Refugees take to hiding in northern France after Calais camp demolished

While some head for Dunkirk refugee camp Grande-Synthe, many sleep in ditches near the coast and continue trying to reach UK

For the past two months, Sattar, 22, has been living in a ditch 30 miles (48km) inland from Calais, attempting to return to Reading, where he spent nine years of his life, studied for his GCSEs and earned distinctions in a college course in business, travel and tourism.

The ditch where he was sheltering last week is so well hidden behind blackberry bushes, in a dip between two fields, that most people in the nearby village are unaware it is home to about 25 Afghans. Most of the refugees are new arrivals in Europe, fleeing instability in Afghanistan in the hope of finding jobs and security in Britain. Some, like Sattar, are making the journey for a second time, caught up in the labyrinthine complexities of the UK immigration system.

With Calais authorities declaring the refugee camp closed this week, and demolition crews bulldozing the remaining shacks on the sandy wasteland, the crisis has not been solved, merely shifted to other locations. Clusters of refugees remain hidden from authorities across northern France, determined to continue their attempts to reach the UK.

Sattar arrived in Britain as a 13-year-old refugee sent across Europe by his parents, away from Taliban-related violence in Afghanistan’s Logar province. He was given discretionary leave to remain and settled with a foster family, whom he loved and who supported him through the considerable difficulties of going to secondary school without speaking English.

He worked hard at Chiltern Edge school in Oxfordshire, where he says he received extra lessons in English, got through his GCSEs and passed his BTecs with distinction. But when Sattar reached 17-and-a-half, at which age the government routinely reviews longer term applications to remain, officials ruled that since Kabul was relatively safe, he would be fine to return home.

“The judge told me ‘You have GCSEs, you are educated, you will easily find a job there’,” he said. By the time the decision was made, Sattar had been in the UK for six years, spoke the language flawlessly and felt English. His family in Afghanistan told him it would not be safe to return home, so he appealed the judgment, but was rejected and obliged to leave Britain.

He briefly went to Italy, where he was shocked to see refugees sleeping in railway stations, before returning to France, determined to get back to the UK and launch a fresh appeal. He has settled in a tent in this muddy gully in rural France so he can make nightly attempts to get on UK-bound lorries parked next to the motorway nearby.

Refugee looks out into a field from a makeshift camp
A refugee stands in one of many encampments that have sprung up in the countryside around Calais and Dunkirk. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Despite attempts by French and British authorities to resolve the buildup of refugees near the ports of northern France, thousands remain in the area, committed to joining family and friends in Britain.

Many are hidden in small camps like Sattar’s, in fields, garages or derelict buildings. Others are based at an official camp near Dunkirk, at Grande-Synthe, the population of which increased from about 800 people three weeks ago to an estimated 1,400 this week, as camps in Paris and Calais were shut down.

Where next? The last days of the Calais refugee camp

Camp officials would not release the precise number of inhabitants and the formal position is that the site is closed to newcomers. But volunteers distributing food and aid say there has been a sharp rise in the number of people arriving and note that huts designed to accommodate four people are often housing twice as many.

Christian Salomé, the president of refugee charity L’Auberge des Migrants, who has been working on the issue for the past 24 years, said clearing the Calais camp did not mean the crisis was over. “It will come again. about 97% of the people who come are fleeing war, and those wars continue, particularly in Iraq. Until the demolition, 40 people were arriving every day. They will continue to come,” he said.

This week, there was a heavy police presence guarding motorways around Calais, and police in Paris were making checks on people without papers trying to board trains and buses for northern France. But Salomé expects a surge in the number of people arriving in Calais a month from now, by which time the 6,000 taken by bus to temporary accommodation last week have been told they must move on, either by claiming asylum or returning home.

Although the Calais camp has been demolished, it is not possible to extinguish the desire many refugees have to travel to the UK, Salomé said. “If they don’t want to claim asylum in France, they will have to leave the centres. They can’t be deported back to their countries if there is a war there. There is no possibility for them to work in France. They will continue to come to Calais,” he said.

