Bobby is an Iranian asylum seeker who arrived in Calais in 2014. He lived in "the jungle" — the name given to a refugee camp near the city — for three years alongside human traffickers, attempting to reach Britain. He tried many times, but was always caught.
At one point, he was accused of being a trafficker himself and imprisoned. He now hopes to stay in France and make a home there.
I meet him on a French beach, from which the shores of the UK are visible. “On this beach, you already feel like you’re on the other side,” he tells me. “It’s a very short distance, but such a dream for so many. Some people have crossed and some have got stuck here. This cycle will continue forever.”
Britain appeals to him because of the opportunities there, he says. “Everybody has their own dreams. One goes in search of a better financial situation, another goes to secure his family’s future, another goes to learn English and pursue their education, and so on.
“I have also heard from travelers that, after going to England, there are opportunities to continue to Canada or the US.”
Bobby is a short man with small eyes and a beer belly. He follows the news closely and is well-informed about the refugee situation. But he is highly suspicious of the press.
“We should search all you journalists,” he told me when we first met. “You’ll record us no matter what.”
“I Went to Sleep Ready to Run”
Bobby’s background is a mystery. He declines to speak about it, and instead begins his story in Calais. He traveled there by train, he explains, and met two Iranians who took him to the jungle, the camp that attracted so much media attention in 2015, when higher numbers of migrants than usual came to the area in the hopes of starting a new life in Europe.
At that time, Calais was full of poor refugees who had little or no money, he says. Dunkirk was the place for wealthy travelers, where professional traffickers charged at least twice as much as those in Calais.
There were about 400 refugees in Calais, he recalls. They came from across the world, including Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
It was a chaotic, dangerous place. Bobby was shocked when he saw how people there ran and fought for food in the lines.
On his first day, a trafficker came and told him he could get him to England if he paid him immediately. But it was too expensive.
At that time, the fee for a trip to Britain was £2,000 (US$2,540) in Dunkirk and £600 (US$760) in Calais. But a guaranteed trip would cost £4,000 (US$5,080), with half the cost going to the driver.
He stayed in the jungle until 2017. At the beginning, he says, it was not too bad.
“I was healthy, with great skin. But after living in the jungle for a while, your health declines and you look terrifying because you can never have a relaxing sleep at night.
“I always went to sleep ready to run, with my jeans and a raincoat on.”
After his first month in the camp, Bobby attempted to reach the UK by truck. The trafficker took him to the parking areas several times, but it was never safe enough to proceed.
“The traffickers would drink liquor the whole day and were probably on drugs too,” Bobby says. “They would tell me stories about their previous jobs.”
Soon Bobby began to work as an intermediary between the traffickers and refugees. He would find clients for the traffickers, and pass money and food from them to the travelers.
“Most of the traffickers were good people and listened to my requests. I knew how to talk to them. I would tell them, ‘Now that I’ve provided you with so many clients, take this one for free as they have no money.’
“They did those favors for me. They even paid me to buy food for families. I sent so many travelers to England free of charge with this method.”
Some women would sleep with traffickers to pay for their ride, Bobby adds. Some camps even had rooms with red lights to indicate that sex workers operated there.
“They felt they had no choice,” Bobby says. “They did it to chase their dreams.”
Now he believes his biggest mistake was to work with the traffickers. He helped many travelers to get to Britain through his contacts, but on April 16th, 2017, armed police raided his tent.
“They told me to raise my hands and they put their phone on speaker. There was an Afghan boy on the line who told me I was being arrested on charges of human trafficking.
“I said that I was just a traveler and not a trafficker, and the police said that the court would determine that. There were even drones all over us that day.”
“I Was Deeply Depressed”
Police took him to the station and fingerprinted him. They then sent him to the interrogation room. The detective told him they had more than 200 voice files proving he worked with traffickers.
Bobby insisted he was only helping his friends chase their dreams.
He was transferred to a prison cell and had four months to write his defense for court. In the meantime, the prosecutor collected evidence against him.
It was his first time in prison, but he was never allowed to make any phone calls. When he arrived, he was given a sandwich before being searched and photographed.
The guards gave him a blanket and he was in quarantine for three days until he was transferred to the main ward. There, his roommate was a Moroccan boy who was addicted to hashish and had no idea where Iran was on the map.
