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Syrian refugees in France 'ready to die' to reach UK

© Marie Goudeseune/ "La Voix du Nord"

Dozens of Syrian refugees have blocked an entry ramp to English Channel ferries in northern France’s port of Calais. Displaced by war, hounded by misery and tracked by police, they say the journey will only end once they reach England, or die trying.


Mohamed Al Kayed left Syria to escape the bloody civil war one year ago. He has since travelled through Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Italy, before arriving in France.

The young refugee says he walked for two months straight until he reached the northern port of Calais. But his final destination lies on the other side of the English Channel, in London. He swears he will get there, or die trying.

Mohamed is part of a group of 65 Syrian migrants whom police attempted to dislodge on Friday morning from an access ramp to a Calais ferry port. Two-thirds of them began a hunger strike at the sit-in this week, aimed at gaining the attention of the British Home Office.

“We have two options left. Either we die in Calais or we get to England. We call on the British authorities to study our case,” Mohamed, who unsuccessfully appealed for asylum in the British diplomatic mission in Jordan months ago, says. “We are also calling on members of the Syrian National Coalition in France. Aren’t they supposed to represent us? Where are they?”

The young man admits he has no interest in staying in France. His fellow Syrians blocking the ferry ramp brandish signs pleading their cause and appealing directly to Britain’s prime minister: “Help us Mr. Cameron, we are Syrians”.

Tracked by French police

Mohamed also deplores the “inhuman” conditions that he has suffered in France. “I did not flee one regime to face repression elsewhere,” he told FRANCE 24 by telephone on Thursday.

He recalls how French police continuously tracked him and other Syrian migrants during the past few weeks, repeatedly expelling them from several makeshift homes and barely giving them a moment’s rest.

“Every time we find a place to stay they kick us out. We can’t even sleep in the streets,” complains Mohamed, adding that after being detained by police for 16 hours last week, he was allowed to walk free after signing a document he was unable to read.

“Later, some interpreters told us that it was an order to leave the French territory. In my case, according to French authorities, I must be back in Syria one week from today!” he said incredulously.

Mohamed Ouhab, who works for the humanitarian group Doctors of the World and was at the scene of the Syrian sit-in in Calais, says the Syrian refugees have been left with no other recourse than the sit-in and hunger strike.

“Their plight has not received much media attention, but there have been several heavy-handed evictions from places where the Syrians and their families had found refuge,” says Ouhab. The activist added that many of the evictions were carried out without the court order French law mandates whenever a squat has been occupied for more than 48 hours.

French authorities appeared to be singing a different tune on Friday. In an attempt to negotiate the Syrians' voluntary departure from the ferry port, police prefect Denis Robin promised to help them obtain the legal paperwork that would allow them to stay in France while they applied for asylum in the country.

Sweetening the offer, Robin told them Syrian asylum seekers were now considered a priority by authorities and that they had 95-percent chance of securing a new life in France.

Time running out

However, the refugee Mohamed says that after his experience in Calais, he expects nothing from French officials. His dreams lie on the opposite shore. “All of us here have family or friends in [England]. My father and brother are in London, where they obtained refugee status is less than a month,” he says.

“In theory, the British authorities could offer visas to these Syrians, which would allow them to cross the Channel and file their asylum applications over there,” said Maël Galisson, a volunteer with a local Calais migrant protection group. “These people are within their legal right to ask for Europe’s protection.”

The offer of asylum in Calais now poses a new and difficult question for Mohamed and his friends. Because of international and European accords, being granted asylum in France would make it almost impossible for the refugees to claim asylum elsewhere. An open door in France will likely mean closing the door to the dream of life in England.

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