Socialist Worker

Refugees left to rot in Calais

They fled war and terror only to find their dreams of a new life end in misery, report Simon Assaf and Guy Smallman

Issue No. 2081

Refugees queue in the rain to receive hot meals distributed by French volunteers  (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Refugees queue in the rain to receive hot meals distributed by French volunteers (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

Rejected by Britain, abandoned by France and adrift inside fortress Europe. The countries they fled from reads like a list of the battlegrounds in the “war of terror” – Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran, Eritrea.

These are refugees from war and poverty and, according to many of them, they are the lucky ones who at least have a chance of a better life.

Many are sponsored by villages, families and friends in the hope that a First World wage will provide for families back home.

Most have paid more than £2,000 to smugglers and embarked on treacherous journeys for thousands of miles across inhospitable terrain. But at every step it was the police and the authorities that proved the most dangerous.

We found Ali and Tariq sheltering from the rain at the Quais de Moselle, a run down industrial area on the edge of the Calais docks. A force 6 gale was driving rain off the English channel.

They were begging for money to buy cigarettes.

The men were from Eritrea, they told us, and were on the last leg of a 3,000 mile journey to Britain. They reached Calais and could go no further. Now they were trapped, broke and hungry.

We were escorted to their hideout on condition that we did not take pictures or reveal its location. Scuttling in and out of abandoned buildings through rubbish strewn alleyways we reached a green door. Here there were further negotiations before we were allowed to speak to the rest of the group.

We found eight men huddling under blankets in a brick outhouse. The pools of rain had started to seep under the door.

Mohammed appeared from under a blanket. He was the unofficial spokesman for the group as he had a high school education. He told us that they were living in fear of the police and a gang of skinheads who had been terrorising them for several weeks.

He described the journey to Calais as “arduous”.

“We travelled 20 days from Eritrea, through war-torn Sudan, across the Sahara desert and into Libya. Several of us were caught by Gaddafi’s [Libyan] police, and those with enough money were able to buy our freedom. Then we booked a passage on fishing boats or ships, depending on what we could afford.”

The journey across the Mediterranean Sea was perilous, he said. They encountered difficulties and had to be rescued by the Italian navy. They slipped away from a refugee centre and stole a lift in trucks and cars before coming to halt in Calais.

Feral existence

Mohammed was a veteran among the Calais refugees. This was his sixth month – others had been there for two to four months. Ali and Tariq were the most recent arrivals and had enough strength to go on the daily hunt for food. But it is a feral existence.

We asked how they hoped to get across the formidable line of fences and police patrols to slip onto a ferry bound for Britain.

“We wait until we can sneak into a truck or a car. When we arrive in Britain we surrender to police.”

Were they aware that British authorities would return them to France? Yes, they said, but it was a risk worth taking.

Throughout the whole conversation the other figures under the blankets did not stir. Exhausted by the constant cold and rain the men had become ill. The outhouse stank of damp and sickness.

But this was only one of many problems the men face.

Tariq removed his hat to reveal a line of 20 stitches across the crown of his head. He said he was cracked on the head with a metal bar during a police raid several days ago.

The men said the attack was part of an ongoing campaign to drive the migrants out of the town. But now they are facing a new danger. Gangs of racists have been terrorising them, so they only venture out when they need food or make an attempt to board a ship.

Did they try and resist, I asked. They all shook their heads. “We run. We cannot lay a hand on them or we will go to prison. You cannot hit a Frenchman.”

Mohammed said that many of the men were getting more desperate as winter was approaching.

Stymied in their attempts to sneak on the back of lorries, some refugees are attempting to strap themselves to the bottom of trucks.

They said it was very dangerous and told us of one man who was badly injured after he fell off along the route.

But for others the risk was worth taking. “If you stay here you will get sick,” Tariq said. “If you get pneumonia you can die. Some men have already died. But now it is winter and it will be very difficult.”

Mohammed was determined go to Britain – what the French aid workers ironically call the “El Dorado across the channel”, after the mythical city paved with gold.

Ahmed Abdallah Abbass is an Iraqi Kurd from Baghdad. He was among a group waiting at the Quais de Moselle for the daily food van that serves as a feeding centre for the hundreds of migrants taking refuge in the French port town.

Wrapped against the weather in clothes donated by French charities, his main concern was that his shoes were not keeping out the wet. Drawn and tired after spending a sleepless night under bridges and telephone kiosks, he said he had no choice but to abandon Iraq.

He explained, “I’m from Haifa Street in Baghdad. This is the front line between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, the ­resistance and the Americans.”

As a Sunni Muslim his family were targeted in what has become known as the war of the corpses – the daily round of sectarian killing that has plagued the capital since the US invasion.

Three of his brothers were kidnapped by Shia sectarian death squads. His family gathered together money to send him and another brother out of the country.

