Barred, Not Stopped

Yeah, that's England," says Reza, a 22-year-old political-science student from Afghanistan. He has no passport, and doesn't want his last name to be published. Reza has traveled four months from Kabul, by foot across the border into Pakistan, from there to Iran, from Iran to Turkey. A friend lost a leg to a land mine at that crossing, he says. From Turkey to Greece, Greece to Italy. And now he is near the French village of Sangatte, on the edge of the English Channel. Before him, huge ferries glide across the gray water, and the white cliffs of Dover rise on the edge of the horizon.

With Reza on this hill are hundreds of other migrants in a vast hangar where components for the channel tunnel in nearby Calais used to be manufactured. The French Red Cross established a shelter here at the request of local officials, who were overwhelmed by clandestins, or illegal immigrants, camping out in local parks. "For the last two or three years the situation was completely out of control," says Michel Derr, the Red Cross administrator. Since the shelter opened in September, more than 10,000 people from 85 countries have passed through. "It's truly a 'global village'," says Derr, "a kind of no man's land for people from nowhere."

A handful of bored French police sit in a van near the door of the shelter, but they don't bother to ask for the papers they know the migrants don't have. When the shelter started operations, police wanted the residents locked in at 8 p.m. That lasted one night. Everyone found his own exit, and the next morning the place was empty. Now everyone is free to come and go as he pleases. And every evening there's an exodus as small groups of men, and sometimes whole families with women and little children, set out to find their way across the channel.

Some migrants wound up in Sangatte against their plan. A 45-year-old Iranian who asked to be called "George" traveled with his wife and three children, the youngest a 2-year-old girl, plus his sister-in-law and her family -- nine in all. They paid about $3,000 apiece to travel 12 days in a sealed truck from Tehran to England. But when they got out, they found themselves here. Local smugglers want between $500 and $1,000 each to get them across the channel. So they wait, night after night, for a more affordable, safe way to cross.

Eventually, most of the people at Sangatte do get to England. The average stay at the shelter is only 15 days. The French police know they'll soon be somebody else's problem, which is one reason they're so tolerant. But, then, some place else will also benefit from the immigrants' skills and initiative. "I say to the English, 'So much the better for you'," explains shelter administrator Derr. "What we see here are people who were in the middle classes of the countries they come from." Many are well educated; some were relatively rich. They take the risk of crossing the channel because they see England as the most promising part of the European promised land. Some have relatives there already. Some may have the illusion it is more immigrant-friendly. But they also think it is a springboard to Canada and the United States. "There is a 'CNN effect'," says Derr, "a tendency to see the future through an American lens." Not surprisingly, the new language of choice is English.

As Reza looked at the cliffs of Dover last week, the press in Europe was filled with stories about the 58 Chinese who died in the truck that was smuggling them to England. But Reza, who came this far from a country where so many people have been killed for so long and often for so little reason where, he says, his mother and brother were murdered by the Taliban finds a kind of consolation in the Dover tragedy. "I think this dying is better than that dying," he says. "In Afghanistan when you die, nobody knows, nobody cares, nobody hears." And then he smiles and shakes a reporter's hand. "I'll see you in England, I'm sure," he says. "I'll send you an e-mail when I get there."

Join the Discussion