War has once again come to Europe. For two weeks, Russian forces under the direction of President Vladimir Putin have been delivering a reign of terror on Ukraine, with a constant bombardment of large cities and small towns, while Ukrainians are paying a heavy, and sometimes ultimate, price.
Over 2.3 million Ukrainian citizens have fled to border countries, including Poland, Romania, and Moldova, that have welcomed them with open arms. For some, France, including the northern Calais city at its tip, is their destination. Families also await on the other side of the Channel with open arms.
Calais has long been one of the epicenters of European migration. The blustery city is the last port of call for refugees trying to get to the UK with migrants -- mostly men -- from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East flocking there increasingly over the past three decades to attempt the trip -- either by stowing away on ferries or vehicles or treacherous rubber dinghies. Drownings are common but with the absence of proper legal documents, some have no other way to get across.
Many migrants also sleep outside in the cold, for weeks. Encampments are also common but are usually broken up by police who conclude that they are dangerous, not to mention illegal.
But recently arrived Ukrainian refugees may be experiencing better treatment than those who have come before. Hotels, like the European Residence Center which lies just near the ferry to Britain, have offered to house and feed dozens of Ukrainian families, most of them with children, for days on end -- for free.
Yet some migrants coming from Ukraine, whose skin color may not match the typical Ukrainian profile, have had to pay. Mohamed Abouelhoul, 28, is one of them. Darker-skinned and with a name and accent that give off a possible Middle-Eastern birthplace, he may not appear Eastern European at first glance but he was born in Ukraine, as was his wife, Tatiana, 30, and daughter Alexa, 11. They’re waiting to catch a bus to Lille to visit the French Office of Immigration and Integration where documents for migrants are processed.
They arrived in Calais two days ago and said they had to pay €50 ($55) a night at the hotel. Mohamed shrugged off the question when asked if he has been treated well.
“In Calais? Yes, they’re good.” When asked why he was not given free accommodation, he says he is not sure.
“It’s a problem between governments,” says the France24 journalist. “The people shouldn’t have to pay for this.”
He was optimistic about their chances to get across. “I have a cousin and his wife there. They have two rooms, and will welcome us.”
Mohamed’s dream is to be back in Kyiv. “When I know that Ukraine is fine, we’ll go back. My job, my world, is there.”
Clare Moseley, the director of the refugee crisis charity Care4Calais, is all too familiar with the migration issues in Calais and the leniency shown to certain people. The Liverpool native never meant for a career in human rights -- she is an accountant and a tax lawyer -- but moved to Calais six years ago after reading about people drowning in the Mediterranean.
Moseley said Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart recently informed her group that they are prohibited from aiding refugees, even Ukrainians, saying online resources have been set up to help them.
“There are so many practical problems though, and we’re the aid people helping them. What harm can it do?” Moseley asked, fairly incredulous. She has choice words for the mayor. “She’s the most far-right refugee-hating person in the world.”
Moseley also said Bouchart has been "militant" in her oppression of Syrian and Afghan refugees. The recent prohibition of aid includes a ban on meal distribution by Care4Calais, as well as other groups like Secours Catholique and Utopia56, to those in need. Bouchart has permitted the use of this hotel, however, perhaps in an effort to contain the problem.
Moseley said she would really like to ask Bouchart what is so different about these refugees.
“Because the war they’re fleeing is no different than the war in Syria or Yemen. “And yet she’s accommodating these people?”
In 2003, then-President Jacques Chirac and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair signed a treaty that planted the southeastern British border firmly in France. It meant passport processing fell to French shores, with Britain agreeing to pay France to patrol the beaches.
Despite the agreement, the two countries constantly shift the blame on the immigration problem while also blaming smugglers who profit from thousands of euros they charge people to get across.
The Bolotina family tells a different story about their time in Calais. Anna, 17, leads the conversation since her English is the best. Her father Andrei and mother Hallina drove her and her sisters, Valentina (11) and Maris (7) hours from Kyiv. They made the trip with their three guinea pigs housed in a plastic carrying case in the back.
The family was there for five days, staying in the hotel at no charge. The Bolotinas want to get to the UK as Andrei’s mother is there, a landscape gardener who has been married to an Englishman for years. Their process is lengthy and has involved filling out a lot of paperwork.
They were driving to Paris for a morning appointment at the consulate to start the visa process but were not sure about the whole journey, including where they would stay.
“We have an address,” Anna said. “A place like this,” she gestured toward the hotel.
“I think we will get to England,” she added, but there was doubt in her eyes.
“We don’t know why it all takes so long. We are tired.”
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