One day, Bobby met a trafficker friend in the prison yard. The friend told him there were plans to label Bobby as the head of the trafficking network.
“He said that if everyone was sentenced to five years in prison, I’d get 12 years. I was going crazy. I didn’t know what to do.
“For the next few days, I was deeply depressed and didn’t leave my room. I was constantly thinking about what would happen to me.”
Bobby didn’t want to touch cigarettes or drugs, so he started working out in the prison. He realized he needed to stay strong.
“I was ready to stay in prison for 20 years if I could keep myself healthy. I asked them to enroll me in a French language class, which was twice a week. If you studied in prison, they would give you three days off and €25 (US$28) more for expenses.”
Freezing to Death
As Bobby is telling his story, we return to his home for a kebab. He loves cooking and was put in charge of preparing food in the jungle, he says. It helped to distract him and keep him occupied.
In prison, the police would taunt inmates with the illusion of freedom, he recounts. Kurdish friends would be handed release notes and then be rearrested after walking a few steps out the door.
When Bobby was told he was being released, he therefore didn’t believe them. He expected to stay in prison for years. But one day an officer came to his cell and told him he was free to go.
He was overjoyed. But once back in Calais, his struggle began again.
He and others paid £4,800 ($US6,100) for a boat, but it was immediately confiscated by coastguards. He then tried to travel by truck, but was always caught by the driver or police dogs.
He even tried to smuggle himself inside refrigerator trucks, enduring freezing temperatures, but never managed to get very far. On one occasion, he nearly froze to death.
“The truck was carrying frozen chickens and we were sitting on top of the load. Police stopped the truck and found us, but we couldn’t move. They called an ambulance to help us.
“That was the most dangerous situation I was in trying to go to the UK.”
On another occasion, he almost suffocated. “The trafficker placed us in a very limited space below a truck. The truck was new and the plastic covering hadn’t been removed yet, which blocked the air flow.
“We couldn’t breathe. We tried to knock on the truck, but the driver didn’t notice. We even called the police, but they said they couldn’t work out which truck we were in.
“We continued knocking on the truck until another trafficker noticed us in a gas station and helped us out. The next day, I had a headache and some pain in my heart and chest.”
“I Want to Build A Future”
Despite the dangers, Bobby doesn’t regret trying to make the perilous journey. “When your goal is to leave, you need to go no matter what. Mistakes and accidents happen all the time. When you live in the jungle, the odds are even higher.
“I promised myself I’d never leave again after my last close call, but a week later I tried it again. We really played with our lives trying to leave this place.”
There’s no question that Bobby tried hard. He obtained fake passports and attempted to leave by Eurostar, by ship, by boat, and more than 60 times by truck. But all these methods failed.
“You finally can’t take it anymore,” he says. “You feel exhausted and frustrated, and you want to go back to your life and build your own future.”
For these reasons, Bobby decided in October 2018 that he would stay in France. He now lives at the home of his friend Apoo, but he admits he still sometimes thinks about having one final attempt.
“Some people arrived a few days ago and are now in England. If I could secure a guaranteed ride via a truck, I might do it again.”
But right now, he stresses, his “main goal” is to obtain his official refugee status from France.
For Bobby, the biggest cost of seeking asylum has been not seeing his family. He did not leave Iran to party, drink, or buy nice clothes, he says. He just wanted a brighter future that was not available to him at home.
He warns friends at home to “do their homework” before setting off on a similar journey to him.
“They shouldn’t just rely on a chat with a couple of friends. They should find someone who has been successful in Europe and has an honorable job.
“Many Iranians in Europe would go back to Iran if they had the money. I wish people would make sensible decisions and not base them on their emotions.”
Living in Limbo
Bobby fell in love three times in the jungle, he recalls with smile. The first time was three years ago, with a 16-year-old girl called Melika from Khuzestan.
“She was here with her family, but they trusted me so much that they let her stay with me in my tent. When she left, I cried all the time.”
Now Bobby is living in limbo while he waits for the decision on his asylum application. Afterwards, humanitarian NGOs have promised to help him start a new life in Lille.
Whatever happens, he knows he cannot return to the jungle.
“In Calais, my physical condition deteriorated and I got badly sick,” he says. “Living like Tarzan has its consequences!”
Read other articles in the series: