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French Port Towns Swamped with Iraqi Refugees

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

On this morning when fires have forced thousands of Americans to flee their homes, let's consider another group of people who've had to flee. People from Iraq and Afghanistan have now made it to Europe, and now they're struggling to take one more step. Port towns on the northern coast of France say they're being swamped by hundreds of refugees hoping to make it across the channel to England.

Anita Elash reports from Calais in Northern France.

(Soundbite of soup kitchen)

ANITA ELASH: This has become a familiar scene in downtown Calais. Every afternoon, hundreds of refugees crowd around a temporary soup kitchen in an open field that's strewn with garbage and old clothes. There are about 300 migrants here, men in their teens or early 20s. They live in the street or in a nearby forest they call the jungle. Most are fleeing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan and most have paid smugglers thousands of dollars to help them get here.

Araman Rachmani(ph), a Kurd from northern Iraq, says he walked for 10 days with no food and little water after he left his home in Iraq and then spent months hiding in trucks that eventually brought him to France.

Mr. ARAMAN RACHMANI (Refugee): (Foreign language spoken)

ELASH: What we're doing is very dangerous, but we must try to make a better life for ourselves, he says. My family sold their house so I could go to England. This is the only way to save ourselves from the violence in our country.

There used to be a big refugee center near here that housed up to 2,000 asylum seekers. It was clothed under pressure from the British government in the hope that would discourage migrants from trying to cross illegally into Britain, but people are still coming. Aid agencies say thousands have passed through in the last five years, most of them Iraqis. For men like Araman Rachmani and the other migrants in Calais, the attraction is clear.

Unlike in France and most other European countries, people in Britain don't have to carry I.D. cards, and the migrants will be able to work legally without papers. What's not clear is how they're going to get to the U.K. Without immigration papers, their only choice is to try to hide in a truck heading to England on a ferry. But thanks to fears of terrorism and the immigration issue, Calais is the most heavily guarded port in France. The harbor is surrounded by barbed wire and there's a prominent police presence in the town.

(Soundbite of siren)

ELASH: Even though everyone here tries almost every night to board a truck, only three or four make it across the border. Anan Salam Kalim(ph), another Kurd, says he's 17, but he looks at least 30. He says he's been in Calais for three months and has been arrested more than 10 times.

Mr. ANAN SALAM KALIM (Refugee): (Foreign language spoken)

ELASH: We try to cross in the night and then the police capture us, he says. Sometimes they keep us for an hour, sometimes for 15 days. Then they put us back on the street and say, go, leave here, but we don't know where to go.

This winter, the city of Calais plans to set up a welcome center for the refugees. It would provide food, showers and clean clothing all under the same roof. But it won't provide a place to sleep, and it won't solve the other problems that come with the refugees. The mayor of Calais has asked the French government to intervene.

A spokeswoman for the French Immigration Ministry said the government's job is to maintain law and order in the port towns, and extra police have been sent to another port town, Cherbourg. But she said she knew of no problems in the town of Calais.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Calais, Northern France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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