The stench of human excreta hits you as you approach the “jungle” where refugees camp in Calais, a seaside town on the French side of the Channel Tunnel. Makeshift toilet cabins are lined up at the entrance that is just off a curve in the highway, outside the main town. Spread over about a square kilometre, the “jungle” is dotted with tents: there are no trees here though, only shrubs around pools of stagnant rainwater in what used to be a landfill site.

Those living here want to escape what they say are “inhuman” conditions. For them it’s a daily battle to live in a limbo in a place that is dirty, cold and inhospitable and where food is in short supply. Most trek two hours almost every day to the point where freight trains go into the Eurotunnel. Their best escape route to England. Many get severely injured or die trying. Some manage to get through.

The locals don’t want the migrants. “The negative publicity” drives tourists away, they say. The refugees want to leave too. But high fences and the police try to prevent them round the clock from doing so. They can’t work either. They have no permits.

The daily ritual

Barely 34 kilometres off the Calais beach, the Dover cliffs shimmer enticingly on a clear day as white dots on the blue horizon. But the beach is far from the camp. The only thing looming on the horizon here is the highway leading to the ferry dock, lined with a high white fence with its threatening razor wire. Two policemen stand on the closest slope leading to the road, ready to tear gas anyone who tries to get on to the highway.

Crossing over to Britain via the Channel tunnel is the common goal for most living in the “jungle”. Groups of refugees greet each other with “No chance? Tomorrow!” (No luck crossing over? Better luck for tomorrow). On some nights, when dozens manage to go through, it rekindles hope.

Some say they spend time thinking of how to improve their “technique” to jump on to trucks that board ferries or trains that cross the tunnel. Others say they have been given “guarantees” by Afghans within the camp who have promised to help them cross either by cutting the “jaals” or jumping over. I heard the going rate for a “guarantee” was 3,000 pounds. Going back would be no better than dying, most say. They took huge loans to pay smugglers and say they cannot return until they find a way to repay the debts.

South Asians: part of the crisis

While most of the world media is focused on the sudden rise in the Syrian exodus, even a quick look at figures shows that South Asian refugees are present in significant numbers.

Eurostat figures for April, May and June reveal that among the 210,000 first-time asylum seekers in the European Union a third are from Syria or Afghanistan. United Nations figures show three out of ten of the world’s “top refugee producing countries” are in India’s immediate neighbourhood: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Take a look at arrivals on the Mediterranean coast, which has become the deadliest in the world for migrants. In Greece, which is the entry point for 51% of migrants who come unauthorised into Europe, the top three countries of origin are Syria (175,375), Afghanistan (50,177) and Pakistan (11,289).

“South Asians were among the first pioneers of these routes,” said Christine Moliner of the South Asian Studies centre at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences socialies. “South Asian migrants, or rather human smugglers who exploited them, first explored these routes more than 15 years ago even though they are now well known.”

Afghans tell their stories

Not far from the entrance to the “jungle”, in a clearing between a Pakistani restaurant and a long low tent that hosts the Afghani mosque, everyone seems to be speaking Urdu. Afghans, Pakistanis along with some from Iraq and Iran make up for 30% of the jungle’s population, outnumbered only by the Sudanese (35%).

Amir Khan, 40, from Afghanistan is eager to help me find the Syrian tent cluster. He tells me their tents were flooded in the rain last week so they had to move. A young Sudanese man goes past us on a bicycle shouting into a megaphone, “Why only Syrians? What about us?!” Amir says Syrians are getting preferential treatment and that makes many feel insecure. “The journalists coming here told us about this Syrian kid who has died [Aylan Kurdi]. It’s sad, of course. But many Afghans have also died on the same route from Turkey to Greece. There was no juloos [procession] for our people. The conflict in our country has gone on for longer. Does that mean we don’t need help too?”

Zamaan, 45, from Laghman province in Afghanistan, joins us on the way. He rattles off the list of 12 countries he has crossed on foot, twice. He was deported from England five years ago but he came right back with his with his 16-year-old son. “When I had to take the kashti [boat] from Turkey, my friends tried to dissuade me because I was travelling with my son. I knew he could die. But we left Afghanistan to save our skins. What would we have done waiting?”

