Refugees in France: ‘I was in the boat yesterday, I almost died’
Despite the perilous risks and following last month’s Channel tragedy, people in Calais remain determined to reach England.
Calais, France – One month after 27 people died in the deadliest refugee boat tragedy between France and the United Kingdom in recent years, asylum seekers in Calais in northern France are still desperate to make it to England.
There are an estimated 2,000 refugees and migrants currently living along the northern French coast around Calais, according to local non-governmental organisations or NGOs, including numerous families.
Many come from countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Libya, and others.
Al Jazeera spoke to people in makeshift camps around Calais about their backstory, why they are determined to go to the UK, and what they have endured as refugees in France and other European countries.
Here is what they had to say:
Amir, 17, from Afghanistan: ‘I was in the boat yesterday, and I almost died’
I was in the boat yesterday, and I almost died. The boat was big. We were maybe 25, all Afghan men. Something sharp cut the boat, and it started sinking. We had jackets, and we started swimming. The water was freezing. We were not super far from the [French] coast, so we swam back. Nobody died, but some went to hospital because of injuries. My body is still cold.
I’ve been in Calais for five months. I’m looking for help, to see if an organisation can help me reunite with my two brothers in London. My father was a military commander and was killed eight years ago by the Taliban.
My mother and sister are in Pakistan. I was there before, but we had a very difficult time there without papers, so I moved to Europe nine months ago. All my life I’ve been a refugee, from one place to the next. I don’t want to stay here. I just want to see and be with my family in England.
Khail, 28, from Afghanistan: ‘I forget what day or time it is here’
I left Afghanistan two years and seven months ago. I was in prison in the Netherlands for one year. They got my fingerprints there and caught me twice trying to go into a lorry for the UK. They told me to get a lawyer, but I told them I have no money for that and they didn’t help, so they kept me in prison. They only let me talk to my family on the phone three times in one year.
They then gave me 24 hours to leave the country. I arrived in Calais and a year ago, one of my fingers got cut off trying to climb over barbed wire. I was in hospital for six months. Sometimes people come to my tent and spray and steal things, I don’t know who it is. Sometimes I also forget what day or time it is here.
I want to go to England because I felt so unwelcome in Europe. I have cousins in London who have lived there for a long time, so I’m sure it’ll be better. Mostly I ask myself this question: Where to go and what to do? It makes me so sad.
Nasr, 17, from Sudan: ‘French people are very difficult’
I have been in Calais for five months in different makeshift camps. The police keep evicting us. Now, I’ve been at this camping space for three months. All day we have nothing, and we try to cross. I’d like to go to England because I speak English, and I find English people very easy. French people are very difficult. I’d like to go to England to study computer science, I love it. I want to train to work in IT, or something around technology. I prefer to not have photos of my clothes today because they’re very dirty, and I don’t have shoes.
Youssef, 18, from Libya: ‘It’s been almost six years since I’ve been here’
The problem with France is that they don’t say things directly. They make you struggle for five to six years and then they tell you no, you won’t have papers. It’s been almost six years since I’ve been here and I haven’t seen my mother, who is in Benghazi.
In France, sometimes when you call 115 [the emergency number for homeless people], they tell you there is no room, or they answer three hours later.
Even when you go to Calais to try to go to England, they [the French authorities] don’t let you. So, what do you do now? You can’t do anything. You’re blocked, you’re on the street, you have no papers … what do you do?
Muntaser, 25, from Sudan: ‘If I get to England I will do any job’
I just got here in Calais yesterday, I was in France for three weeks, before I was in Ventimiglia [in Italy, bordering France]. I am from Darfur in Sudan originally. Inshallah, I make it to England. I want to go there and bring my wife Saha who is still in Sudan. Life is very difficult there.
If I get to England I will do any job. I just want to start a new life. I don’t know how long I’ll be in Calais for. Maybe one month, maybe three months, maybe more. Every day I will try and try again to cross. I don’t have a choice. I have six brothers and two sisters in Darfur. I want to make money in England, send it back to them, and bring Saha here.
Shawaz, 31, from Afghanistan: ‘In Afghanistan, I worked with the British and US armies’
I’ve been in Calais for four days, before I was in Paris for 20 days, and before that in Serbia and Austria. I left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in September. In Afghanistan I was a soldier in the army, I worked with the British and US armies. Every Afghan who worked with foreign armies left after the Taliban takeover, there are few left.
I have a cousin in England and I want to join him there. I cannot contact him because police in Serbia beat me and broke my phone. My fingerprints were taken in Austria and if they catch me here, I’m afraid they will deport me back to Austria and then to Afghanistan. I want to go to England because they don’t have the Dublin Agreement there.
If I try again and again and it doesn’t work I will stay in France. I am going to try crossing by boat for the first time soon. Inshallah, I make it. We are human beings, we all get scared.
Editor’s note: These interviews were edited for clarity and brevity.