The new boat peo­ple

Meet­ing the mi­grants wait­ing for a chance at their Chan­nel dash

The New European - - Agenda -

As other av­enues are closed off to them, JOE WALLEN meets the des­per­ate mi­grants in north­ern France will­ing to risk the per­ils of a Chan­nel cross­ing in small craft

Those spend­ing win­ter in the makeshift mi­grant camp on the out­skirts of Calais are well aware of the waves they are mak­ing on the op­po­site side of the Chan­nel.

“Tell your Sa­jid Javid that he will have blood on his hands. We are dy­ing be­cause of him,” one of them shouts across at me, as I visit the site. Be­hind the man, his in­fant daugh­ters cow­ers. Wear­ing a thin jacket, she is shiv­er­ing un­con­trol­lably, while a con­stant stream of mu­cus flows from her tiny nose.

They are just two of the hun­dreds of res­i­dents of the in­for­mal Rue des Garennes set­tle­ment in the north of the city, just in­land from the beach and neigh­bour­ing ferry ter­mi­nal. It has re­cently emerged as the fo­cus of at­ten­tion as a re­sult of the flow of mi­grants who have made their way from here across the Chan­nel in small boats. Since Novem­ber, more than 230 peo­ple are known to have reached the UK via this per­ilous route, prompting home sec­re­tary Javid to de­clare a “ma­jor in­ci­dent”, re­quir­ing the re­de­ploy­ment of pa­trol ves­sels from the Mediter­ranean.

The con­di­tions in the camp, which sits on aban­doned waste­land below a chem­i­cal plant, are de­plorable. Its in­hab­i­tants live in small clus­ters of tents and hud­dle around makeshift fires, their only source of warmth. Many suf­fer from a se­ries of phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal ail­ments.

The res­i­dents have ac­cess to a doc­tor only once a week and tell me of nearcon­stant fevers, coughs and headaches as a re­sult of liv­ing rough at a time when tem­per­a­tures barely hover above freez­ing. One new ar­rival – a young Iraqi Kurd, who I was told was just 17 – sat mo­tion­less, star­ing across the ex­panse. A group of Su­danese mi­grants tell me the young man has be­haved liked this since ar­riv­ing in the camp and of­ten let out screams in his sleep.

Ac­cord­ing to Help Refugees, the um­brella aid or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­vid­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance to those in north­ern France, there are around 2,000 mi­grants liv­ing rough around Calais and Dunkirk.

Help Refugees be­lieve this in­cludes 250 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors – those un­der the age of 18 who are with­out a par­ent or guardian. In the ab­sence of sup­port from the lo­cal govern­ment in Calais, Help Refugees es­sen­tially keep the thou­sands of mi­grants alive. It pro­vides clean and warm cloth­ing, tents and blan­kets, hy­giene prod­ucts and fire­wood as well as, cru­cially, three meals a day.

How­ever, com­pe­ti­tion over scarce re­sources is com­mon and mi­grants are un­able to work or at­tend school, mean­ing un­rest is a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence. The prox­im­ity with which the mi­grants live to the town’s res­i­dents has long been a source of griev­ance, with in­for­mal camps also ex­ist­ing off Rue Du Pont Trouille and near the Cen­tre Hospi­tal­ier de


Fol­low­ing un­rest and shoot­ings be­tween the mi­grants last Fe­bru­ary, res­i­dents com­plained to the French govern­ment that the city was in dan­ger of be­com­ing [sic] “the United States”. Oth­ers claimed that young women felt too scared to go out alone at night and that ve­hi­cles had been dam­aged. In short, an ab­hor­rent sit­u­a­tion has been al­lowed to con­tinue for both mi­grants and res­i­dents alike.

While the num­ber of mi­grants in Calais is not as high as in 2016 when 9,000 mi­grants lived in the so-called Jun­gle – lo­cated just the other side of the main route to the port to the Rue des Garennes – con­di­tions are con­sid­ered worse, be­cause of the in­creas­ingly in­for­mal na­ture of set­tle­ments.

“The con­di­tions in Calais now are dire. They are the worst we have ever seen,” says Maddy Allen, field man­ager for Help Refugees in north­ern France.

“We con­tinue to see im­ages and hear of the Jun­gle from two years ago but af­ter the bull­doz­ing of that there is no fixed camp here in Calais and we are a year into daily po­lice evic­tions, tem­per­a­tures are drop­ping to the mi­nuses at night, peo­ple are very much in sur­vival mode.”

Af­ter the de­struc­tion of the Jun­gle, the Calais mi­grant is­sue slipped down the news agenda in the UK. How­ever, it lurched back into Bri­tish con­scious­ness over the Christ­mas pe­riod, with a suc­ces­sion of re­ports of mi­grants at­tempt­ing the cross­ing in small craft. In 2017, the French au­thor­i­ties recorded just 12 at­tempted cross­ings by boat. Last year, the fig­ure climbed to 71, with a to­tal of

539 peo­ple at­tempt­ing the cross­ing – 80% of them Novem­ber and De­cem­ber.

