The dark Jungle of Iraqi refugees
[This story appeared originally on Immigation Here & There, a project of the Medill School of Journalism]
Neither of us can speak Arabic, but Ashraf knows enough English to get through to us.
"I want to tell [the world] that they should help us," he says. "We cannot stay here."
Every evening, at this empty loading dock in Calais, France, charity workers bring him and dozens of other refugees food and tea.
The weather here is wet and colder than Paris. With winter approaching, it's only getting worse.
Ashraf is still a teenager, but like all the others we talk to, he looks years beyond that. Most of them are from Afghanistan, and in many cases, their stories overlap. They've endured many hardships to get here. They've left families behind and spent all their money. Now they're stranded in Calais.
No heaven in England
In London, England, Ahmed Hashim Ali visits the office of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees. The whole operation is confined to one dim-lit room.
A former Iraqi police officer, Ali was threatened by the Mahdi army just as they threatened many other officers who worked under Saddam Hussein's regime. After several attempts on his life, he fled to England. He now lives with his brother, a British resident, and is seeking refugee status.
It's been over a year, and Ali says he hasn't been employed and has yet to receive any benefits from the British Home Office. He only has a five-pound weekly allowance from his brother. In London, that's barely enough for a single tube ride paid in cash.
Beyond that, he knows few people and rarely goes out. He wants to help his family back at home even though he has few prospects for himself.
Before U.S. forces ever engaged with the Taliban or Iraq, the U.K. attracted a large number of asylum seekers. For the 15 months up to the end of March 2003, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, the U.K.'s largest group of asylum seekers came from Iraq, with 17,070 applications.
By then, port towns in France were already attracting hundreds, even thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East, hoping to sneak through the tunnels of the English Channel. In Sangatte, three miles outside Calais, the situation became so disruptive that train operators claimed the resultant delays were costing them 5 million pounds a month.
In 2002, both Britain and France responded to the situation by closing the Sangatte Red Cross Centre. Then-Home Secretary David Blunkett announced the closure in Calais, saying hopeful immigrants had "to realize that there is simply no point in coming to northern France as it is increasingly difficult to get into the U.K."
Since then, the number of refugees trying to cross has plummeted, but there are hundreds left who continue to try under less hospitable conditions.
The hazards and harassments of refugee life
As we struggle to communicate with the refugees in Calais, the charity workers tell us we need to see how they live to understand their desperation. One local by the name of "Moustache" (after the most prominent feature on his face) agrees to be our guide. He will take us through the woods, what many call 'the Jungle,' where most of the refugees live.
When we approach the Jungle the next day, we see a sign hanging by the road. Sprayed in red paint, it says "NON! A [sic] UN SANGATTE BIS DECIDE PAR LE MAIRE," a protest against the mayor's decision to open a new refugee center.
The forest here isn't very deep, and the sight is rather surreal. Tattered makeshift tents and scattered waste dot the Jungle. Looking up from the camps, not far beyond the trees, one can see residential houses.
Many of the refugees aren't here, but even though Moustache hollers like he's a familiar sight, the few we do encounter are startled by our presence, fearing we may be the police.
France bans the deportation of anyone to a country at war or where the person's life is at risk, but that doesn't deter local law enforcement. According to Francoise LeClerc, a volunteer for a charity organization that feeds many of these refugees, the police often arrest them, driving them to the edge of town where they drop them off. The refugees merely walk back into town, but the arrests are rarely pleasant. LeClerc says the police once raided their dinners and violently arrested many of the refugees. Afterwards, she and many of the workers felt guilty, as if they lured them into danger.
The harassment refugees face in Calais pales to the journey there. According to Patrick Jones, the advice service manager for the London organization Asylum Aid, they often "come through agents and they pay a lot of money to get into the country. Often they travel six months to get [there], in appalling conditions." He says that "a lot of people get killed along the way. They are the victims of exploitation."
Jabbar Hasan, director of the Iraqi Association in London, has heard the same stories with the refugees he's seen. "Smugglers aren't reliable," Hasan says. "They strand many in places like Kuala Lumpur where they're treated harshly by authorities. The refugees realize the risks but go through smugglers because they're desperate. They have nowhere else to go."
Every story we gather in Calais echoes one another, with the worst details repeated. They've had death threats. They fear for their lives. They've lost relatives, and they believe they'll be next.
In London, Ali told a similar story to the Home Office. He told them about the Mahdi Army, how they killed his father and kidnapped his son. He showed the Home Office the ransom note, which he also paid. But Ali erupts in anger when he recounts their indifference. When he brought up the failure of the Iraqi government, he says they were dismissive. "They don't believe anything I say."
Nearly 5 million Iraqis had been displaced by violence, according to the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration. Half have vacated their homes but moved elsewhere in Iraq. Up to 1.5 million are living in Syria, and most of the remaining 1 million refugees are living in Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Gulf States.
"How many have come to the UK? The number is in the hundreds," Jones says. "The UK is still very adamant that there is not a problem in Iraq, that they can go back."
Meanwhile, the British government has changed its laws. One can no longer enter the country without permission or a passport, a requirement many refugees don't meet. "Oftentimes, the only way [refugees] can leave their country is on an illegal passport," says Jones. Violators of the new regulation face six months in jail. "[A lot of] people are dying trying to reach Europe," Jones says. "This is the real risk people are taking...and a lot of times, they face a prison sentence as soon as they arrive."
The refugees in Calais consistently talk about work and sending money back to their families. But in Britain, asylum seekers are not allowed to work as their case is heard. Some like Ali can depend on relatives for support, but others risk detainment for illegal employment. "The problem is that it adds to their isolation," Jones says, "and reduces their ability to integrate."
Those who are granted asylum are usually taken out of the city and given accommodations, but roughly four-fifths of all applicants are ultimately denied and forced to leave. Even if they can avoid deportation, their financial support is cut. Many of these people "go underground," Jones says. At that point, organizations like Asylum Aid lose contact with them and can do no more to help. "Some are living on charity, living on friends' floors. Many are living on the streets. There has been a lot of criticism of a government policy of destitution."
In a lot of ways, it's easier for refugees to go underground in Britain than most other countries. There are lots of ethnic communities in which one can disappear. There's an abundance of illegal jobs. The primary language is English, which many refugees understand to some degree.
However, less difficulty doesn't guarantee success. Baiz Abdulla, an Iraqi Kurd who came to England in 2001, was arrested for illegal employment and has been held at Colnbrook Detention Centre for more than a year. When I spoke with him in November 2007, there were 14 other Iraqi Kurds detained at Colnbrook. Several of them were already scheduled for deportation back to Iraq.
Going to America
In Calais, we met one refugee, "X," who said he was not going to apply for asylum. He had snuck across before, and prior to his deportation, the authorities fingerprinted him.
According to Moustache, some refugees go to great lengths to hide their fingerprints, like soaking their hands in latex gloves filled with alcohol. However, "X" doesn't believe hiding his fingerprints will be enough. Instead, he will go straight underground.
I repeat Jones' warnings about such actions, but he merely shrugs them off. He then asks if I knew how to get to America. I tell him that journey might be more difficult than a trip across the Channel, but that only prompts him to ask for more advice.
As the charity workers pack up, the refugees return to the Jungle. Moustache would guide us there the next day in broad daylight, but we ask Ashraf if would could follow him at this late hour. He advises us not to.
In the Jungle, they don't light fires at night. They prefer to brave the cold then risk drawing the authorities. So we watch as they go back towards the woods, straight into darkness.