The forgotten people: Plight of the asylum-seekers marooned in France

The revelation that Britain could open its own immigration camp in Calais has caused outrage in some quarters. But as Jerome Taylor discovers, the plight of the asylum-seekers marooned in France cannot be ignored
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Nick Mohammed scrambles through a thicket of razor sharp thorn bushes and goes around a growing mound of human waste to reach his home, a cramped, squalid hut cobbled together from wooden crates, plastic tarpaulin and waterlogged, rotting duvets.

Under a steady drizzle of icy rain he pauses, breathes air into his hands in a futile attempt to feel warm, before breaking into an enormous and friendly smile. "Welcome to my home," he laughs. "I admit it's not a palace. Ten of us live in this tent. We only have a few blankets each so we have to make sure there are many of us to keep warm."

Mr Mohammed and his friends are among the thousands of Afghan asylum-seekers who leave their war-torn homeland every year seeking a better life in the West.

The 23-year-old's current residence is not some Third World refugee camp in Pakistan, but a sprawling and fetid tent city, spread across a field of thorny scrubland on the outskirts of the French port of Calais.

Known to locals and its inhabitants as "The Jungle", it is a place of poverty and grinding desperation. It is also a damning indictment of France's treatment of its clandestins, the illegal immigrants who are forced to sleep rough.

When French authorities closed the notorious Sangatte refugee camp in 2002, after years of pressure from Britain, the asylum-seekers and economic refugees didn't stop coming. They simply disappeared from sight and mind, making it much easier for both Britain and France to forget they existed.

Sangatte, an enormous converted Eurotunnel building which at its peak held 2,000 migrants, was an imperfect solution to the growing immigration problem both Britain and France faced in the late 1990s.

Convinced that Britain was the "El Dorado" of western Europe, thousands of would-be asylum-seekers and economic migrants flocked to the little village outside Calais every year in the hope of smuggling themselves on to one of the many trains trundling into the nearby Channel Tunnel.

Human rights groups condemned the facility as inhumane. The British Government railed against Sangatte's use as a launch pad for illegal immigrants. Its closure, by the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, dramatically stemmed the tide of illegal immigrants into Britain.

But what has sprung up to replace it in the intervening years is shocking.

At present an estimated 800 illegal immigrants, predominantly young men from Afghanistan, Iraq and east Africa, sleep rough in and around Calais. However imperfect Sangatte might have been it at least provided shelter from the elements and a regular source of food. Now the Calais clandestins are forced to fend for themselves. Immigrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan have taken over semi-derelict squats in the centre of town while the Afghans have exiled themselves to their jungle tent city on the eastern side of town near the docks. Because the immigrants don't choose to claim asylum in France, hoping instead to make it across the Channel where they believe they will find more opportunities, they are effectively ignored by the French state.

Their only interaction with French officials are the regular dawn police raids, or when they are caught trying to smuggle themselves across the Channel into Britain.

But because the courts refuse to deport anyone back to a war zone they are quickly released from custody. As The Independent revealed last week, French and British ministers have considered opening an immigration centre in Calais docks within the British passport control zone – it would be under British immigration law, allowing speedy deportations back to countries-of-origin. But until something concrete happens, the migrants, cut off from any state support, live rough, eating when they can, waiting for a truck that might smuggle them to what they believe will be the land of their dreams. Isaias Negusie, a 23-year-old Eritrean, left his home in March 2008 and arrived in Calais three days ago.

He quickly found his way to a block of five semi-derelict suburban brick houses colonised by Eritrean and Ethiopian immigrants. Many of the windows are boarded and the broken panes are stuffed with old bits of clothing to keep out draughts. There's no electricity or running water but the roof keeps out most of the rain, unlike the buckled Afghan huts by the docks. At any one time, Mr Negusie explained, there are about 200 east Africans living in the houses. Each room can sleep more than 20 people, squashed together and living in squalor. Most of the inhabitants are men aged between 20 and 30, but there are a small number of women, some with children.

"I left because there is no freedom in my country," he says, looking much older than his years suggest. "England is a very nice place. It is the only place in Europe that understands what is happening in our country. They will take pity on us and find us work."

The Afghan tent city, meanwhile, is ethnically divided into predominantly Pashtun and Tajik sections with each group guarding its own patch, leading to frequent fights. Two weeks ago an Afghan man was stabbed, although the Jungle's residents disagreed as to whether the fight was started over an ethnic dispute, or because the man had insulted one of the many professional traffickers who help smuggle the immigrants.

Mr Mohammed, an ethnic Pashtun whose family live in the mainly Tajik town of Herat, used to reside illegally in Glasgow but two years ago he returned to Afghanistan when his mother died. Now he is trying to get back to Britain, a place he considers his true home and where his friends call him by his Western forename, Nick. "I wasn't used to living in Afghanistan because I had spent most of my teenage years in Britain," he explained. "But getting into Britain is now almost impossible. I have been living here in Calais for nearly eight months. Every night I try to get on to one of the passing lorries but the police or the drivers always find us."

Despite recent tabloid stories predicting fresh waves of illegal immigrants as the recession and unemployment takes hold, sneaking into England has become increasingly difficult for the migrants. Police on both sides of the border use dogs, carbon dioxide detectors and heartbeat monitors to hunt the stowaways. The Home Office says it prevented more than 28,000 entry attempts at French and Belgian ports in 2008.

