As world leaders gather at the UN to tackle the migrant crisis, the displaced in Calais consider desperate measures
Aged 16, Sameer has endured more terror than most adults will ever know.
Six months of forced conscription with theTaliban back home in the Afghan province of Kunduz, by his own account. A death-defying escape, alone at age 14, through Iran, that included border guards shooting at him. Squeezing into a packed refugee boat from Turkey to Greece, and hiding himself on trains across most of Europe, until he finally staggered, last December, into the town of Calais — a sodden patch of bush and sand on France’s northern coast, across the Channel from Britain.
Nine months on, however, the final leg of the journey to the U.K. is proving the hardest of all—a daunting hurdle that marks Calais as the end of the line for many refugees, and in many respects, a microcosm of the legal and political morass at the center of the world’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Slender, with a dimpled smile and a mop of unruly hair, the boy has spent more than two of his teenage years drifting solo across the globe. Yet he is still trying to reach his brother and uncle in London, by sneaking aboard cargo trucks headed across the Channel, in a nightly death-defying game of chicken with French and British police. “I have tried countless times,” he says with a wry laugh, speaking via a translator as he curled up on a mat in a small donated recreational vehicle parked in Calais’ unofficial refugee camp known as the “jungle.”
He says French police fired teargas canisters at him during his attempt the night before. Like other young refugees in Calais, he agreed to talk on condition his real name was not used, for fear of complicating his chances for asylum. The night we spoke, an icy wind howled and rain pummeled the roof of his temporary home. He said the fierce weather could mean fewer police, and slower traffic—better conditions, perhaps, to slip past 12-foot barbed-wire fences and three border checkpoints. “When we first came last winter it was so much easier,” he says. “Now, it is very, very difficult.”
On Monday, world leaders gathered in New York for the U.N. global summit on refugees and migrants and will try to tackle the biggest exodus in generations—a staggering 65 million people displaced from their homes across the planet. The one-day program includes speeches about the “root causes” and “drivers of migration.” President Obama will hold a second summit on Tuesday specifically on the subject of refugees, in an attempt to push leaders into greater commitments. But few are counting on success; negotiations have already stalled over which countries should shoulder major responsibility for refugees, with officials warning on Monday that it could take two more years to reach an agreement.