Javid’s hard-line re­sponse – seen by many as an at­tempt to fur­ther his lead­er­ship am­bi­tions at West­min­ster – has in­cluded ques­tion­ing whether those mak­ing the cross­ing as even “gen­uine” asy­lum seek­ers, since they have not sought sanc­tity in the first ‘safe’ coun­try reached. His mes­sage to those in Calais con­sid­er­ing mak­ing the cross­ing was clear: “If you do some­how make it to the UK, we will do ev­ery­thing we can to make sure that you are of­ten not suc­cess­ful.”

How­ever, those I met were con­fi­dent in the strength of their own claims for asy­lum. The fa­ther who had given me his mes­sage for Javid said he was a mem­ber of Iran’s Chris­tian mi­nor­ity, a group which the UN has said face wide­spread per­se­cu­tion. Ira­ni­ans make up the largest pro­por­tion of mi­grants in Calais at

38.8%, ac­cord­ing to a cen­sus car­ried out by Help Refugees in Novem­ber. Ac­cord­ing to the Home Of­fice, they also made up the ma­jor­ity of those recorded cross­ing in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber. The Chris­tians have also re­cently been joined by many Ira­nian Kurds.

“I had so many prob­lems in my area, they are ar­rest­ing and putting Kurds in jail,” Mo­hammed*, 40, from Sanan­daj in Ira­nian Kur­dis­tan, told me. “They ar­rested my fam­ily mem­bers and said they would do the same to me so I left.”

He found Javid’s claims that he should set­tle in a neigh­bour­ing ‘safe’ coun­try laugh­able. “Where am I meant to go?” he asks, “To Iraq? To Turkey? All of these coun­tries are not friends to the Kurds.” In­deed, it is strik­ing just how much news of Javid’s re­sponse has fil­tered through to the camps. There is wide­spread frus­tra­tion at his po­si­tion, and I hear many an­gry com­ments ask­ing how the son of eco­nomic mi­grants is try­ing to close the door on those seek­ing a bet­ter life.

Mo­hammed claims to have al­ready tried to cross the Chan­nel sev­eral times by dinghy, with his last at­tempt com­ing as re­cently as sev­eral weeks ago. It was an anti-cli­max, he re­calls with a hol­low laugh, af­ter the mo­tor on his boat broke down sev­eral hun­dred me­tres from the French coast and he was quickly picked up by the coast­guard.

Ac­cord­ing to Mo­hammed and other Ira­ni­ans in the camp, smug­glers and their mid­dle­men live part-time among the mi­grants and in city town’s hos­tels, act­ing with rel­a­tive im­punity. Their ma­lign in­flu­ence over the set­tle­ment is clear, with many groups of mi­grants re­fus­ing to speak to me, claim­ing that if smug­glers saw them they could face ret­ri­bu­tion.

While those I speak to refuse to iden­tify the smug­glers op­er­at­ing in Calais, they say they are mostly Ira­ni­ans, Afgha­nis or Iraqis who have been in the city for sev­eral years, know the coast­line well and have good con­nec­tions in each of the camps of North­ern France, to source as many cus­tomers as pos­si­ble for the fi­nal part of their jour­ney – across the Chan­nel.

Typ­i­cally, Mo­hammed said that a smug­gler would pur­chase a dinghy be­fore tout­ing around the camps to sell a place on board, usu­ally be­tween 1-2,000 eu­ros. When the places are filled, the traf­ficker tells those mak­ing the cross­ing that they will be picked up from a spe­cific lo­ca­tion in Calais, be­fore be­ing trans­ported to a se­cluded beach, from which the vulnerable, in­flat­able ves­sel sets off – into the grey, win­ter seas and across one of the busi­est ship­ping routes in the world.

The re­cent in­flux of Ira­nian mi­grants seems to be a ma­jor fac­tor in the steep rise in dinghy cross­ings in the fi­nal two months of 2018. Un­til Oc­to­ber, they were able to travel, visa-free, to Ser­bia, from where they were able to make their way to the Chan­nel coast. Un­like many mi­grants here from other coun­tries, the Ira­ni­ans tend not to have had the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of cross­ing the Mediter­ranean by boat. This could ex­plain why they are more will­ing to risk it now.

Mo­hammed also tells me that Ira­ni­ans tend to be among the few na­tion­al­i­ties in

the camp that can oc­ca­sion­ally find the sums nec­es­sary to pay smug­glers for a spot on the boats, be­cause they are more likely to be able to draw on ex­tended fam­ily net­works at home and in other parts of Europe to pool­ing the re­quired funds. Ul­ti­mately, the rise in boat cross­ings is a sim­ple mat­ter of sup­ply and de­mand. The smug­glers need to raise the money to buy the boats. They now have more peo­ple in north­ern France with the cash to fund this method of travel. For Ira­ni­ans, the UK is seen as an at­trac­tive coun­try, as it al­ready has a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion of their com­pa­tri­ots, as many as 83,000 in 2011, while Ira­nian asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions had a 47% suc­cess rate in 2017. This com­pares to 40% for Afghans and 20% for Iraqis.