But although the odds of success are slim, the clandestins keep trying. Heading east from the Jungle, past the single cracked mains pipe that is the camp's only source of fresh water, Mr Mohammed walks to the docks where the Afghans try to slip on to the trucks. Most try to get into the containers on the back of the trucks through open doors. Others use ratchets to bend the roof of the containers down and slide under the canvas sides of the truck.

"If we're lucky perhaps 15 people get on a truck," says Mr Mohammed. "But the numbers never go down because 25 new people will turn up."

There are fewer migrants in Calais compared to the days of Sangatte, but anecdotal evidence suggests numbers have risen in recent months.

Hélène Vantorre, a 25-year-old waitress from Calais, is one of the small number of volunteers who provide food and shelter for the immigrants. She is a member of Association Salaam, which cooks an evening meal and helps new arrivals find blankets and plastic sheeting.

"Since December we are having to feed many more people," she says. "Last year we probably only provided meals for about 200 people on a weekday, and 400 a day at the weekend. Now we feed at least 500 per day in the week, and often up to 800 at the weekend." Association Salaam, she says, has little idea why the numbers have been growing.

Helping migrants can be a dangerous occupation. Under a 1945 law, aiding undocumented foreigners in France is punishable by up to five years in jail and a €30,000 (£28,000) fine. The law is supposed to target organised traffickers but last month Monique Pouille, 59, was detained by the police for more than 10 hours. Her "crime" was to charge mobile phone batteries for the clandestins so they could stay in contact with families back home.

It is partly the French authorities' harsh treatment that makes the illegal immigrants of Calais so determined to get into Britain.

Squatting against a concrete wall in a disused car park where another charity hands out an afternoon meal, 18-year-old Karim Durrani says many of his fellow Afghans had no idea life would be this hard in France.

"We are a forgotten people, the world would rather we didn't exist," he says. "I thought I would be able to find food, shelter and a good job but instead my house is a plastic shelter in a forest. I have no mattress, just a few blankets to keep me warm." His single aim is to cross the Channel: "I want to go to England because I speak the language and I hope they will give me a job. In France we are simply forgotten. They will never give us a permit to work. But maybe the British government will allow us to work if we get there."

Karim and his friends trudge back towards the Jungle. It is little wonder they will risk their lives, night after night, to try to hitch a truck ride out of the squalor that is their home.

Abdullah Isakhel, 28

'I was caught in a war and didn't want to fight'

A Father of one, Abdulla Isakhel says he fled fighting in Afghanistan's Paktia province and arrived in Calais three months ago. Almost every night, he tries and fails to smuggle himself into Britain by stowing away on freight lorries.

"I miss my son very much but I had to leave because I didn't want to fight. Ordinary farmers are always caught in the middle of the fighting so we have no choice but to try and come to the West. I left when a war broke about between my tribe and another tribe nearby. Once your tribe starts fighting, you have no choice but to join the war.

"Some of my family lived in Kabul so I went there to look for people-smugglers who could take me to the West.

"Eventually, I was taken to a minibus, blindfolded and driven to the Iranian border. The journey to the West is very dangerous and takes a long time. I had to find $10,000 to pay for it. You spend most of your time travelling in a small bus with 20 or 30 people. There were no seats and we could not see out of the windows.

"We went through Iran and Turkey before heading into Europe. Conditions in Europe are safer than in Afghanistan but I had no idea I would end up living like this. How was I supposed to know this is what life is like for Afghans in Europe? We were always told by the mafia we would be in Britain within the month. They said we would find jobs and could send money back to our families."

Suleman Ahmadzai, 23

'I want to get to Britain. There's nothing in France'

He fled Afghanistan at the same time as Abdullah Isakhel. They met on a mafia-owned minibus and now share a tent in the Calais "Jungle".

"Abdullah and I became friends on the way over to Europe and now we try to help each other get on board the lorries. It is very dangerous but we have to get to Britain, there is nothing for us here in France. The refuelling stations are located very close to the Jungle so it is not difficult to find a truck to hide in. But we almost always get caught. Sometimes we try to get into the lorries when they are on the move. Every day, one of us becomes the 'doorman'. Their job is to run alongside the trucks, open up the back door to allow everyone else to get in and then close it so no one notices. We are now experts at being doormen.

"We have come such a long way and all we want to do is get to Britain. Most of the Afghans who have come here sold everything to get to the West. Others had family members who borrowed money to pay for them. They are relying on us to find a job in Britain and start sending money back to them. Otherwise they can't afford to pay back the mafia."

Daniel Ghebreab, 23

'I had a good life, but no freedom of speech'

The journalist from Eritrea is one of more than 200 east Africans who live in a group of semi-derelict redbrick buildings in the centre of Calais. He says he left Eritrea after being arrested by the government and hopes to build a new life in Britain, even though he has been denied asylum by the Home Office. He admits he will now try and sneak into Britain illegally.

"I would like political asylum but I didn't get it," he said. "I am not an economic migrant – I have a nice car and house in Eritrea but I do not have freedom of speech. You cannot write anything they don't like otherwise you go to jail. I spent a year in jail; the conditions were very bad.

"I tried to get into Britain by using the train but there are many security guards and patrols. But I will use any means possible. I speak good English so it makes sense for me to go to the UK. I will do any job to earn money so I can improve my future. And I will live wherever the British Government puts me – I know it is not my choice. I have friends in Leeds who say it is good there. I just want a better life."