A better life? The European Union’s other problem
France – part I
Everyone thinks Europe is like heaven,” says Sharaf. “Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer. Since I left my country two years and three months ago. I didn’t sleep on the bed. I don’t think that I am in Europe.”
After leaving Darfur Sharaf bought a fake passport in Khartoum, from there he flew to Istanbul, and from there he made his way into Europe through Greece. “I didn’t know if I was in Europe or a dream. It was very horrible,” he says of Greece. He has since made his way to Calais in France, and from there he hopes to try his luck in England. The tall gentle-voiced Sudanese man tries to sound casual, but it is clear he is hopeful that Britain will turn out to be the Europe of his dreams.
By this stage of their long journey to Britain, many migrants are tired, bitter and desperate. Having struggled in at least one other European country, some began to create hallucinatory fantasies about the UK based on pure hope and speculation.
“England it is good,” insists an Eritrean man wolfing down his bread and soup at a Calais soup kitchen. “Until they reject you they give you basic necessities. Like food, water, house. Here they treat you as animal. If you [are] going to get the paper or not, you don’t know. Or if you going to die or you going to go mad, you don’t know. It is better for me to go to England, even when they reject me, they treat me well.”
A 14-year-old Afghani boy cut his finger so badly jumping over a fence that doctors were forced to cut it off. The boy and his 12-year-old brother had been trying to get over a fence to get on a truck bound for the UK. They plan to join their elder brother, a refugee living in Britain.
This makes Jacky Verhaegen, who runs Caritas in Calais, incredibly frustrated because their brother has no money or work to support them. Yet they insist they must join him despite the avenues open to them in France.
“It is a heartache for me to see them on the streets all day doing nothing. They live in the jungle. It is terrible for a 12-year-old. When I was 12, I was at home, I was at school,” he says.
“I told them, you are 12, if you stay five years in a child centre in France, when you turn 18 you get a French passport. Not a residence permit. Then you can go wherever you want.”
It is not just a childish fantasy, at any one time around 200 grown men, and many hundreds more along the coast of northern France, Belgium and Holland, wait in Calais for an opportune moment to smuggle themselves into Britain.
Yet in reality those seeking asylum have a better chance of getting a positive response in France, where the recognition rate is 40% compared to 27% in the UK. France also rarely deports people to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the UK regularly sends charter flights full of rejected asylum seekers to those countries.
But though France has a system well-equipped to manage asylum fairly, the reality often falls short of expectations.
Matt Quinette, a field worker for Médicins du Monde in Dunkirk, says: “When a Sudanese and Afghani come to Paris and see under the bridge his compatriot and say, ‘What do you do here … homeless?’ And when he calls his friend in UK and his friend says yes I arrived one month ago, I get appointment directly, I get money directly, and two months after I get my answer. It doesn’t seem so much to say, ‘I will spend sometime in the jungle and I will get a good place. England is better than here.’”
It is incredibly difficult for immigrants to distinguish fact from reality. Many lie about how well they are doing in Europe. Everyone knows someone who started a business in London, has a good job, drives a car and has a house. Jacky remembers one man taking pictures in front of the Caritas charity van pretending that it belonged to him, to send his family at home. Smugglers wanting to capitalise on the migrant’s optimism, will often embellish the opportunities in the UK.
“They are always controlled by smugglers and they don’t really know what the situation is like in the UK,” says Jean-François Roger from France terre d’asile, an NGO working with the UNHCR in Calais. “It is really difficult for them to get real information.
“The people who stay in the UK don’t tell the truth to their family in their original country … they say yes, OK, come we have found you a good job, we have found you accommodation, we have the possibility to stay.
“They imagine Eldorado for the UK, they will arrive there and ask asylum, the UK will give them accommodation and a job to work. We know the reality and we say that, but nobody thinks we say the truth. When they travel all of their family says you will be alright in the UK and everything will be OK. Nobody believes us.”
The situation for migrants in Calais is dire, so it is unsurprising people do not want to stay. Calais is a small town with high unemployment of its own to deal with, so there are few jobs for migrants and those waiting on asylum decisions. And it is not just Calais, there are many refugees living in poverty in Paris as well.
The irregular migrants in Calais rely on one or two small charities for food, they have access to a nurse’s surgery where they can shower a few times a week and the rest they figure out for themselves.