Just metres away from a roundabout in Calais, a bunch of boys are playing an ad hoc cricket game. Another group warm themselves by a small wood fire – later, they’ll cook a meal on their makeshift stove. Eyeing them from the other side of the roundabout are a vanload of CRS police officers.
Despite the veneer of fun, these lads are terrified. They are refugees from Afghanistan who have travelled for months or even years from their war-torn homeland. And they are intent on smuggling themselves into the UK. Some are clearly unaccompanied minors, no more than 14. The CRS regularly attack these refugees, destroying their tents, sleeping bags and meagre possessions because all camps are illegal.
Links to the UK
Some might wonder why this small minority of refugees – perhaps just 3 per cent coming through Europe – are intent on reaching England. Most have connections in the UK: an uncle in Plymouth, a brother in Liverpool, a lifelong friend in London. As Sarah from Care4Calais puts it: imagine you had to escape from the UK and knew you would be safe if you could be reunited with your relatives in English-speaking Australia. After months of arduous travel, would you be content to remain alone in Malaysia rather than reach your destination?
The previous day, our Care4Calais volunteer team were distributing warm jumpers in Dunkerque and providing services – hot drinks and the ever-popular self-service barbershop and phone-charging facilities. Here, about 400 Kurdish refugees, mostly from Iraq, are living rough in the woods. The age range is mixed, and we even saw some families with children as young as three. I honestly don’t know how they were managing. The rain stayed away, and there was time to play football, drink tea and hear people’s stories.
Forced to flee
One 26-year-old man wanted to dispel a stereotype about refugees. Speaking excellent English, he explained. ‘People say to me – you’re a refugee: how come you have a brand-new iPhone? Well, just a few months ago, I had my own business running a garage. I was doing really well, selling Mercedes-Benz and earning around €10,000 a month. My life was really comfortable. But I’m Kurdish, I made a big mistake, I lost everything and had to escape from Iraq. And now look at me.’ It was hard to imagine the smart-suited businessman he had so recently been.
No legal route
Northern France is full of young, skilled, educated and resourceful people who have escaped from persecution. Some France Terre d’Asile workers I met in Calais told me many of them have a legitimate claim to asylum in the UK under existing laws. But only if they survive a hazardous clandestine journey to our shores can they even apply for asylum. The efforts of charities like Care4Calais help to keep them alive in France. But we need a political solution that allows refugees a legal route to a safe country to claim sanctuary.