A better life? The European Union’s other problem
France – part III
Many asylum seekers and migrants intent on getting to Britain set up camps close to the ferry ports and lorry depots along the northern coast of France. The camp I visit is just off a busy motorway in Teteghem, a town outside Dunkirk.
Motorists speed by the vast stretch of forest, unaware of the chaos and desperation festering nearby. The forest provides the barest shelter for a group of Afghan men, who share four flimsy tents made with bits of wood and thick plastic sheets.
A makeshift living area, thick with mud, has formed at the centre of the tents. There is rubbish everywhere; bottles, old clothes, odd shoes and stale bread. A stack of dirty plastic plates sits abandoned in a shopping trolley. It is around 11am and the Afghan campers are sound asleep, having spent all night trying to stow away on trucks heading to England.
The charity field workers I am with, there to provide food and medicine, are concerned about the mess. If the place isn’t kept clean, the authorities will destroy it, they say.
But the campers are unlikely to start spring-cleaning anytime soon; a clean, homely camp would create a permanence they refuse to accept. The Afghans at the camp do not expect to remain in this desolate place for long. They set off every day, with no plan to return, in search of a lorry to stow away in. And every day they believe is the day they will get to Britain.
However, their chances of success are slim and most return to the mud of their temporary home. There are around 6,000 trucks crossing to Dover every day, and 99% are searched for stowaways.
This does not bother Zia-ur-ahman. He emerges from his tent, shivering and wincing slightly. It is February and bitterly cold. Zia-ur-ahm is sockless, his bare feet in poorly fitted loafers. His left eye is closed and sunken into his swollen cheek. The 14-year-old fell off a truck the night before. But Zia-ur-ahman, who hails from Kabul, is not deterred. He plans to try the trucks again tonight.
Many of the men and boys at the camp need medical attention. The men wear thin torn clothes, no match for the winter chill. Most wear shoes worn from walking miles to and from ferry ports or lorry depots in search of a passage. Many are covered in bruises and scrapes, acquired either running from the police or falling from trucks.
But the young Afghans I chatted to, perhaps being well accustomed to the grimmer things in life, were cheerful, and pleased at a diversion from their dangerous, unhappy task. Yes, one admitted, you could die falling from a truck, and it is cold and dirty living in camps, but life is worse in Afghanistan.
At another camp, this one partly provided by Dunkirk’s local authority, the migrants are bitter and much less hopeful.
The ‘official’ camp is home to a mix of Kurds, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Vietnamese nationals, and the conditions are just as miserable. The council has provided one large marquee, big enough to fit around 30 people in it, and a smaller tent, both of which sit in a muddy grass opening surrounded by trees.
The Afghans have built their own shelter away from the council tents, using bits of plastic, in some nearby trees. There is plenty of room for them in the large tent, but they accuse the Kurds of not wanting to “live with others”. The two Vietnamese migrants avoid the conflict, refuse to speak to anyone and live alone in the small tent.
It is cold and dirty, and everyone is tired and ill. A harmless cold can quickly become debilitating when a person is forced to sleep outside in wet weather, with no warm clothes, and hot food just two or three times a week.
“The humanitarian situation is very bad”, says Matt Quinette of Médicins du Monde. “We are in France but you cannot imagine we are in France. People have real difficulties getting access to water, they don’t have hygiene, they don’t have good shelter, they are open to the wind, humidity. They are vulnerable with the cold. There is no waste management in the camps … so sanitary conditions on these camps are really, really bad. They affect the health of the people.”
While I am there, some UNHCR officials also arrive at the camp. As they leave, the Iraqi man I am talking to, mutters: “thanks”. His voice is full of sarcasm.
“We are pissed off here in this jungle,” says another migrant named Abdil. “Everyone is itchy because we are dirty. Everyone catches fleas. Every day my legs hurt, my shoes…” His annoyance stems from the fact that he was pulled from a truck at around 7am that morning.
He is getting tired of lying to his family at home in Afghanistan too.
“Everyone comes here to benefit his family, if I make money, I can send it back to Afghanistan. Everyone wants to escape war and the threat of death from IEDs. Right now day by day the situation is bad, what should we do?”
An Iraqi named Saman Gaala is absolutely certain of his position; he will go to England. A British soldier he met fighting in Iraq invited him, he says. The soldier even gave Saman his mobile and told him to call once he got to the UK. Talk of the UK raises spirits among the small crowd gathered around me. One migrant asks me how much money he would need to set up a business in England.
Eventually this hope will vanish. Some irregular migrants in France are so mentally and physically beaten, that they opt to be deported voluntarily. “It is not the Europe they pictured when they left their own country,” says Jacky Verhaegen, who works for Caritas in Calais. “Two to three hundred have asked for voluntary returns to their home country. Mostly for the same reason that they apply for asylum: desperation.”
For those fleeing countries like Eritrea, Sudan or Afghanistan, this is not an option, so they plough their efforts into navigating the French asylum system. If they have no fingerprint in another European Union country, then they will receive a permit to stay in France for one month, while their asylum application is being processed. During this period the government allocates them €300 a month to live on while they wait for a decision, twice as much as they would receive in Britain.
The entire process takes around one year. The situation is slightly different if a migrant has a fingerprint in another EU country. In such circumstances, their application is fast tracked with no social assistance while they wait for a decision. Fast track applications are most likely to be rejected and deported back to the European country where their fingerprint was first taken.