For the moment, refugees who chose not to take buses to French reception centres are at pains to stay hidden from authorities. The camp in the ditch is remote enough to avoid the attention of police. The Afghans who live there have no desire to claim asylum in France.

“In Paris, I saw people who have been given 10 years leave to remain in France, who are still sleeping in the park and sitting outside churches asking for money. That’s not a life,” Sattar said. His belief that he stands a better chance of working in the UK has fuelled his determination to return. So far, he has twice climbed into lorries on the motorway, but was discovered at the port both times.

People play football at a government-approved refugee camp near Dunkirk
People play football at a government-approved refugee camp near Dunkirk. Many choose to hide from authorities. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Sattar is very attached to England. “In Reading, I had the best time of my life. I grew up there,” he said. After college he got a job at a poultry factory in Birmingham. “It was a very good job,” he said. Sattar has not told his family in Afghanistan that he has had to leave Britain.

“It would break their hearts. Whenever I call them, I say I am safe, having a good life,” he said. But living in the ditch could not accurately be described as such. “It’s not good here. When it rains, your clothes get wet, it’s muddy everywhere,” he said, warming himself against the cold, sitting by a small open fire made of branches collected from nearby woods.

He has also not told his foster family or friends where he is. “I didn’t want to make them upset. They think I am in Birmingham,” he said. “Nobody knows what I went through and what I am going through.” Sattar despairs at the UK asylum system, which first embraced and then expelled him.

But his situation is not particularly unusual. Namitullah Echkzei, 23, from Kunduz in Afghanistan, came to Britain as a child refugee and was educated at Waltham Forest college in north-east London. He is also living in the dip between the fields. His brother was granted asylum in the UK, but for reasons he does not fully understand, his application was not accepted.

“The Taliban threatened our family. We faced the same problems. They rejected me, but my brother was accepted,” he said. “They say it is safe, but Kunduz is not safe.” He is also hoping to return to the UK, to the flat where his brother lives in Walthamstow, to contest the decision.

Doctors of the World makes weekly visits to the ditch to see how people are coping. Staff at the charity regularly have to take people from the camp to hospital with broken bones and sprains, particularly ankles and wrists, the result of falls from moving lorries during their night-time attempts to get to the UK.

Food is distributed by local volunteers. The men, some of whom have been living here for a year, look unhealthy and exhausted, and complain of brutal treatment at the hands of police whenever they are picked up near the motorway. “We had our own lives in Afghanistan, we had families, houses, jobs. Now we are in a ditch – with no future, no job. We want a solution quickly,” said a former baker who left his home in Afghanistan after receiving death threats.

Steve Bedlam, one of the founders of Refugee Community Kitchen, which has been providing food in the area for the past year, said volunteers were aware of a few informal camps popping up, but refugees were so anxious to avoid police attention that they usually refused offers of help. “Volunteers are wonderful, but they bring attention and authorities. Mostly they say they don’t want any help, because they don’t want the attention, but some people are taking small food parcels to them,” he said.

Volunteers at Grande-Synthe said they had seen a “steady trickle” of arrivals from Calais, Paris and elsewhere. Until recently, the population was mostly Kurdish, with many families, and more than 120 children, living in about 300 wooden shelters on a patch of land sandwiched between a motorway and a railway line. Recently there have been arrivals from Pakistan and Vietnam. Conditions are better than they were in Calais, but there is no electricity and the health of residents, particularly children, is deteriorating as winter arrives.

With conflicts continuing in the Middle East and Africa, the flow of people escaping violence is unlikely to let up, said Florence Vanderborght, a field supervisor at Doctors of the World. “Last year, the population of asylum seekers in Dunkirk rose from 300 to 3,000 between August and October. We didn’t see it coming. It can be very quick,” she said.


Amelia Gentleman in Dunkirk

The GuardianTramp

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