CALAIS, France — The sun had barely set when a 23-year-old Eritrean woman who gave her name as Akbrat fell into step with dozens of other men and women and started scaling the fence surrounding the entrance to the French side of the Channel Tunnel.
The barbed wire cut her hands, but she did not feel the pain. The police seemed to be everywhere. She thought of her 5-year-old son back in Africa and ran, zigzag through the falling shadows, once almost colliding with an officer in a helmet.
Then she was alone. She slipped under the freight train and waited, clambering out just as it began moving.
But before she could hurl herself onto the train bed transporting trucks filled with Britain-bound produce, a French officer caught up with her, she recalled in an interview on Thursday. Blinded by tear gas, she stumbled and bruised her right ankle. After being ejected from the complex around the tunnel, it took her five hours to limp the nine miles back to the refugee camp of makeshift shelters that its 3,000 inhabitants call the “jungle.”
“You’re lucky you weren’t killed,” someone told her.
“I’m not lucky,” she responded. “I’ll be lucky when I’m in England.”
The desperate scene playing out each night and day in Calais, with migrants trying to vault fences or cut their way through them and climb onto trains or into trucks going across the Channel to England, is just one chapter in a painful drama playing out across Europe.
For many of the migrants who have been coming to the Continent from Africa, the Middle East and beyond, Calais, a mere 21 miles from the white cliffs of Dover, is their last stop. If they make it across to Britain, many believe they will have reached safety and a better life. Some are attracted to Britain because they speak some English, others because they see better job prospects there than on the Continent. A few even cite a strong pound.
Those who make it as far as this port city often express striking and implacable certainty about their right to go the rest of the way, having come so far.
Nursing her sprained ankle outside the tent she shares with a dozen of other men and women, Akbrat lamented the fact that she would have to rest for a few days before making another attempt. “I’ve crossed the sea and walked for many months,” she said. “I am not giving up now.”
Like others here, she declined to give her full name or have her photograph taken for fear of jeopardizing her chances of slipping across the border undetected.
Akbrat arrived in Calais five days ago. But she has spent much of her life as a refugee. When she was 13, her father was killed, a political assassination in Eritrea, she said. Her mother fled with her and her two sisters to Sudan. When her mother died seven months ago, Akbrat left her son with her aunt and began her own journey to Turkey and then across the Mediterranean to Greece. She hopes to bring her boy to Britain once she has papers and has found work, she said.
“I thought I would die on that boat,” she said. “Until I die, I will try to go to England.”
Like Akbrat, many migrants here try every night, sometimes several times, undeterred by injury or the deaths of others. They set off late in the afternoon, walking three or four hours to the freight train terminal. There they await sunset, sometimes around campfires, before hauling themselves over the fences in large groups in the hope that some will slip through police lines.
Ten migrants have died over the past six weeks, said Chloé Lorieux, a nursing student who volunteers for the charity Médecins du Monde and helps at a clinic in the camp. This month, she said, a woman lost her baby after her water broke prematurely when she tried to climb onto a train. Many here have multiple scars from barbed wire or police batons and, in the worst cases, multiple broken bones from being hit by a departing train.
“We see terrible injuries every day,” Ms. Lorieux said.
But every night a few make it. How many, no one can say; estimates range from a handful to 40 people. That is what keeps them going, said Mima, 26, a university graduate from Ethiopia, who began his journey in June last year, fleeing a jail sentence as a member of an opposition party. He paid traffickers — brokers, he calls them — $5,000 his mother had saved up for him to make it across Sudan, Libya and the Mediterranean to Italy. Half of the 243 people on the rickety boat died during the crossing to Europe, he said.
“The U.K. is not paradise, it’s not heaven, I know that,” he said. “I know it’s not safe to jump on a moving train. But we have no choice. If you had a choice, why would you do this?”
A Syrian man, Yusuf, 40 said he had much the same feeling. He came from Dara’a, and said he was a lawyer who supported the democratic movement and was forced to flee.
“We come here because this is the only road to England,” he said. “Every day we go to the train. Whenever we try, we are pushed back by the police. They come at us with their dogs, their tear gas, but we go every night.”
He has not told his family the conditions he is living in, he said — unwashed and exhausted and with hardly any money left because he has paid most of it to smugglers. “Many Syrians are cultivated, we are educated, we want to go to an educated place, and I can already speak a little English,” he said.
Calais, which has long been a gateway to Britain and was once under English rule, has become a snapshot of what is going on in the rest of the world.
When there are troubles in Afghanistan, as there are now with the Taliban’s return to several areas, the numbers of Afghans in the sprawling refugee camp in the Calais dunes rise. Syrian refugees are there in large numbers, and there are some Iraqis. Sudanese have come, as well as Somalis. A couple of years ago there were more people from Burundi and Rwanda, aid workers said.
Set on the edge of Calais in a dusty patch of land with no trees for shade, the refugee camp resembles camps throughout the underdeveloped world, or worse. It has just 30 toilets for 3,000 migrants; international humanitarian standards would dictate one for every group of 20, Ms. Lorieux said.
For a long time, there was not even any water, but now spigots have been set up in several sections of the camp. Jean-François Corty of Médecins du Monde calls it a “tolerated slum.”
The place is littered with garbage, empty water bottles roll in the dust, broken garbage bags stink of rotting food. Since it is not an official refugee camp, there are none of the tents or sets of pots and pans or blankets that are usually provided to refugees by the United Nations or other aid groups. The shelters are patched together from wood and canvas and plastic bags donated by volunteers from Calais who are moved by the migrants’ plight.
Some camp dwellers have tried hard to make “the jungle” more livable. Some of the black plastic sheets marking out most tents have been adorned with brightly colored flowers and slogans. Others have picked flowers and put them in a plastic bottle on a makeshift tabletop.
The Ethiopians have built an Orthodox Church, partly with money donated from friends who made it to Britain months ago. There are at least four mosques in the camp and several shops.
“This is my village,” said Shaheen Khan from Afghanistan, smiling, with his arm drawing a semicircle over the tents stretching into the dunes. He said he has been on the road for seven years since the Taliban threatened his family.
As the migrants were getting ready for their next attempted crossing on Thursday night — among them a 9-year-old boy and a pregnant woman — a squad of France’s semi-military gendarmes were getting ready, too.
Temporarily housed in a hotel a few miles from the camp, the officers are on roughly the same schedule as the migrants: They get up late and then work through the night.
“We are all migrants here,” joked one of them before heading out on duty in gleaming riot gear. But then turning serious, he said: “It makes you think, this job. How can you judge a guy who has nothing, who is fleeing war and just wants a life for his family?”