Town of stories

Politicians like Calais’ mayor should stop telling tales

and start listening to asylum seekers

This article was commissioned and first published by the New Statesman

How many migrants or refugees has Natacha Bouchart spoken to lately? Judging by her evidence to the home affairs select committee earlier this week, the answer is none. Bouchart is mayor of Calais, a small town in France where a transient population of migrants and refugees has bedded down for more than a decade. From week to week, month to month, year to year, the population changes; people leave for England, people leave for Sweden or Italy, people leave for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many stay in Calais. To suggest that £36 a week is a key motivating force is to ignore the nuancesof migratory journeys made across Europe by refugees today.

***

Fyori is starting to forget her English, but her French is excellent. The 26-year-old was born in Eritrea where she grew up speaking English and Teghani. When Fyore turned 18 her mother told her to leave the country. A few years earlier Fyore’s brother had been called up to Sawa, the Eritrean army, and the family lost contact with him. “If you get good grades, you can go to university, if not you go to Sawa.” Young people are conscripted for indefinite periods and, if they’re lucky, permitted to visit family once or twice a year. Fyore’s mother sold jewelry to bribe border guards for her daughter’s passage to Sudan.

Fyore lived and worked in Khartoum for three years and then, like many young bilingual Africans, moved to Libya attracted by stories of decent work. Back then sub-Saharan migrants from conflict-ridden countries could find work and earn a sort of living in Libya. The darker their skin, the more likely they would be attacked on the streets or harassed by the police (officers would storm the cafe where Fyore worked most days), but there was solace in expat communities.

Fyore fell in love with a mechanic from Sudan and gave birth to their child in Benghazi. Dreaming of a better life for their son, unwilling to turn back, they moved to Tripoli and there heard stories of work and opportunities in Europe. They paid the fare for a boat across the sea and attempted to begin a life in Italy. “It was not good. You cannot get papers or work, nothing. Many, many people sleeping on the road.”

Through the migrant and refugee grapevine they heard that not all of Europe was like Italy and, unable to see a clear path back to Africa, they wanted to believe this. So when they were advised to make their way to France and then England, the young family did so.

By the time they reached Paris, both Fyore and her baby boy were sick and spent nearly a month in a French hospital. Weakened mentally and physically, Fyore and her family considered starting over in France. It would mean learning another language (Fyore had by now added Arabic to her English and Teghani) and continued destitution. The murky underground network that sucks in all sans-papiers or people without papers, had led them to Calais. Here they discovered racism nearly as bad as in Libya; thepolice regularly accost black and brown people, destroy their makeshift shelters in dilapidated buildings and constantly move them on. It is difficult to access housing set aside for asylum seekers because of low stocks and high demand, while the shelter available is shared with homeless drunks and drug addicts.

Hundreds and thousands of migrants and refugees find themselves at this point. In Calais, having to make a choice, continue to England or interrupt the intended journey and stay put in France. Some have made similar journeys to Fyore; others have watched friends and family drown in the Mediterranean sea; some have watched their livelihoods destroyed in Syria orLibya; others have been enslaved in Turkey and Bulgaria or forced intoprostitution in Greece and Italy; others beaten and imprisoned by police inHungary; others will have fled forced marriage in Afghanistan; others destitution in refugee camps in the Swat Valley, in Jordan, in Kenya.

When they arrive in Calais they are not thinking of anything as tangible as £36 a week. They look around them and desperately hope that the next step of the journey will bring the misery to an end; that the grass really will be greener.

It isn’t.

The public accounts committee’s recent report on the Home Office’s mismanagement of the immigration and asylum system detailed seven-year backlogs, tens of thousands of asylum applications outstanding and up to a billion wasted on a failed IT project. There is talk of taxpayers money being wasted and British people let down by a government failing to manage immigration, but the real victims are the asylum seekers and migrants who must put their lives on hold, often for years, while waiting for the Home Office to decide if they can live, work and receive sanctuary in Britain or whether they must return home.

Rachel, a Congolese national, has been waiting one year and 10 months for a decision on her asylum application. The first time the militia stormed her village and raped her, she picked herself up and carried on. The second time, she fled. On her arrival in the UK she applied for asylum and while awaiting the decision stayed at a hostel provided by a charity. One morning she awoke to find blood streaming down her legs; she can’t remember much else, but spent a week in hospital and gave birth to a premature baby. She hadn’t realised she was pregnant and at first didn’t want to keep the baby, a reminder of the rape and torture she had endured at home.

