How 'Mafia' thugs are profiting from migrant misery of Calais

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The Independent Online

Standing outside the 15-foot security fence at the Port of Calais, Refat Widaa watches disconsolately as another ferry docks. "£200, the smugglers demand £200," he says. "For that, sometimes you reach England and you live. Other times, there is no lorry and if you ask for your money back, they attack with knives. That's life in Calais. That's what happened to Mohammed."

Refat is a man with twin pre-occupations: grief for his murdered friend Mohammed is mixed with an overwhelming desire to board one of the ferries which ply the route between the windswept dockside and "this better place, Britain".

Refat, 28, is one of 150 other clandestins who queue, twice daily for food handouts. For three months the dreadlocked Sudanese has visited the Hangar Paul Devot, a tatty warehouse on the edge of the port, to queue for soup, clothing and in the hope of securing a place on one of the 2,000 lorries that pass through the port each day en route to Dover. Until eight days ago he would queue with his friend Mohammed Isa, a fellow escapee from war-torn Darfur.

Three weeks ago Mohammed, who had two children, paid €300 (£210) to one of the Iraqi Kurdish middlemen who also frequent le hangar. But after parting with the last of his funds, the promised lift to a new life failed to materialise. Last Friday he, along with five other aggrieved asylum seekers resolved to confront the man who had let them down.

Refat, who has been interviewed by French police, said there was a confrontation and his friend hit one of the traffickers. Later that night the men came back: "They said they were going to teach him a lesson and surrounded him. They beat him on the ground. We could not see but later we realised they were also stabbing him ... The Kurds said they had not meant to kill him. But they did; they know they can kill and disappear."

"They" are "the devil we have to deal with to one day see our families again," Refat said, the traffickers who prey on the desperate asylum-seekers. Theircurrency is the exploitation of the desperate longing to reach what they commonly call "El Dorado" or British soil.

Father Jean-Pierre Boutoille knows all about thetrade that has sprung up around Calais since the closure, two years ago of Sangatte, a cavernous warehouse built to house Channel Tunnel equipment that became a makeshift Red Cross hostel for 2,000 refugees. The hostel was shut after an agreement between London and Paris to end the status of Calais as a marshalling yard for migrants by introducing stringent security measures and offering new arrivals asylum in France. Both governments boast that, as a result, the problem has all but disappeared. But Refat and his comrades, who marched yesterday to mark the second anniversary of the Sangatte's closure, are potent evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is left to charities to care for the refugees and a new people-smuggling "Mafia" has moved in.

"During the time of Sangatte, it was every man for himself. There was little organisation, people just tried to smuggle or bribe their way across," Father Boutoille said. "But now it is very different. The Iraqi Kurds, who were here at Sangatte, have the longest experience and there are those among them who choose to make a lot of money by selling places on lorries. Many of these middlemen are themselves trying to reach Britain but they are working for bosses who are installed and living in France. There has been a professionalisation of the smuggling in Calais."

Inevitably, crime flourishes. Refat, who paid $2,000 (£1,200) to travel from Darfur to Calais via Libya, Greece and Holland, and is now broke, said: "The police aren't that bothered if one of us dies - what is a dead black man on a railway without a passport or papers to them?"

It is a charge the French authorities deny, insisting that the investigation into the death of Mohammed is continuing. But despite the arrest of one Iraqi Kurd identified by witnesses as the killer, no one has been charged with the murder.

Meanwhile the central governments remain determined to be seen to be making life for the smugglers as difficult as possible. Underneath the headline: "Fortress Calais", it was announced in the local French media 48 hours ago that security measures costing £4m were being added, including a new British-controlled customs area. From the hangar, a new control tower can be seen looming over the port, from where 26 new cameras capable of seeing through all weather conditions, day and night, will be operated.

Patrick Fougeaud, the head of the town's chamber of commerce, said: "Smuggling remains a problem but it has become routine. We are more and more effective but what is clear is that if the [French] government relaxes security, there would very soon be an influx of the same scale as the time of Sangatte."

A group of people appears to have fallen between the cracks of law enforcement and the humanitarian obligations of the two countries. No one fits that description better than Radoje Bogdanovich and his wife and five young children, from Serbia. They claimed asylum in London a year ago but when his father died two weeks ago, he and his wife, Slavika, bought false passports to return home. They were discovered at Calais, stripped of the documents that cost them £600 and are now in a state of limbo. Speaking as he queued at the hangar with his children in the dark, Radoje said: "We are trapped here. We cannot seek asylum here in France and the French want to send us back to England.

"The English won't take us because we have no papers. I have no money to pay for a lorry. Tell me, what should I do?"