Dreams, smugglers feed migrant myth of El Dorado in Britain

Tourists the world over flock to France for its beauty, its bustle and its buzz. Yet most of the migrants in Calais just want out — across the Channel to Britain.

As French authorities begin to demolish the makeshift migrant camp in Calais and move its residents into the French interior, many are wondering, why Britain? Why endure months in squalid conditions and risk life and limb to stow away on a truck bound for a country that has made clear it wants fewer migrants, not more? The answer is complex.

It is found partly in the siren song of money-hungry smugglers who perpetuate the myth that migrants will find in Britain a modern-day El Dorado, with generous benefits and luxurious lifestyles.

Some migrants have family members in Britain who can offer shelter and a leg up in the job market.

And some are drawn by the language: Many speak at least broken English but not a word of French.

"I go UK, no problem," said Raholla, a 17-year-old Afghan. "Money, house, water, shoes, pants, school ... France has no work, no school."

"Everything there is good," he added. The Associated Press is not using the last names of teenage refugees because of their youth and vulnerable situation.

Noor, a 16-year-old Afghan, said he heard along the migrant trail that Britain is the best place to be.

"UK is safe for me," he said.

Jacky Veringan, who works with the aid group Secours Catholique, said smugglers have long told migrants that life in Britain will be easy.

"You can work, life is simpler, you will be welcomed," he said, paraphrasing the smugglers' message.

He added that in reality Afghans and Sudanese — the two largest groups in the Calais camp — will receive better treatment in France than Britain because they won't face expulsion to their homelands, which France considers dangerous.

French authorities began demolishing the camp on Tuesday as it bused residents to reception centers around the country. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 1,918 people were sent to 80 locations around France on the first day of the operation Monday, while 400 unaccompanied minors were being housed in heated containers at the camp pending evaluation. The ones who traveled to Calais alone and have family members in the UK will be taken to Britain, in new rules that are still not widely known here.

Salim, a 15-year-old Afghan who has spent seven months in Calais, said his mother, father, brother and sister live in Birmingham, England. He was unaware of the new opportunity.

Some migrants have decided, reluctantly, to stay in France.

Amin, a 32-year-old Sudanese with perfect English and a brother in Britain, gave up on his effort to cross the Channel, and said he feels bitter toward both France and Britain. He asked that his full name not be used because of his tenuous position.

He said his best friend, who traveled to Calais with him, was killed two months ago in a hit-and-run accident while trying to jump into a truck, one of 14 deaths in the Calais region this year.

To his knowledge, there has been no police effort to find the driver, leaving him believing there is "no humanity" in either country.

"Sometimes I feel it's shameful to speak English," Amin said. "France is my destiny ... This is the better of bad things."