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Feb-03-2010 21:20printcommentsVideo

Rough Going for Afghan Immigrants in France

While many migrants in France come from countries in conflict--they aren’t always aware they can apply for asylum. Others find themselves caught in difficult bureaucratic procedures of making an asylum claim.

Afghan refugees in Calais, France
Video/Photos courtesy: UNHCR

(CALAIS/SALEM) - Mamad Khan has spent another night sleeping outside in freezing temperatures. He is one of hundreds of young men who have come to this port city to escape desperate situations in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Eritrea, or Sudan. Calais has become a transit point where smugglers take them on to another country--usually the United Kingdom.

Khan is a 22-year old from Afghanistan. His journey took him through Iran, Turkey and Italy before he reached France. He says surviving in Calais is a daily battle.

“We are very young, we are sleeping in the cold and every day the police chase us. We are human beings, children even--young guys. We are human beings, not animals--even animals are not treated like this.”

He’s referring to the almost nightly police raids on the places where they gather. Until recently, the men had been allowed to sleep in a local gymnasium at night to escape the sub-zero temperatures. But once the temperatures rose above freezing, the gym was shut down. The men were left out in the cold.

One migrant in Calais said, “It’s a big problem, the weather is cold, where do we stay?”

A charity gave them small tents, but during the night these were taken away, Mamad Khan said, “We decided not to set up our tents until one in the morning, afraid that the police would take them away again. We sat down for a long time next to the fire. After we set up our tents, at about two in the morning, about 30 police cars arrived.”

Despite the police interventions, local charities make sure the men get warm meals each day. Yet they have no place to stay. During the day they walk the city trying to keep warm and at night they sleep rough on the streets, or in a wooded area where they build ramshackle huts out of bits of wood and plastic.

Maureen McBrien with UNHCR in France, says the cold weather complicates their plight. “Now it’s getting towards freezing and it’s beginning to snow. One of the main questions we have is whether the gymnasium will now be opened to allow some of the migrant community to sleep inside again tonight.”

Until last September, most of these desperate people were staying in a makeshift camp in the woods, but police tore it down saying that public order was at risk. The local population is divided over the issue of the migrants. Some extend a helping hand, others are less welcoming. A charity donated these portable showers so the men could wash, but just days ago, they were burned and vandalized.

Life is difficult in Calais, so why do they come here? Many are simply looking for a better life--others are escaping persecution or violence, or the threat of forced recruitment.

Mamad Khan says he wishes he could have stayed in Afghanistan.

“If there were no problems in Afghanistan I swear I wouldn’t come here to be chased around. If there were no problems I wouldn’t have come here. Look at these children, do you think they have left Afghanistan by their own will? No one wants to leave their own country against their will.”

While many here come from countries in conflict, they aren’t always aware they can apply for asylum. Others are caught up in bureaucratic procedures of making an asylum claim in France--which can be difficult.

The UN refugee agency works on the ground with local partners to advise them of their rights and options, and to identify those who may have fear of persecution so they can access the asylum system.

Jean Francois Roger with France Terre D’asile, says they are doing what they can with a difficult situation. “Our solution is to try and get to know the situation of the population the easiest way possible with our distributions and our brochures regarding the right to asylum and in discussions on a case by case basis.”

Even for those who may have a valid claim, it’s a painstaking process to get them to come forward. The majority don’t speak French and are fearful of being arrested or deported. Gaining enough trust so they decide to file an asylum claim can be a long process. And waiting for an answer can take even longer. In the end, many lose hope and take their chances with the smugglers.

Video courtesy: UNHCR

Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines. Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. You can send Tim an email at this address:

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