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'My parents don't know that we are living like this'

Jerome Taylor
Saturday 31 October 2009 01:00 GMT

Every morning Ismail Safi is woken up by the dew that has seeped through his blue blanket and on to his clothes. His current home is a strip of concrete under a canal bridge in eastern Calais where 17 fellow Afghan refugees sleep together in an attempt to keep warm as the early morning traffic passes overhead.

A shaven-headed boy who stands little more than five foot, he looks and says he is 12 years old – one of 30 children under the age of 16 The Independent witnessed living rough on the streets of Calais.

"They told us we would be able to live in peace and receive an education," he said. "They said it would be safer for us."

The "they" he refers to, of course, are the traffickers who persuade some of the world's poorest citizens to borrow huge sums of money to send their children overseas with false promises of employment and education.

Had Ismail arrived in Calais earlier this summer he would likely have secured a tent in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Conditions were grim but the Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians who populated the tent city had done what they could to make life bearable. Latrines had been built along with a makeshift mosque and oil-drum ovens to bake bread. At night they would try to smuggle themselves on to lorries heading towards their ultimate goal: Britain.

But in late September, with politicians on both sides of the Channel determined to appear tough on immigration, the riot police moved in and bull dozed down the Jungle. Determined not to allow the migrants to rebuild any more permanent settlements, the refugees now spend their nights playing cat and mouse with police patrols, looking to snatch brief moments of sleep.

Ismail's story is a typical example of why so many are willing to risk so much to find a better life. "My father worked on an army base with foreign troops, near my village of Babul," he told us through an interpreter. "Sometimes I would join him on the base and study. The Taliban began sending us death threats, saying we had to stop working for the foreigners but my father continued to work there. Early this year they threw a grenade into our house, which injured my parents and killed my younger sister Shemima. She was five years old. My parents went to Pakistan and left me and my nine-year-old brother Rahmatullah with an uncle. He paid for us to go to Europe."

At the Iran-Turkey border the two boys were spotted by border guards chased them and, according to Ismail, caught Rahmatullah. "I could hear him calling out to me," he recalled. "He kept screaming 'Ismail don't leave me'. But I had to keep running."

Shortly after the Jungle was cleared, France's immigration minister Eric Besson boasted that France, was "one of the rare countries... which never expels lone minors". But it does allow children to sleep rough and to be harassed by police.

The night before The Independent encountered Ismail, three more children – Jamshed, 14, and his two younger cousins Waheed, 12, and Suheil, 10 – had slept under the same bridge. Jamshed, whose middle-class upbringing was clear from his precise English, admitted that his father, a doctor in Kabul, had sent the boys to Europe for economic reasons.

"Our parents wanted us to have an education," he said. "But if they knew this is how we would live I know they would never have sent us. I have not spoken to my parents for four months."

The French have justified the closure of the Jungle as a way of cracking down on the people-trafficking networks. Not one smuggler was arrested in the roundup last month.

Business is booming. On Thursday The Independent visited a small camp on the outskirts of Dunkerque where 35 Afghans, two aged 14, were staying. Conditions were grim, but noticeably better than in Calais.

On the way in we were greeted by two Kurds who were unaware that The Independent's Afghan translator understood Kurdish. One began boasting to a colleague on his mobile phone about his smuggling operations. "I got five through last night but I haven't heard from them," he said. "I don't know if they made it yet."

Muhammad Ghani, one of the camp's Afghan occupants, said he had worked as a warehouse foreman for the International Rescue Committee in Jalalabad and left Afghanistan in March after his father was killed by the Taliban. He explained why he was reluctant to seek asylum in France.

"We know people who have been given permission to stay in France but they are still living on the streets and queuing for food," the 32-year-old said. "Their lives haven't changed at all. So that's why we will continue to try to go to Britain."

The traffickers, he explained, would help him get there.

In Calais there is growing anger among the migrants over the police raids and their apparent failure to tackle the traffickers.

Jamal Bahadur, a CD shop owner from Kunar province in his late thirties, was washing his clothes a sluice pipe with nine other Afghans. A sign next to the pipe said the water was not safe to drink but he took a gulp regardless.

"My message to France and Britain is please stop the traffickers and the agents," he said. "And if you are not going to stop the traffickers, at least allow us to earn enough money to pay them off and return home. It is the agents who are the ones making the money, it is they who are the criminals, and yet it is ordinary people like me, who are tricked by the traffickers, who live in misery and spend their time running away from police."

Some of these names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

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