Getting to the UK at any cost

Every year hundreds of illegal immigrants sell their land, mortgage their homes and jump aboard a lorry to fulfil their dream of living in the United Kingdom. FRANCE 24 met some of them at a camp in the French port city of Dunkirk.


special correspondent in Dunkirk, France

In the northern French port city of Dunkirk, dozens of men and teenage boys gleefully rush out of their small tents and wooden boxes to collect some of the food and clothing brought to them by local aid workers on Wednesday.


More than 100 illegal immigrants, mainly Afghans, Iranians, Iraqi Kurds and Vietnamese, have set up illegal settlements in dunes and so-called "jungles" surrounding the port, where cargo ships leave for Dover, UK.


Many of them sold their land, mortgaged their homes and jumped aboard a lorry to travel thousands of miles away from their homes to fulfil their dreams in the United Kingdom.


"There are jobs for everyone in the UK," says 21-year-old Habib from Iraq. "Language is a problem in other European countries, but in the UK our community will help us," he explains in broken English.


For the moment, they're living in the wild: they sleep on plastic sheets in tents and cardboard boxes, and depend on local aid organisations in Dunkirk for food, clothing and medical aid.


"At times they go without food for almost three days," explains Françoise Levoisier, a volunteer from the French aid organisation SALAM.


Volunteers like Levoisier bring them hot home-cooked meals thrice a week. For the other four days they try and provide everything from breakfast cereal to chocolates for dessert.


With no bathing or toilet facilities in the camp, the group of men depend on aid workers for coupons to use public showers set up by local municipalities.


Praying without taking a bath


"I take a shower once or maximum twice a week," says 25-year-old Azim, a Pakistani dressed in black trousers and mismatched shoes. He sleeps on newspapers in a tent with five other Afghans in a camp in the dunes near the port.


"What bothers me most is praying without taking a bath," he complains. A Muslim, he is required to clean himself before prayers.


French police conduct regular raids and major operations in these squats to drive away the immigrants. At least 200 illegals were arrested in a major police operation in the French port city of Calais in April, but the police set them free the following day.


"The police raze camps, but these immigrants always come back and set up new ones," says Levoisier. "There is no real solution to this problem," she adds.


Following the crackdown in Calais, French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said "jungle" camps there would be dismantled by the end of 2009. He ruled out building any kind of permanent shelters or centres for these UK-bound immigrants.


Besson, however, insisted that “humanitarian measures” would be taken to assist the undocumented residents. In Dunkirk, local authorities set up big tents for the chilly winters but pull them down once spring sets in.


In 2002, French authorities tore down a Red Cross Centre at Sangatte, near Calais, which had become a magnet for thousands of migrants.

"No chance, bad chance"


Azim left home in Mallah Mansur in northwestern Pakistan in 2006. "I hid under quilts and carpets with 20 other Afghans in a lorry bound for Turkey," he says. "We travelled for four days with little food and water."


After a long, gruelling journey in lorries and boats and on foot across Europe, Azim illegally entered France in November 2008 and has been trying to hitch one last illicit ride to reach his final destination across the English Channel.


Late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, groups of immigrants try to sneak into lorries or ferries heading for the UK. Some are successful, while others return to the camp disappointed.


Ali, a 40-year-old Iranian, has been living at the Grande Synthé camp (one of the illegal camps in Dunkirk) for several months. After several failed attempts, he managed to cross the English Channel earlier this week, only to be caught by the UK border police. He was immediately deported to Dunkirk.

"No chance, bad chance," a teary-eyed Ali tells aid workers.



From riches to rags


Many Iraqis and Afghans wanted to escape violence or were unemployed in their countries, but there are some who gave up proper jobs and businesses.


"Tauba [expression for repentance), I don't know what was I thinking when I sold my shop to come abroad," says 27-year-old Asif, who has been on the road for the past nine months.

"I had a car, a home and now I have nothing," he says with his palms open wide. Asif says he tried to get a visa back in Afghanistan but his demand was rejected, so he chose the illegal way.


Twenty-eight-year-old Rebin Karim, an Iraqi Kurd geography teacher from Kirkud, is all set to return home. "Life was very difficult in Iraq, there were bomb blasts every other hour, so I borrowed money and left," he recalls. "But life here is worse, I never imagined living in the jungle and asking people for food and clothing. I plan to return," he says, as others boo him for giving up.


For a large majority of these immigrants, there is no turning back.

"Most of us have taken heavy loans — 11,000-15,000 euros — and there is no way to pay it back, if we go back money-lenders will make life hell for us," says Amrik Singh, from Punjab in northern India.


For Azmaray Khan, a Pashtun from Afghanistan, it's a matter of pride, "If we return without making it to Britain, our family will call us cowards," he says.


"We're going to try again and again and again," says 13-year-old Afghan Abdul Karim in broken English. "My brother has reached UK. I've already been deported thrice but I'll soon catch up with him on the other side, Insha'Allah!" says a hopeful Karim.

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