More than a year later Rachel and her son live in a small room in a six-bedroom house with 10 other people. The Home Office still hasn’t decided what to do with her; in the mean time, she is not legally able to work and receives around £70 a week on a payment card. She uses this to buy baby products and food; usually from Tescos or Morrisons, which is dependent on the staff on the checkouts being aware of the card. Rachel borrows money from “friends” to cover her bus fare so she can report to the Home Office once a month (a 90-minute bus journey when the traffic is good), visit a psychiatrist at Freedom from Torture every two weeks and take her son to hospital for regular check-ups. Recently she enquired at a local college, but “there was nowhere for the baby, and the money . . . ” So she stays at home most days, waiting. This is not Eldorado.

 ***

Fortunately for Fyore, she met Mariam; a brusque but kind French woman of Algerian descent, who persuaded her to consider applying for asylum in France. At first Fyore resisted; in Calais she was miserable and if there was chance that life might be better in England, shouldn’t she take it? Having got this far, one more dangerous journey would be surely worth it?

But Fyore stayed, after two years was granted temporary leave to remain, which lasts 10 years. In the meantime she teaches French and helps local charities with translation.

Fyore’s is one story of many in Calais, just as Rachel’s story is one of many here in the UK. These stories are important because they dispel the myths we perpetuate when we talk about immigration. Illegal migrants, failed asylum seekers, even refugees; all of these labels are inadequate catch-all terms that can only dehumanise, and rarely capture the range of human experience you find at the ports of France, on the streets of Athens and in immigration detention centres across the UK.

It is time that European politicians, in this case the French mayor and British politicians, stopped making up stories and started listening. More listening and less talking might just lead to more informed policy-making and a fairer and more practical European-wide asylum and immigration system.

Ordinary Europeans welcome migrants and asylum seekers

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part IV

Celine, a French nurse, says before running a surgery for immigrants in Calais, she had no interest in politics; now she is angry that Europe’s immigration and asylum system is so dysfunctional. However, when treating her patients, Celine focuses on culture, not politics.

“It is important for them to be normal people,” she says. “When they are in the street people are afraid [of them], they don’t look at them with respect. When they speak English, they talk with me, just to explain when they are tired, when they have a lot of stress and they need to talk about that

“But they are very strong, they smile, they are proud. They need to talk about other things…they need to know how we live. We talk about the difference. Some of them say they are tired of being in that situation, to think only about their situation and to talk only about their situation.

“So they need to talk about another thing, to compare our lives. They like to explain to me the story of their country and they like to talk about their religion. I like it, it is very interesting because we talk about our differences but with respect.”

At another small centre, a short bus ride from Celine’s surgery is a place where migrants and asylum seekers, by now exhausted from journeys of months and even years, can relax. Caritas, an international Catholic charity, runs the centre offering languages lessons, a common room where people from around the world play board games, eat cake and drink tea. For a few moments they banish all thoughts of their transient lives.

Gone are the national divisions and tensions of the camps; instead the African jokes with the Afghan, different tribal groups, who usually refuse to even to live next to each other, show concern for each other.

Jacky Verhaegen, who runs the centre with several volunteers says the change in some of the Afghan boys, many barely into their teens, is most remarkable. Once they are taken out of their usual environment, an adult world concerned solely with survival, they become children again.

“When you see them outside they are like small men, playing rough and when they come here, they start drawing, they start playing games and being a child again. I am no shrink, but it is going to be difficult for them to build themselves as normal balanced adult with no teenage years. They are going from childhood to manhood with nothing in between.”

The centre offers practical support but most importantly it is a much-needed haven away from asylum applications, the Channel Tunnel, their camps and the French police.

Sher Wali, pictured, enjoys the respite offered by Caritas’s centre. Tired of mov­ing, he is keen to settle. “I used to live in the jungle for three months, it was very difficult. Every time people fight, drink alcohol, because they are stressed and depressed,” he says. He now lives with a French family, is studying French, and works as a mechanic. His gentle demeanor belies the trauma of his journey.

Sher Wali was born on the frontier be­tween Pakistan and Afghanistan, and lived in the Kunar province in north-eastern Afghani­stan. He left the country with his younger brother for Europe several years ago, while his mother went to Pakistan. The family sold their property to finance their escape.

