Calais migrants say Rwanda 'worse than Afghanistan' - but it won't stop them crossing

·5-min read

It is three years since Mustafa and Safi, teenage brothers from Afghanistan, decided to flee their country.

Safi was only just into his teens; his brother a year older at 14. Now, with the air of timeworn men rather than teenage children, they are still on the run.

"We tell our mum that we are in a hotel," says Safi, staring at the ground. "We say that it's a nice place so she will not worry about us.

"We give them the good news to make them happy. We don't tell them we live in a jungle. I miss my mum and I miss my father - I haven't seen them in three years."

This isn't a nice place, and they are not living a nice life. This camp, like so many around Calais or Dunkirk, is a turbulent focal point for people with just one aim - to get across the Channel, and into Britain.

We meet on a patch of scruffy land on the edge of a rough camp in Loon-Plage, near the north French coast.

Just a couple of days earlier, people were wounded here in a shooting between rival factions. Workers tell us that the atmosphere has recently become much more volatile and violent.

The police came and decided to dismantle the camp - pulling down tents and destroying possessions.

A few hours later, after the police had left, migrants returned, other tents were put in place, and the bustle of life returned. Now, it looks like nothing ever happened.

It is a microcosm of how life works here. Just as the incoming tide wipes out the traces, so the migrant camps seem generally to rebuild themselves, however many people or police officers may come and go.

The growing tension within them seems, at first sight, as if it's based upon ethnic groups.

According to those at the camp, a row between Sudanese and Kurdish men led to a reprisal attack by Kurds with weapons, and similar stories are told about Afghans, Iraqis or Albanians.

In reality, the violence is generally stirred by the criminal gangs who make their money from smuggling people over the water.

They battle over "customers" and expect loyalty from groups of migrants, based on which country they've come from, or where they're living.

"There are more people who don't have enough customers for a crossing - then they want to fight, to make trouble to disrupt the people who do have the customers - until the police come to kick people out," says Mustafa.

He says the gunfire doesn't worry him - a childhood in Afghanistan prepares you for that - but the police response makes him anxious.

The threat of being sent to Rwanda depresses him, which he believes to be "worse than Afghanistan" - but it won't stop him trying to make the crossing.

Once the weather has calmed down, he is hoping to be on a boat, even if he worries (with good reason) about the weather worsening, the boat sinking or the engine failing.

People smugglers are the thread in the story.

They control the camps and they prove that, whatever the political rhetoric, you really can get across the Channel in a flimsy boat, as long as you're prepared to pay money and risk your life.

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Eric Duriez runs a shop selling marine supplies, and knows all about the methods of the people smugglers.

Or, at least, he knows about the customers who come in and buy dozens of life-jackets at a time.

"I ask them what size they're for, and they say 'medium weight' - maybe 100 kilos. So I show them the good life jackets for these people and they're €22 each.

"Then they say 'that's not the one I want'. But it's the only one we have that's suitable. Instead, they buy the ones for children, for people who are 10 to 15 kilos, which are only €12. They are the cheapest ones in the shop.

"So that's it. For them, a life is worth no more than €12. I can't refuse to sell them the safety equipment and I suppose that something is better than nothing, but I feel very bad.

"You feel very bad because I live here and I know that it is an industry for these people. They make money from this, from people who are coming from so far away and spending all their fortune to go to the UK.

"They are not here to save people. They're here to make business only. That this is a business. It is the business of life."

But despite the exploitation, there is no shortage of customers or determination.

In a squalid camp hidden among some trees, a group of Sudanese men say they are set upon new lives in Britain.

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Among them is Mustafa, whose journey here included a hiatus of a year in a Libyan jail, where he was detained as an unauthorised migrant. He spent his time in prison learning English.

"It is a beautiful language, and I want a beautiful life, away from war," he tells me.

The simple truth is that cross-Channel migration is a battle between governments, Border Force, customs and police on one side and, on the other, migrants and people smugglers who mine a seam of determination and resourcefulness.

There are no easy answers. Wars are inevitable, migration is a fact of our world and a potent element in British politics.

And every day, more people arrive in Calais, dreaming of a new life.