By Matthias Blamont
CALAIS, France (Reuters) – Somali teenager Abdulaziz Ahmad hunkered down in the sand dunes outside Calais, once again plotting how to reach Britain, eight months after French government bulldozers cleared a sprawling migrants’ camp in the northern port town.
Back in October, Ahmad, 17, was rehoused in a reception center in Rennes, in the western Brittany region, and began the process of seeking asylum. He soon became disillusioned with the slow pace of French bureaucracy. After four months he gave up.
Now his days are spent trying to climb aboard trucks and trains headed across the English Channel and evading riot police armed with batons and tear gas. He has no easy access to running water and relies on charities for food handouts.
Aid agencies and government officials estimate as many as 600 migrants have converged on Calais. Some, like Ahmad, were housed in the squalid “Jungle” camp before it was dismantled, others are newcomers. All seek a better life in Britain.
“We know it is dangerous, but we have no other possibility because France is not giving answers on asylum requests so people come back here,” Ahmad said in broken English.
“The police here they are very hard on us. Thank God I can run fast, like Usain Bolt,” he said with a defiant smile.
Ahmad’s personal belongings amount to little more than a mobile phone and wallet, carefully tucked in a light sports jacket. A charity gave him a plastic sleeping bag.
His plight highlights how France and the European Union are struggling to find a coherent answer to a migration crisis that has tested cooperation between member states. French President Emmanuel Macron wants France’s asylum process sped up.
Italy, bearing the brunt of migrant arrivals across the Mediterranean, pressed on Wednesday for more help from the bloc. The OECD said the number of migrants fleeing war or poverty globally fell marginally in 2016 from a record high in 2015.
SCABIES AND TEAR GAS
Charity workers in Calais anticipate a surge in the number of migrants from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Afghanistan during the summer.
“We knew migrants would come back. The weather is improving and many of them tell us others are on their way,” said Francois Guennoc of aid group Auberge des Migrants.
Another charity worker, Gael Manzi, said there had been an outbreak of scabies among the migrants because living conditions were so dire.
Macron has promised migrants will be treated humanely after the national human rights watchdog was fiercely critical of the living conditions they face.
Nonetheless, his interior minister, Gerard Collomb, last Friday dismissed charities’ call for a new migrant reception center in Calais, saying it would act as a magnet, and said he would deploy extra riot police to contain the influx.
A local court backed the government’s stance but ruled local authorities must provide drinking water, toilets and showers.
Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchard said on Twitter she would file an appeal.
Regional prefect Fabien Sudry also said he was considering an appeal against some of the court’s decisions.
“We are determined to prevent any kind of permanent settlement in the Calais area,” Sudry said. “These are complex issues. And we want to avoid creating any new pull effect.”
Sudry denied accusations of police violence and said only one complaint had been submitted to the police so far this year. Migrants say they are too scared to walk into a police station and file a complaint.
“The police here are after us,” said 17-year-old Eritrean national Robil Teklit, who complained his eyed itched constantly from repeated tear-gassing. “But it’s no worse than in Eritrea.”
(Additional reporting by Camille Verdier, Clotaire Achi; Editing by Richard Lough and Janet Lawrence)