It took Sher Wali and his brother 15 months to get to Europe. They were deported twice back to Afghanistan, from both Iran and Turkey, but determined, they simply began the journey again. Tragedy struck in Tur­key when Sher and his 18-year-old brother were separated. He has not seen or heard from him since. “He will be 22 soon,” he says.

Sher continued alone to Romania, Hungary, Germany, and Belgium, and now plans to stay in France.

I

A humanitarian crisis in the forests of northern France

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. Young Afghan boy in Dunkirk, France

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.

young Afghans in Dunkirk in France“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.

“The police make us feel like animals”


A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part II

The large decrepit factory stands tall but offers little by way of shelter. There are scraps of rusted metal and an assortment of garbage strewn over the concrete floor. The roof’s gaping holes, smashed windows, and missing doors mean the rain and wind will always get in.

Africa House, Calais

Everyone in Calais calls the building Africa House because it is where the town’s transient population of sub-Saharan African migrants and asylum seekers live. About 100 men reside in Africa House, most hail from Sudan and Eritrea. Other squats exist, dotted in and around Calais, home to other migrant populations from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

Every now and then Calais’ riot police raid Africa House, arresting any migrants they catch. When I was there in February, one migrant was chased up onto the roof of Africa House, fell and broke his wrist. In the scuffle that followed, two people from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group (an activist group) were also arrested after trying to alert the migrants to the police presence and capturing the arrests on camera.

Celine, a nurse working at the medical centre for immigrants in Calais, is furious about the incident. “The man is very lucky he broke only his wrist, he [could have] died or become paralysed.”

This is not the first time an immigrant has fallen from a roof and broken bones running away from the police, she says. “Sometimes they arrest them here [at the medical centre]. Last summer it happened. Everybody jumped.”

Haroon Abdurallam, a 25-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan, lives in Africa House. He lifts his hat to reveal a scar, the result of a run in with a French policeman:

“I don’t care. I am not scared. I am not a criminal. If you go anywhere, everyone looks at you like you are an animal. They don’t like black people. Police harassment makes [us] feel like animals.”

Constant police harassment is behind much of the animosity that some immigrants feel towards France. The criminalisation of migrants, which begins when they enter Europe and become ‘illegal immigrants’, ends in places like Calais, where a special police force patrols the streets and squats looking for immigrants without papers to arrest.

“The police drive around in vans looking for people who have dark skin because that is the only way they can really find people who don’t have papers. They say it is not racist but … it is not very convincing,” says Matthieu Gues, an activist from the Calais Migrant Solidarity group.

“They go round town during the day, they also go straight to the squats and camps, that is where they check people’s IDs. And we try to be there to warn people that the police are coming.”Africa House, Calais

On arrest, they could be held for 24 hours, or up to a week or more. This might happen once a week, once a day or, in some cases, several times in one day. Every time they are arrested they must walk six miles back from the police station to their squats and camps in Calais.

Mohammed Asif, a 27-year-old Hazare Afghani, who has been all over Europe trying to find a place to settle, is tired.

“I had a small tent,” he explains. “The police cut it and took blanket and put inside car. Every time police control for [your] document. ‘Where you sleep? Who are you?’ When you come to eat at Caritas, the police harass you. They take you to police station, maybe put you in jail.

“In one week, maybe three times[number of arrests]. It is too tiring. We got put inside the car, you go to police station, police station put you to jail for two, three days, one week. You leave the station. It is too much.”

Inside Africa House, CalaisNGOs and charities working in Calais and Dunkirk, where police are equally aggressive, are nonplussed at the tactic, which does not seem to have any point to it. No one is deported as a result of the arrests, and no finger prints are checked during these arrests (as is required under Europe’s Dublin II system).

“People are living like animals and for the police and the authorities it is not enough,” says Matt Quinette from Médicins du Monde, a charity that works with undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in Dunkirk.

“They [the police] destroy their shelter regularly. They destroy food. They arrest the people so many times. One time we had a young guy who was 19 or 20 years old, he was kept three times in the retention centre during 15 days, without any results. He was still in the camps, still on the coastline trying to reach England. But for him it is really difficult, he is really suffering.”

“We [Medicins du Monde] have been fired from south Darfur yesterday. Can you imagine if in Darfur we have a healthcare centre and people are arrested on the way? Can you imagine that we give goods to the people to build a shelter to improve their living conditions and the local authority of Darfur destroyed it? What will happen? You will have international community shouting, you will have UN shouting, here it happens every day and nobody does anything.”

Africa House, Calais

“Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer”

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.