Calais, France – Tents straddle a disused railway line. Seven are filled with Syrians – four sleeping in one tent, the canvas scruffy and torn. When it rains, they get drenched.
But this makeshift Syrian refugee camp isn’t in Jordan or Lebanon – it’s in France.
“There was an old factory. We were staying there to keep out of the cold and rain,” says Mohammed al-Qayid, a 23-year-old who fled the southern Syrian city of Deraa a year ago. “But the police kicked us out 35 days ago. Since then we’ve been moving from street to street.”
For Qayid and the 54 other Syrians who have been living in France’s northern port town of Calais for as long as four months, this was supposed to have been the last stop on their way to a new life in Britain. The UK is just an hour-and-a-half ferry ride away from here.
Qayid, an economics student, wants to join his father and brother in Britain and complete his studies. He travelled overland from the Zaatari camp in Jordan to Alexandria, Egypt, where he paid human traffickers $3,000 to transport him to Italy.
On his mobile phone, he shows a photo of himself squatting at the edge of a boat just 18 metres long. In the picture, he looks proud. It was the start of his exodus. But the journey quickly turned ugly. “We were so close to the water,” says Qayid. “When there was a big wave, water would come inside the boat. There was nowhere to sleep, you’d just dip your head.”
‘Either we arrive or we die’
The traffickers told Qayid that he’d be in Italy within five days. But the journey took two weeks, and for the final three days there was no food. “I wasn’t sure if we’d get there safely,” he says. “There were only two possible outcomes: Either we arrive or we die.”
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Two-hundred others, including children as young as two, also made the 1,600km journey from Egypt to the Sicilian port of Syracuse. From there, Qayid crossed Europe by train, hiding in toilets when the ticket inspectors came through. He passed through Rome, Milan, Ventimiglia, Nice and Paris in a matter of days, before reaching Calais in late August. When he reached the English Channel, though, his journey ground to a halt.
“I knew I’d have to stay here, but I didn’t think I’d be here long,” he says. So far it’s been 44 days. EU law states that those fleeing their homeland must apply for asylum in the first European country they enter, so Qayid cannot apply for refugee status in Britain while he is in France.
With no money left to pay traffickers, and the risk of a lengthy jail sentence if he attempts to breach port security, Qayid knows he’s stuck in Calais for the time being. He and the other Syrians were happy to bide their time. But everything changed on the morning of September 5.
“There were 400 people living here,” says Ahmed, a 30-year-old Syrian originally from Damascus, referring to a huge building known locally as Beer House.
“There was a bedroom here,” he says, pointing at a small annex, “and another one here”.
Syrians were living here along with asylum-seekers from dozens of other nationalities until police surrounded the warehouse at 7am that morning. Ahmed – who requested that his last name not be used out of fear of repercussions for his family – spent 16 hours in a cell at the police station, detained because he did not have the right papers.
“That’s not the solution,” says William Spindler, the spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Paris. “Police have been systematically dismantling all of these squats [in Calais] regularly for many years now. It’s something we have raised with the authorities several times. These people should be provided with an alternative. It’s unacceptable that they end up sleeping rough.”
Directives issued by the European Council say EU countries such as France should provide accommodation to asylum-seekers.
The prefecture of Pas-de-Calais described the issue as “an international problem that goes beyond our borders”. France’s Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Other squats across Calais were raided around the same time as Beer House. The refugee camp appeared shortly afterwards, and earlier this month, the Syrian contingent staged a protest at the entrance to the port.
“The reaction of the guys was, well [the squat] is a horrible place without any facilities, but they don’t even let us stay there,” says Philippe Wannesson, a French activist who provides support and advice to refugees who arrive in Calais. “At that moment, they thought, OK, we’re going to stop this game. We want to go to England, so we’ll go to the port, block an entrance and negotiate.”
The demonstration continued for three days until riot police threatened to move in. Two of the Syrians climbed on top of the ferry terminal and threatened to jump. Eventually, officials from the UK Border Authority travelled to Calais to speak to them. The Syrians called off the protest, but the Brits simply told them that each application would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“We didn’t finish our demonstration yet,” says Qayid. “We’ll have a new protest very soon. We need the British to hear our voice in a louder form. Every Syrian who comes here after us, the whole world should respect them. Right now, there’s no difference between [the way they’re treating] us and animals.”
Slow asylum process
Wannesson says the state is failing them. “The asylum system in France has collapsed. In a city like Paris, you need to stay on the street for six months before you get your first appointment with the prefecture to be considered as an asylum-seeker. In Calais it’s two or three months.”
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According to Asylum Aid, a non-profit group, the average wait time for asylum applications in the UK is about one month. In the Netherlands, many asylum applications are processed in just eight days.
Spindler says France is struggling to cope with the influx.
“The whole system is overcrowded. France was until very recently the [biggest] destination for asylum-seekers of all nationalities, not just Syrians, in Europe,” he says.
“Young men with no children are at the bottom of the priority list, and sometimes they don’t get into the reception centres, so they end up sleeping rough or in squats,” says Spindler. “So the problem for some asylum-seekers is that they have difficulty in accessing accommodation, although by law they’re entitled to it.”
Instead, these university students are out on the streets, living on food handouts, wearing clothes from a church and bathing in an ice-cold river. Syrians here are caught in a cat-and-mouse game with French police and an asylum system they say is failing them.
At the warehouse that they used to call home, a wall has been erected along the length of the building to stop them from getting back in. A British flag has been painted on the wall. “That’s our dream,” Ahmed says. “[Britain] is the dream of every Syrian who comes here.”