“It’s my last hope,” sighs an Albanian migrant, watching a ferry leave for England from behind a high fence reinforced by barbed wire in Dieppe, one of many ferry ports on France’s northern coast.
Since January, but especially after authorities began dismantling the sprawling “Jungle” camp in Calais over a week ago, more and more migrants have been trying their luck at Normandy ports.
The 20-year-old Albanian, who gave his name only as Fabricio, says he has been all over Europe since leaving home.
Along with several compatriots, Fabricio has “set up” in Dieppe with hopes of reaching Britain, the El Dorado of thousands for migrants who have fled poverty or conflict back in their homelands, many from north Africa and the Middle East.
They are now turning up at Cherbourg, Ouistreham, Le Havre and lesser known jumping-off places.
But Dieppe, less than 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of Calais, has so far attracted the most, around 100 migrants.
“The cave dwellers are back,” said a cyclist out for a ride near the ferry port linking Dieppe to Newhaven, England.
He was referring to poor people who used to live in natural caves carved by the wind in the chalk cliffs of the region, and which are now filled with blankets and sleeping bags and surrounded by rubbish.
The migrants, all young men, some of them boys, are also living in makeshift tents, World War II bunkers or abandoned houses, while those who can afford to are staying in small hotels.
The Albanians have been here for more than a year, but now the group includes Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis, Sudanese and Eritreans.
– Disused church –
The influx inspired a local tourism professional to set up an association to offer them support, using a Facebook page to raise money.
“We have been surprised by our success,” said Nicolas Legrand, 53.
The group, which has around 100 members, began by buying food and clothing to distribute to the migrants.
Now they are stepping up operations, Legrand said.
“We are looking for a place where they can stay in humane conditions and help them obtain asylum in France, or redirect them to other countries,” he said, adding that local government authorities back the group’s efforts.
Dieppe’s Turkish Muslim community has taken charge of handing out food, while the group Doctors of the World has been asked to check sanitary conditions.
To the west, a wave of migrants reached Ouistreham last week, but they were turned away.
“We are making sure there is no squatting, no humanitarian aid,” said Mayor Romain Bail of the right-wing Republican Party. “I had them evacuated within 24 hours.”
Many are also likely to be tempted by a new refugee camp built by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Grande-Synthe, about 40 kilometres from Calais.
The camp, which opened Monday with some 200 heated wooden cabins, is said to be the first in France to meet international standards, and was built despite opposition from the French government, which would prefer to move migrants to accommodation centres elsewhere in the country where their movements are more restricted.
Further west in Cherbourg, another group of around 60 migrants hoping to cross the Channel to Portsmouth has taken up residence in a disused church, also enjoying the support of local volunteers.
Authorities say arrests have been on the rise in recent weeks, but that overall the situation is under control.
People smugglers driving cars with British number plates are frequently caught in the region.
The Dieppe prosecutor said a smuggler is convicted every week, and the latest was given a one-year jail sentence.