The switch to­wards us­ing boats is also partly driven by in­creased se­cu­rity mea­sures aimed at stop­ping mi­grants try­ing to stow away on lor­ries, or en­ter the Chan­nel Tun­nel, while the rapid de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of al­ready poor liv­ing con­di­tions around Calais has cre­ated an added im­me­di­acy – de­spite the dan­gers of cross­ing by boat at this time of year. The freez­ing con­di­tions in the camps make a boat cross­ing a worth­while gam­ble. There is no chance that their prospects will im­prove by wait­ing. One is­sue which does not seem to be a fac­tor, in­ci­den­tally, is Brexit. While Javid’s re­sponse has cer­tainly cut through to the mi­grants, the loom­ing prospect of changes at the bor­der which are likely to fol­low the UK’S de­par­ture from the EU have not. Not one mi­grant I spoke to said that it was a rel­e­vant is­sue.

One that did crop up though, was the ac­tions of the French au­thor­i­ties, which Maddy Allen said were help­ing to drive peo­ple onto the wa­ter. “Po­lice vi­o­lence is deeply em­bed­ded into the cul­ture here,” she says. “We see dog han­dlers re­leas­ing dogs onto peo­ple in the port – sim­ply mi­grants be­ing in the wrong place at the wrong time – and ex­ces­sive use of po­lice vi­o­lence and chem­i­cal agents like CS gas. We’ve even had re­ports over the last two weeks from Dunkirk of po­lice pour­ing bleach into mi­grants’ tents.”

The or­gan­i­sa­tion recorded 244 al­leged hu­man rights abuses in 2018 in­volv­ing po­lice treat­ment of mi­grants. Tamer*, a 20-year-old from Dar­fur in Su­dan, said that of­fi­cers had de­stroyed his tent ev­ery two days and sub­jected him to beat­ings, pep­per-spray and ar­rest and de­tain­ment with­out charge – ac­tions which left him de­ter­mined to reach the UK. “I left Su­dan many years ago, when I was 16 af­ter the (pro-govern­ment) Jan­jaweed mili­tia killed my brother, my fa­ther and my un­cle,” he ex­plains.

De­spite cit­ing le­git­i­mate claims for asy­lum, Tamer and Mo­hammed must both risk their lives to cross the Chan­nel, in or­der to ap­ply for refugee sta­tus in Britain. Ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean

Union law, the Dublin Reg­u­la­tion, refugees must ap­ply for asy­lum in the coun­try where they ar­rive and are fin­ger­printed. How­ever, de­spite the sup­port the EU has given refugees in re­cent years, the pol­icy re­mains some­what con­tro­ver­sial.

Mo­hammed, for ex­am­ple, was fin­ger­printed in Dres­den, Ger­many, but does not want to ap­ply for asy­lum there, as he claims he was the vic­tim of far-right vi­o­lence in the coun­try. Sim­i­larly, Tamer re­fuses to ap­ply in France, af­ter the treat­ment he has re­ceived from po­lice, claim­ing it is not a safe coun­try.

“Why would you want to ap­ply for asy­lum in a coun­try where you have been beaten awake in the morn­ing and tear­gassed at night?” Allen says. “This sys­temic state vi­o­lence has to stop.”

Faced with a grim ex­is­tence in north­ern France, then, the lure of the Chan­nel – de­spite the im­mense dan­gers of cross­ing it and the frosty re­cep­tion out­lined for them on the other side by Sa­jid Javid – re­mains strong for those mi­grants liv­ing around Calais.

On my last night in the city, a 16-yearold Afghan boy is the talk of the camp. He told oth­ers he had fled, fear­ing for his life at home af­ter his fam­ily were killed by the Tal­iban. Liv­ing alone in the woods near Calais, he had at­tempted to stow away un­der a lorry headed for port. He had fallen off, badly frac­tur­ing his arm and was lucky to still be alive.

Whether they try to en­ter in the back of a truck, or on a small, ex­posed in­flat­able boat, there is no safe route open to these peo­ple. And yet they will not stop try­ing. It seems, there­fore, just a mat­ter of time be­fore that chill­ing prophecy shouted at me by that Ira­nian fa­ther, comes true.

Joe Wallen is a free­lance for­eign cor­re­spon­dent who has cov­ered the Euro­pean mi­grant cri­sis from North Africa, Spain, Italy and East­ern Europe. He has pre­vi­ously writ­ten for the Tele­graph, In­de­pen­dent and Al Jazeera on the topic

*Names changed to pro­tect iden­ti­ties

Photo: Getty Im­ages

SLEDGEHAMMER: Bri­tish ves­sels in the English Chan­nel as­sist in search­ing the area for mi­grant boats

RE­AL­ITY: Right top; Help Refugees ware­house

Pho­tos: Joe Wallen

Right bot­tom; Tamir, Rue des Garennes camp

Photo: French po­lice

IN­TER­CEPTED: French mar­itime po­lice dis­cover a mi­grant boat

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