, a Briton who runs it.

In the camp, a sense of despair lingers in the dusty alleys. Now authorities are trying to demolish the 72 restaurants and shops that migrants say make it liveable, with places to socialise, charge cell phones and, in some cases, sleep.

"Nobody is functioning at full blast," said Maya Konforti of the Auberge des Migrants.

Police guarding the camp refuse to allow building materials inside, so instead of plywood shelters, tents are going up in every available space. Up to 2 500 people now live in tents, according to Konforti, some of them in summer tents "not at all appropriate for winter".

Aid organisation France Terre d'Asile said the number of children under 18 on their own there has reached a record of 861 — well more than twice the 343 counted in May. The youngest is 10-year-old Afghan.

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