“First we went to Syria, then to Jordan. But it was impossible to find work. Since my brothers left behind children it is now my responsibility to feed, clothe and send them to school.”

“We face daily harassment by the CRS [riot police]. They grab us, bundle us in vans then leave us outside the town. We then have to walk two hours to get back. This happens every day to someone.”

“But even this will not make me return to Iraq. We want to go to Britain.”

Asked why the refugees wanted to go to Britain, he said, “Britain must take responsibility for the Iraqi refugees, even if only for them to come and see how we have to live.

“We barely eat, have no money and our clothes are old. Some people get ill and die. Now that the weather is getting colder there is a danger of hypothermia.”

He said returning home was not an option. “Even though life here is grim I cannot return because of the sectarian gangs. I am a Sunni so I’m in danger from the Shia, and I’m a Kurd so I’m in danger from the Arabs.

“I have been able to speak to my family sometimes and they warn me not to return. I discovered that my niece and nephew were killed in a car bomb.

“Life in Iraq before the invasion was ugly, but now everything has collapsed. My only hope is to find work, and I know that it is only matter of time before I get lucky.

“I heard my brother is now in Rome and will soon join me here. We will complete the journey together.”

Since the British press launched a campaign against the migrants the French authorities have erected layers of fences and surveillance cameras around the dock. Not far from the food distribution centre a police car kept a discreet watch.

Lorry drivers face heavy fines or prison if they are discovered with refugees in their trailers. This has led to growing hostility between drivers – who fear falling foul of the law – and refugees who are becoming more desperate.

The security measures have made stowing away on a ferry much more difficult, but this has led to the refugees trying more desperate methods.

Among the group waiting by the car park was Adel, a man in his 20s who fled from Iranian Kurdistan. Adel was hobbling on crutches and explained that he broke his foot in two places after being discovered attempting to sneak onto a truck bound for Britain.

“The driver saw me and called the police. I climbed on a wall and had to jump six metres – I landed badly and broke my foot,” he said.

Adel was treated by one of the medical volunteers.

“Now I have to wait until it heals before I can try again,” he added.

As the day drew on more and more refugees were making the long walk through the rain to get their daily supplies. We met a group of Afghans waiting by the portacabin distribution centre.


Mehmet stepped forward to act as interpreter. He is 14 years old and an ethnic Aimaqs – a minority who live near Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

He told us that he had travelled across seven countries in an attempt to join a cousin living in Manchester. He had been in Calais for two weeks.

“My father and brother were killed by supporters of [Afghan president] Hamid Karzai because they cooperated with the Taliban.”

Mehmet has no sympathy for the Taliban and said his father had no choice but to cooperate with them as they were in power.

He explained that many Afghans were trapped between the Taliban – ­dominated by the ethnic Pashtuns – and the US occupation.

“People have become very scared because the Americans are dropping bombs from the air,” he said. Family members and villagers raised the money for him to flee in the hope that he could earn enough to send money home.

When he arrived in Calais he met others from Afghanistan who took care of him. But life is tough.

“We sleep under a bridge because of the rain. But every night the police come and kick us. They tell us to leave Calais, but we will only leave when we can go to England,” he said.

When asked why the Afghans wanted to come to Britain, they said that as one of the occupying powers, Britain had a duty to take in the refugees.

At 2pm the food vans and French volunteers appeared. The refugees crowded around the medical van and food cabin. Some helped unload the hot meals, bread and fruit that is the staple diet for the refugees.

Inside the cabin were a handful of women. They are offered special protection by the French volunteers as they are considered more vulnerable. The cabin door is guarded by a burly French volunteer.

Eza is a young woman from Eritrea. She agreed to talk to us but refused to be photographed.

She is well educated and until recently was employed by the United Nations Development Programme. But after a dispute between the UN agency and the government all the staff were sacked.

“After I lost my job I gathered my savings and decided to try for a new life in Britain,” Eza told us.

She said that all the women shared a room in the house of a French volunteer and were well treated. News that a friend had made it over the channel had improved the morale of the group.

Asked what she felt was the major drive that brought so many disparate and poor people thousands of miles, she said, “The truth is we all want a better life.”

Many of the names in this report have been changed at the request of the refugees

Ahmed (right) escaped from Iraq after death squads killed his brothers. Ali (left) broke his foot in his latest attempt to stow away on a lorry. (Pic:» Guy Smallman<

Ahmed (right) escaped from Iraq after death squads killed his brothers. Ali (left) broke his foot in his latest attempt to stow away on a lorry. (Pic: » Guy Smallman<

Migrants live in the shadow of Calais docks where they hope to board a ship for Britain. (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Migrants live in the shadow of Calais docks where they hope to board a ship for Britain. (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

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