Almost everyone has a story about the Hungarian and Bulgarian authorities. “It’s haivaniyat” said Ajaab Khaan. “The Bulgarian police treat women and children badly and when it comes to men, they show no pity. Policemen let lose their dogs on us, they ripped our clothes, snatched our mobile phones and even biscuits. They put us on buses and left us near the Turkish border. Some even ask for money”.

Dublin protocol is a 'trap'

On the weekend, a large truck loaded with free groceries arrived into the “jungle”. Those heading to queue up at the “salaam” for a couple of hours, for the daily free meal, switch to this line. “There will be oil and flour. We could use that for many days,” 21 year old Jahazeb from Pakistan told me. As tension starts mounting, a handful of volunteers scramble to keep things in order. Refugees are worried supplies will be over by the time their turn comes. There is some jostling. An Iranian-origin musician from London has volunteered to spend the day here. Along with other refugees who work as volunteers, they play the daf and drums and refugees come out of line and dance to the beat. The music eases the stress and for one afternoon, the Eurotunnel is forgotten.

Jahazeb invites me to a cluster of Pakistani tents for tea. Today they’re making deep fried parathas, something they can only afford to do when donations arrive once or twice a month. We are huddled around the small clay oven and watch one of the refugees rolling out the dough with a jam bottle and then making them sizzle in the hot oil. It’s starting to rain outside.

Jahazeb shows me his asylum papers. He says if there’s one thing European leaders should change, it’s the dreaded Dublin protocol which he says is a trap for most refugees. Under this EU-wide regulation, refugees’ asylum requests are the responsibility of countries where their port of entry is. Refugees are often forced to give their fingerprints in Hungary or Bulgaria, making asylum applications long and complicated and sometimes impossible in countries that are not hostile to refugees.

He points to the empty tent next to his, where his friend Saadiq, 28, used to sleep. About to be deported under the Dublin protocol, Saadiq made a desperate last-ditch attempt to get on a train, hit his head against a cement pillar and lost his life. “My friend took too much of a risk,” said Jahazeb. “He felt he had no other choice.”

Good refugees, bad migrants

In the current discourse, it’s the Syrians who are considered “good refugees” by European authorities, while others, especially Pakistanis, are often regarded with suspicion, even though they say they have escaped religious persecution (many are Shia) and have been targeted by militant groups. Forced recruitments and clan wars also drove many away. There are a few women in South Asian groups. Most women in Calais are from Eritrea or Ethiopia.

While Syrians do remain the largest among refugee groups from any non-EU country in Europe (39%), Afghans still form the second largest group (11%). According to the International Organization for Migration, “Deteriorating security and grinding poverty in Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan have also contributed to the migrant influx.”

People fleeing conflicts and persecution are entitled to refugee status under the 1951 convention.The provisions give refugees the rights to “the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals”. This includes the right to housing, work, education, etc.

But so-called “economic migrants”, who do not fall under these provisions, also traverse dangerous routes and fall into deadly traps of human traffickers. Many are trying to escape persecution or extreme poverty. These are overlapping categories and need a more compassionate approach. The 71 men who died hiding in a truck in Austria may have been migrants or refugees. The fact is that they didn’t survive. Many South Asians told me they travelled exactly the same way from Hungary to Germany. But many of these migrants are callously dismissed as “pseudo refugees” with many European leaders talking of crackdown on human smugglers, forgetting that they are not the ones creating the demand.

A group of 15 European journalists, statisticians and developers came out with data on how refugees and migrants spend over 1 billion euros a year to reach Europe and Europeans pay a similar amount to keep them out. On their website, they show how a few companies benefit in the process.

Helping illegal migrants is outlawed

A small group of dedicated citizen groups help the migrants survive the tough conditions. In France, which is one of the most sought after destinations for asylum seekers, citizen volunteers help migrants find tents, mattresses, food, clothes, shoes and also guide them with their paperwork. State authorities keep these citizens groups at arm’s length. Volunteers of a group called Auberge des Migrants in Calais told me helping illegal migrants and refugees amounts to collusion with human traffickers in France. Even though in 2012, criminal penalties were lifted such “activity” remains illegal.