Calais, hit by migrant woes, a city everyone wants to leave
Aug. 04, 2015
CALAIS, France (AP) — The truck drivers who pass through don't like it. Neither do the millions of tourists who turn up each year. And the migrants who flock here have only one thing on their mind: leaving.
More than ever, it seems, people come to the port city of Calais — on the French side of the English Channel — for the sole purpose of getting out.
Calais, which features in the writing of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, is a natural travel hub that evokes France's love-hate relationship with England. Its huge port that welcomes ferry visitors from Dover, its nearby Eurostar train stop, and its crowded highways all attest to its key role.
But these days, everyone who comes seems to be going somewhere else. And one reason is that holidaymakers seeking an escape from reality don't want to stick around in a city full of miserable migrants. City officials place part of the blame on Britain, saying it bears responsibility as the main magnet of the Calais migrants. The mayor says she will seek millions of euros in damages.
"Calais has a big problem," said Kevin Westhead, a British truck driver who crosses the Channel regularly. He says his truck is increasingly brought to a standstill while Eurotunnel clears out migrants trying to sneak a ride to Britain. "With the amount of migrants I believe are here now, it is a big problem. ... I wouldn't like to live in Calais at the moment."
For thousands of migrants, Calais is the penultimate stop in a treacherous journey that most often includes a stint in chaotic Libya and a perilous Mediterranean crossing to Italy. Calais hosts refugee camps in the nearby dunes, wooded areas and near at least one grocery store. The camps started to go up after the 2002 closure of a hangar in nearby Sangatte that housed thousands of migrants.
Mayor Natacha Bouchart managed to get the French government to set up a relief center outside town, where a huge encampment has sprung up. The center provides showers and a daily meal, while reducing migrant traffic in the city.
"The economic lungs of Calais have been extremely affected by this situation," said Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Agius, adding that the hit to tourism has been particularly bad.
Some 30 million people pass through Calais each year, notably via the port or the tunnel — but don't stick around to spend money. "These people are potential tourists," Agius said. "But these people aren't tempted to stay ... The migrant problem is, unfortunately, crippling."
Calais, a city of some 75,000, has some reasons to draw in tourists. It is on the Opal Coast of beaches and can vaunt a few cultural treasures, like the red brick city hall with a UNESCO World Heritage clock tower and Rodin's statue "The Burghers of Calais" on the main square. But the town feels joyless, downright grim outside the city center. Small homes need a paint job, and industrial installations blight the landscape. One of them, a chemical factory, once housed hundreds of migrants in its field.
"Today, we consider we have important financial losses," said Agius, reiterating Mayor Bouchart's call for a three-way meeting between herself and the prime ministers of Britain and France. Agius said the mayor wants the summit to be held at the close of summer, with the hope that Calais will be compensated for its losses. She told the French media last week that she would seek 50 million euros.
"The city of Calais has the right to live like any European city," Agius said, "has the right to develop like any European city."
Calais has taken hard knocks in the past, notably from the British. It fell to the British in 1347 in the Hundred Years' War — and remained in British hands for more than two centuries. The Calais of the 21st century needs British tourists, who account for 20-25 percent of visitors to the Tourism Office, according to its director, Solange Leclerq. But the number took a "dizzying fall" in July to 8 percent. Leclerq blamed the drop not on migrants but on a strike by workers at one of the ferry companies in liquidation that blocked access highways, causing chaos for truckers and travelers.
The manager of the Family Pub on a main Calais drag said he feels the drop in foreign clients in his coffers. Foreign tourists represent at least 30 percent of the pub's earnings, usually vacationers from Britain heading south or French and Spanish heading north.
Xavier Elfassy blames the French and British governments for failing to solve the migrant situation, and says most of his clients see the migrants as "the unfortunate fleeing wars."
"We are but spectators of their suffering," said the pub manager.