Calais: A lace-making town frayed by immigration

[Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2008 prior to GlobalPost's launch.]


CALAIS, France — Threads of hope and resentment are woven into the fabric of this faded lace-making town. 

The hope comes from the asylum seekers who fill up the migrant camps that have sprung up here on the edges of Calais’ port over the last five years. The resentment — and sometimes great decency — emanates from the 78,000 working class residents in a northern French town that has become synonymous with the failures of Europe’s fractured immigration policy.

A series of police raids on these migrant camps in Calais in 2008 had little effect other than to point to the growing need for a more coordinated immigration system. The raids have done nothing to quell the deep and continuing desire for asylum among desperate refugees from the poorest and most violent corners of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The human drama that unfolds here in Calais underscores the fact that France and all of Europe, like America, is struggling to find a solution to a complex problem with illegal immigration.

Calais’ ragged refugees look past the judgments of any of the town’s residents and focus instead on the dark opening of the rail tunnel that leads down under the English Channel, and then up into the United Kingdom and the freedom the refugees believe exists if they can manage to get to the British side with its far more lenient political asylum laws.  

Eritrean and Sudanese, Ethiopian and Somali of all ages, all hanging by a thread, blend in among Calais’ anonymous smugglers peddling dreams of a better life and the overwhelmed volunteers operating on shoestring charity budgets. Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians are woven into the town’s fabric too along with the associations elbowing each other for the media’s spotlight, well-meaning organizations warning about the dangers of illegal passage and individuals seeming to occupy their own niche in this semi-permanent ecosystem of misery and desperation fueled by promise and possibility.

This two part series tells the story of both sides of Calais, and a European immigration system that is tearing at the seams.

Introduction: A lace-making town frayed by immigration
Part I: Two sides of the same Calais street
Part II: A broken immigration system