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Migrants In Calais, France, Try To Jump Aboard U.K.-Bound Trucks


More than 100,000 people fleeing wars, poverty and tyranny have arrived in Europe this year. That's three times as many as the same period last year. European leaders have now agreed to share the responsibility for the massive number of migrants arriving on the continent, but those migrants already in Europe are concentrated in a few places like Italy and Greece. And as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, they've also come to a city in northern France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The port city of Calais is continental Europe's closest point to Britain, and it's from here that migrants try to cross the channel to England. They wait in bushes and fields by the highway and try to climb aboard trucks that are about to drive into the Channel Tunnel. A Calais port strike this week slowed traffic to a snail's pace, bringing swarms of migrants who tried to jump aboard the freighters in broad daylight. British trucker Wesley Cooper is checking his rig.

WESLEY COOPER: I've had to take two blokes off my truck this morning in the garage. One pulled a bloody knife out on me. The English have caused this. Do you know that? They've been giving these handouts to these people. They think it's the promised land.

BEARDSLEY: The migrants here hail from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and, more recently, Syria. One reason they want to go to Britain is they speak English better than any other foreign language. Many also have friends or family there, and they believe benefits are better for asylum-seekers. Ethiopian Shaggi Mernami says he's been trying to jump on a truck to Britain for the last six months.

SHAGGI MERNAMI: Yeah. I try. I tried more than 10 times. It's very hard.

BEARDSLEY: Mernami says he's slit trucks' canvas roofs and hidden up under the axles. But he says no matter how dangerous it is, he'll keep trying. The math teacher says he was imprisoned and tortured in Ethiopia, and he has nothing to lose.

MERNAMI: I cross the sea, the desert because for me, it's the same. It's - dying from my country and dying from here is the same.

BEARDSLEY: The Calais migrant crisis has caused friction between France and Britain. Members of the European Union agreed to relocate 40,000 migrants who've arrived in places like Italy and Greece to other EU countries, but Britain opted out of the scheme. Calais taxi driver Hugue Vanpeene drives to the edge of town to show me the sprawling migrant camp in the dunes, known as the jungle, and the new nine-foot-high barriers erected along the highway.

HUGUE VANPEENE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "People all of a sudden think this is a new problem, but it's not," says Vanpeene. It's an ongoing problem, but the security is now heavier. Britain is showing it does not want these migrants, but they're still coming, and so they're being trapped here. They're trapped in place that looks nothing like France. There are hundreds of makeshift tents made of tree limbs, draped in tarps. Migrants sit around campfires and wash their clothes in buckets. Charity groups recently moved the growing number of women and children to an old school here where they are safer. Many of the migrants are Muslim. Hassan Haveresk from Egypt says it's impossible to observe the fast of Ramadan here.

HASSAN HAVERESK: Hard to sleep, no water, no anything is easy. Try - everyone here try to go to England - maybe better life than here.

BEARDSLEY: The EU's migrant resettlement program will be enacted over the next two years. Today, an Eritrean boy died in the Eurotunnel when he tried to jump on a train to Britain. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Calais, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.