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Christmas in Calais: The refugees stranded in limbo by political posturing

Calmer weather has brought a new surge of migrant boat crossings in the Channel - and with them, new risks.

One of the slum located in Grande-Synthe, near the town of Dunkerque. A slum next to a railway where more than a thousand migrants live, mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The camp was evicted violently on 17th November by French Authorities, right one week before the brutal 24th November’s tragedy. All photos: Giacomo Sini.

Ibrahim, from Sudan, has a Christmas dream. It involves taking his life into his hands and trying his luck on the hostile waters of the Channel, then receiving a sympathetic hearing if and when he makes land on the Kent coast.

But he waits in an impromptu campsite in Coquelles, Calais without the funds to pay people smugglers, he knows that a dream is all he has. He has unsuccessfully tried to reach Britain by jumping on a lorry, as many do.
“My Christmas will be with people from this community. Our only hope is to find a way to arrive in the UK,” he says. And then he adds: “Why they are not guaranteeing us a safe passage? We just ask for asylum, we do not want to stay here”.

He has been stuck before, but not like this. “In Malta,’ he says, “I was in prison for eight months. The conditions on that island are terrible, a friend of mine is still imprisoned there. Then I managed to reach Italy, I crossed the border on the Alps and I’m here”.

One of the entrance roads to the port of Calais at the exit of the A16 motorway. From a few kilometres before entering the city, the road is surrounded by large metal nets topped with barbed wire, in order to block access to migrants trying to board a truck or car heading to the UK.

Others are in limbo too. Also without funds, Solomon, from Eritrea, has settled into an existence that involves helping to distribute aid from sympathetic non-government organisations, trying to stay ahead of local police who attempt to disperse migrants and looking out for a free ride across the Channel. “I’ve been here for a year” he says. “We are well organized in this ‘camp’ when the police come to evict us we move our tents. We collect the food and clothes that the associations give us, then we redistribute to all, so that no one is left without.”

But he adds in a serious tone, that “this evening if the weather is good I will try to cross, like every time I see good weather.”

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of 27 people in the Channel in late November, attempted crossings seemed to slow down. But those who work with the migrants knew the drop-off was related to the weather, rather than fear of what might await them on the seas. In the run-up to Christmas, calmer waters have brought an increase in small boat crossings from Calais. Over 900 people crossed last Thursday and Friday alone.

Helen, who works with the organisation Fast Calais, says she has “felt more tension in the informal camps; some of this directly linked to the loss we have experienced. There has not been any change with the relentless evictions after the tragedy. In my opinion, this mixed with the grief and reminder of the dangers ahead and dangers from the past is making people’s lives even harder.”

But, she adds, “the people who are here in Calais have often witnessed much worse experiences than what has happened”, so “this is not likely to deter anyone from crossing as they generally have very valid reasons for wanting to get to the UK. Safe passages over is the only thing that could deter people taking such drastic measures and to destroy the strong traffic industry which is so alive here in Calais”.

A member of the CRS, the French police riot squad positioned in front of a group of tents of Eritreans in a car park in the north east of Calais.

The Calais refugees do not want to return home, or retreat into continental Europe. Omar, 16, left Somalia two years ago and says he has been jailed in Athens and mistreated by police on Romania’s border with Serbia. “The Romanian policemen prevented me from taking my asthma spray and beat me. I thought I was going to die,” he says.

Yussuf, also 16 and from Somalia, recalls the start of his journey. “One day some terrorists entered the house, they killed my father. Then I realized that if I had stayed in Somalia, I would have died too.”

There is some bewilderment that November’s tragedy has brought nothing more than increased police activity on the French coast, and more political posturing in Britain. Francine, who works for one of the NGOs, said: “I was speaking to a Syrian guy recently when giving tents to people without one, and he didn’t speak any English. But he typed on his phone, ‘Since the people died, will the UK make safe passage for us? We are scared’ It was so sad.”

On a trip to Grand-Synthe in autumn, I heard more stories from aid workers and the refugees, who come mostly from Kurdistan, Afghanistan and Vietnam. “I left Sulaymaniyya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, a year and a half ago,” Serwan, 21, told me. “Greece, Turkey, Calabria and finally the French-Italian border in Oulx, before reaching Paris and Dunkerque. Now I just want to join my family in London, study and become a doctor.”

Abro, 29, and fleeing from Kabul, said: “I was rejected twice by the British border police. The first time I was sent back to Afghanistan, but then I came back to Europe I lived for a long time in Germany. There I left my ex-partner and my daughter. She is only nine months old. If I will not reach the UK tonight, I will go back to them and ask for asylum”.

Altogether, more than 1,800 people live in precarious conditions between Calais and Dunkerque as they wait for a boat ride. Police evictions are increasing, and despite a United Nations ruling that states refugees should have access to a water supply not be more than 500 metres from their place of residence, some migrants have to travel up to 5km to get water. The situation has been made even more dramatic by a ban issued by the mayor of Calais to prevent food distribution in the city centre, forcing people to stay away from the town.

Three young men part of a group of Eritrean castaways who tried to reach the British coast during the night between 17th/18th October. Their boat broke down after 18 km. They rowed back to the French coast, then walked one kilometre barefoot on the asphalt towards Calais.

Alexine, from the Info Bus NGO, says the situation is bas and getting worse. “Evictions of the campsites still occur every 48 hours, even with the temperatures dropping significantly,” she said, noting that while “politicians blame smugglers for the deaths, an important thing to remember is that if there were safe and legal routes of passage to the UK, there would be no smugglers.” After the late November tragedy, she said, “the displaced people were saddened and touched with what happened. If you know that it could have been you, of course it will affect you. But this does not mean that people will stop crossing”.

She added: “The even more increased militarisation of the border is only detrimental and can lead to greater risk-taking, and therefore more deaths. The only way to prevent these deaths is through safe and legal routes of passage. More humanity and less hostility”.

Sadly, that sounds like another forlorn Christmas dream.

*Names of refugees and aid workers have been changed to protect them. Reporting by Alessia Manzi, Dario Antonelli and Giacomo Sini; Photos by Giacomo Sini.

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