Earlier this April, the UK government announced that it had reached a shock agreement with the central African country of Rwanda. Apparently, in future, some of the thousands of asylum seekers and refugees who come to the UK in small boats over the English Channel each year will be “offshored” – effectively deported – to the Central African country instead for processing. If their asylum application is successful according to Rwanda’s system, they will be allowed to live there.
The agreement has yet to come into effect. If it does, it could still take years. But the news has reached asylum seekers in Europe and shattered their already-fragile sense of security. We travelled to the northern French cities of Calais and Dunkirk: the usual embarkation points for those aiming for Britain. Regardless of their nationality or language, their response was the same: “We are human beings, too. Don’t dismiss us.”
Until two years ago, if you visited to the French port city of Calais, it would have been impossible to ignore the travellers, trudging by themselves or in small groups, going about their business and then heading into the woods to sleep. Every two to three days, workers from one relief agency or another would meet them at a prearranged location and provide them with food, clothing, beverages and battery packs to recharge their phones with. But now, with the post-Covid intensification of border control by the French and UK authorities, and elsewhere in Europe too, things have changed.
From the moment you enter Calais, there are fences as far as eye can see. There are gates for the trucks, and the railroad tracks are now walled-off and out of reach. Fences have even gone up around the wooded areas where, until recently, asylum seekers were afforded some shelter at night. Every few meters, 360-degree surveillance cameras catch the eye.
From 2015, when the wave of refugees into European Union first caught public attention, until June 2020, the UK government paid French border police £114million to try to stop “illegal” immigrants from getting to its shores. Between 2021 and 2022, the figure was €62.7million.
None of this appears to have worked. Once in a while there are reports that a smuggling gang member has been arrested, but these are often themselves asylum seekers working with the organised firms to finance their own crossing. In the lingo of refugees they’re known as “helpers” or “auxiliaries”.
Not generally well-reported is the surge in the number of arrested asylum seekers in northern France, something that actually makes some of the refugees happy. After being detained, they are given a court order to leave French soil within a week, and if they are stopped by police within that week, they won’t be rearrested and can instead try their luck crossing the Channel.
“The French police don’t bother you,” an Afghan refugee who arrived in Calais four days ago tells us. “They arrest you, then they take you to the detention center, and if your fingerprint doesn’t exist in another country, they hand you the order to leave a few hours later.”
He shows us his own written order, issued to him after a cripplingly long journey to France from his Taliban-wrecked home country. “Two days after the fall of Kabul, I sneaked into Iran, then to Bulgaria and Hungary. I kept going until I got here, and now I want to go to Britain.
“I have family there and they cannot send me to Rwanda. My family told me that if I get there they’ll get a lawyer to sort out the rest. But it’s cold here and I have to find shelter.”
Another man from Afghanistan, who was born in Iran, has had a different journey. His fingerprints are on file in Greece, Croatia and Slovenia, meaning he applied for asylum in those countries after being arrested by their border police. Finally he and a few others got to France. But while they were waiting for the “helpers” at the agreed point of departure for Dover, UK, the French police caught them.
“After they arrested us,” he says, “they took us to a detention center that had fences and bars on two sides, and walls on the other two sides. They kept us there for a week. Then the court said that I had to be sent back to Greece.
“I was shocked. I told them I’d been tortured there. They had kept me in prison, on an island, for three months. I was hurt both physically and mentally there. With the help of a lawyer, I was rescued from returning to that hellhole.”
Asked about the deal between Britain and Rwanda, he laughs and says: “My brother said he’ll get me a lawyer. My mother got to Britain six months ago and now she has her papers. But if not Britain, I’ll find somewhere else to go. The smuggling never stops. Smugglers are always a step ahead of the law.”
A few refugees from Eritrea have set up camp next to the lavatories, on the corner of a street that used to be the entrance to the woods. One of them is a boy of 17 with braided hair. He came to Calais a week ago and has yet to go to the shore with a would-be smuggling crew. “I’m underage,” he says. “They won’t send me to Rwanda. I must get to London. Everybody went there and we are going there, too. If they do send us to Rwanda, we will come back.”
He lights up a cigarette while he’s laughing, and continues: “They just want to scare us [with the agreement between Britain and Rwanda]. But I fear nothing. I have come all this way all by myself and I will continue.”
