- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

SANGATTE, France Inside a stuffy mobile home at a Red Cross center, about a dozen Afghan children clap their hands and sing "Happy Birthday." Little Abdelaziz happily blows out the five candles on his cake, but his parents are dreaming of greater rewards: a new life in Britain.
The family is among some 500 Afghan refugees in this small town on the English Channel coast, all dreaming of crossing the water to Britain, which has a comparatively liberal policy toward asylum seekers. While Afghan political factions are trying to work together to rebuild their homeland, these uprooted compatriots have no desire to return.
"This year, the best present for these children would be to land in Britain," said Abdelrahim, 32, speaking in Farsi. He left Jalalabad three months ago with his wife, 2-year-old son and brother.
"We don't want our children to grow up in a fundamentalist environment like Afghanistan," he said.
In all, there are about 1,300 refugees of about 20 different nationalities at the center in Sangatte, a town of 900 people a few miles from the French entrance of the Channel tunnel. They share the same goals: to get to Britain somehow, and find a job and a house.
The center made headlines on Christmas night when virtually half of its population 550 people rose up to storm the tunnel in a desperate, coordinated attempt to get to Britain on foot.
Security officials were overwhelmed, and French riot police had to intervene. They tracked down a first group of 150 who had made it a quarter of the way through the tunnel, then used tear gas to disperse 400 others who stormed the entrance hours later. Train traffic was shut down for the night while police hunted down every refugee.
The Afghans, many of whom took part in the attempted exodus, vowed they would keep trying. They say that no matter what the situation in Afghanistan, they don't want to go home anytime soon.
"For me, the Northern Alliance are the same as the Taliban the only difference is that their beards are shorter, and they steal more," Abdelrahim said with a laugh.
The refugees have three ways to cross the channel: Hop freight trains heading through the tunnel, cross the tunnel on foot or stow away in cargo ferries leaving from the French port of Calais. All methods are dangerous.
The French Interior Ministry says six persons have died this year attempting to sneak through the tunnel, and more than 100 have been injured. Still they try.
On a usual night, about 100 refugees from Sangatte are arrested in the Eurotunnel zone and the port area. It's hard to say how many get through, but probably dozens each week.
"I've tried to cross three times," said Maryam, 29, a mother of four from Kabul. "Each time the children fall sick, because it's so cold, so we have to wait until they get better before we try again."
Some refugees have tried to cross the English Channel 30 or 40 times, and say they will try again.
Their efforts have angered Britain's government, which has pressured France to improve security. The tunnel's operator has installed additional fences and infrared cameras some of which were destroyed during the Dec. 25 incident and is asking France to shut down the center. The port of Calais also is beefing up security.
As some refugees slip into England, others give up that dream and head to other parts of Europe. But each week, 500 to 600 new refugees arrive in Sangatte.
The center was set up in September 1999 in an unused Eurotunnel building. In two years, more than 44,000 people have passed through. The Red Cross says 90 percent of them eventually arrive in Britain.
Townspeople aren't happy. "We have the feeling we're invaded," said Pascal Dubus, a doctor. "Besides, along with these distraught people you have the mafia networks and the smugglers, who take advantage of the misery of the world."
Refugees say smugglers' prices for crossing the channel vary from $300 to $1,800 for a single person. As the passage becomes more difficult, prices are rising, with "an average of $1,000 per person," said Jafar, 25.
The combined factors of danger and uncertainty take their toll.
A month ago, a minor dispute between an Afghan and a Kurd at the center blew up into a violent clash involving 300 refugees, some armed with stones, iron rods or knives. Sporadic fights went on for almost 24 hours and left 29 persons injured.
Jafar, a student from Bamiyan in Afghanistan, said going home isn't an option. "Our families don't want us to come back. Maybe the Taliban will return to power. Or maybe the new government will be worse."
Stuck at the center, refugees have little to do besides drink tea, listen to the radio or watch TV news to get the latest from Afghanistan.
As night falls, refugees prepare, yet again, to try to sneak aboard a train or a ferry. Those with enough money call a cab to get near the port. Men start walking in small groups toward the tunnel area.
"All my life, I've known war," said Ghadar, 26. "All my life, I've seen nothing but blood in Afghanistan. Now, I want to live in peace."

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