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27th Nov 2021

‘It’s England or die’ – life inside the refugee camps in northern France

Ava Evans

grande Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk

‘One year, 10 years. No problem. One day I will get to England’

Rozeekhan, 41, is speaking to me in a makeshift campsite in northern France. He travelled here in summer, after Kabul fell to the Taliban. 

“There’s a food problem, a work problem, a housing problem – an everything problem”, he says of life in his homeland. “It’s about to snow again in Afghanistan and there’s no wood, no gas.”

Asylum seekers like Rozeekhan don’t camp in a rainy, cold corner of Northern France in the vain hope they’ll one day cheat the British taxpayer out of a measly welfare payment of £39.63 a week. 

They’re here because the west has waged wars in the Middle East and left their home countries destabilised. The recent withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan – 20 years after the UK joined their invasion in the wake of 9/11- is a painful case in point for many in this camp.

From the bridge, only a few tents are visible and one or two groups can be seen huddled together against the wind and rain. 

Hidden underneath a motorway underpass, tarpaulin slaps against abandoned railway tracks. The entrance is via a perilous mudslide, brought on by hours of unrelenting rain. It’s almost impossible to climb after Friday’s washout. 

Two Turkish boys I met at a local supermarket lead us here. They help our small team navigate the entrance, laughing with us as we lose our balance, sending cameras and notebooks flying.

People charge their phones at the Grande-Synthe camp in Dunkirk

It’s cold and drizzly when I arrive and the camp’s inhabitants are hungry and mentally exhausted. The entire camp is living on one dream: that one day, a rubber boat will take them safely across the channel to England. 

If you’ve read the tabloids in recent weeks, you’d be forgiven for believing Calais was teaming with a country-load of potential migrants but here, in the largest camp of its kind, there are around 300 people. 

Every person I speak to knows about the recent tragedy on the Channel – in which at least 27 people lost their lives. “I understand people have died,” a Kurdish man named Ahmad tells me. “My friend, maybe – he died”. 

Ahmad is in his late 20s. He is crouching over a pile of broken wooden pallets, struggling to light a fire. I offer him my lighter, and join him on a soaking camp chair.

In six months, he has tried 11 times to reach Dover. He made his first attempt in June after his family paid £2,200 to a man in his village back home, who claimed he could offer safe passage into Britain. Police, a broken engine and a burst dinghy have all played havoc with his plans.

He is certain his friend was on the boat that capsized on Wednesday. “I speak to him everyday on Facebook Messenger, but I haven’t heard from him in three days. If he made it, he would have told me”. I ask if the fear of dying will deter him from trying again. No, he says.

The scale of that tragedy – the largest loss of life in a Channel crossing – made headlines. 

More than 25,000 people seeking asylum have reached UK waters by boat so far this year. In 2018, the figure is thought to have been as small as 299, meaning the number has jumped by about 8,000%  over the past three years. The same year, the ferry ports introduced heartbeat monitors, carbon dioxide detectors and sniffer dogs to find people hiding in the back of lorries. 

At the border in Calais, we find more police than potential migrants. An armoured presence has made crossing the Channel in the back of a lorry near impossible. There are around 15-20 young Sudanese boys in a camp nearby. They can’t remember the last time anyone successfully made the crossing by freight. 

Earlier in the day, I’d visited the beach rumoured to have launched those 27 migrants to their death on Wednesday. What I found was a vast expanse of yellow sand flanked by rows of expensive-looking houses, dog walkers, runners, kite-fliers and even one man shooting an air rifle at seagulls. Everything seemed normal.

But as I walked along the shore, the telltale signs of the criminal activities carried out here became clear. Two fluorescent orange life jackets were strewn on the sand. They looked more like stage props than life-savers. An inch-thick, porous foam, and with a small clip I wouldn’t trust to strap my handbag together let alone keep a child afloat in the Channel. 

Further down, a waterlogged rucksack had been spat back onto the sand by the tide. Tied to its strap we could see a pink and purple beaded bracelet, presumably it belonged to a child. 

Back in the camp, Rozeekhan has a message for Boris Johnson’s government. He says: “The UK government understands the situation. Any NATO country understands the situation. The UK government should be accepting these people”.

But that’s not likely anytime soon. On Friday, tensions were escalating between the French and British governments. 

President Macron has cancelled talks with the UK government for the time being, perturbed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tweets that asked both countries to “share responsibility” in the crisis. 

Johnson called on France to agree to “take back” people who cross the Channel to the UK.

Macron says since Brexit, the UK is no longer able to use the bloc’s Dublin system for returning migrants to the first member state they entered, meaning France is not responsible for people who land on British shores. 

Boil down the bluster, and beneath it all you’ll find is two governments playing hot potato with responsibility for the untimely death of nearly 30 people. 

I see Rozeekhan once more before I leave the camp. We swap phone numbers. “I’ll see you in England,” he says. 

Leaving the camp, I think about him intensely. Rozeekhan had a business in Kabul. His daughters were once in school. Only a year ago, he was enjoying a once-normal family life. And now he’s here, in northern France, sleeping on a disused railway track.