It’s almost 2pm, and a lone old man wearing dirty clothes keeps making his way up and down the same street. He says he is a Kurd and repeatedly asks the time in Persian. He is waiting for the relief workers to bring food.
Compared to previous years, the number of refugees seems lower now. Most have been transferred to camps, are in police detention, or have taken shelter in different forests. An Iranian asylum seeker who reached Calais three weeks ago points to a street still teeming with refugees: “The Iranians usually set up tent here but now most of them have gone back to the countries where they were first fingerprinted. Some others have gone to Dunkirk. The weather is lousy this week. You shouldn’t approach the sea.”
The police car is parked up the street. A cold wind is blowing and a storm might be coming. The old Kurdish man keeps walking back and forth and declines to answer any questions. It’s as though he lives in a different world. Together with the Iranian asylum seeker, we set out for the former “Jungle”: the zone outside Calais where, until October 2016, refugees made their temporary homes.
The Jungle was filled with tents, prefabricated container-homes and half-finished structures. The refuges said it had become a city in its own right. It had stores and businesses, used even by the local French. But when the number of refugees swelled and set their sights on going to Britain, the whole site was dismantled on the orders of then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy. All this led to was more homelessness. The same people, and thousands more besides, gathered in a densely wooded area filled with garbage dumps. They called it the ”Jungle” as well, though now it’s completely fenced in.
Another 10 minutes away by car is the so-called “new Jungle”. Its entrance is located at the end of a row of residential buildings. A few steps from the opening is a tree covered in bits of yellow foil. Other than that, save for a few cement blocks and a “No Entrance” sign, there’s little to signpost the new place except for the smell of woodsmoke. But on the approach, the trees thin out and the number of tents increases. The smell of burning gets stronger the further you go. Those few cement blocks, it transpires, completely isolate the asylum seekers from the wider life of the city.
Most of the refugees in this newer camp are Africans and Arabs. The tents have been set up next to each other among the trees. Many of camp residents regard the newcomers with suspicious eyes, in silence.
A boy is sitting by himself on a broken wheelchair. He has made a little fire to warm himself by. He is from Syria. He says he lost his brother and sister in the war; his own face is still filled with life. He lifts his shirt to show us where he was shot. Three weeks, he says. Three weeks he’s been in Calais.
“I was stuck in Turkey for five years. Then I went to Greece, and after that to Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, until I got here. All the way I was travelling by myself. I’m the only Syrian here. Every other day the police come, dismantle the tents and break up what we have.
“Yesterday they took away my tent and my things. Relief workers give us tents again. I’m waiting to get to Britain at last. And if they send me to Rwanda I’ll start all over again. I’ve been homeless since the war started. There is no humanity. The governments are garbage and Europe only talks about human rights. What human rights? Just look around you!”
He moves off, takes a picture, comes closer and offers me a chocolate. “Keep it. I’ll let you know when I get to Britain. Then send me the picture of the chocolate, or at least, of the wrapper.”
The Eritrean man reappears. He has filled a tin can with water and positions it over the fire. He wants to treat us with tea. He warms his hands, motions for us to sit.
“We know what Rwanda means. Britain does not turn back Iranians, Arabs or Afghans. They only turn us back, though they have not done it [Rwanda] to anyone yet. I shall stay here until we know how true this news is. We escaped misery, but the misery follows us.”
On the right side of what is now called the Jungle are tents and garbage as far as the eye can see. Every other day, the police comes and remove as much as they can. In the melee that follows, the refugees sometimes fight one another. Phones, shoes and clothes get stolen.
Themes of dictatorship, of exploitation, of political oppression, of economic ruin, war and homelessness are ever-present in conversations with asylum seekers. They regale newcomers with horror stories about life in the Middle East, but also about inhumane treatment in far too many European countries: being held in detention centers, solitary cells, and sometimes nothing more than sheds and shacks, with inadequate nutrition and medical care, and always enclosed in fences and bars.
The stories are full of pain, but their conduits aspire toward a better life. They study English and work where they can in the service of this future ideal. However much they laugh about it, all are worried about what will become of them now if the deal struck between the British and Rwandan governments becomes reality.
Residents of the new Jungle say no Iranians or Afghans live among them. They have gone off to other camps near Calais, or to Dunkirk. Our next report will find them there.