Sami was on a beach near Calais, crying, when Claire Moseley found him. The charity worker got a text asking for help and went to collect him in the early hours of the morning.
He and three friends, one of them only 17, had pooled their money to buy a three-seater kayak from the sports retailer Decathlon to try to make the arduous 20-mile journey to Britain, as 4,000 others have successfully done this year.
After 12 hours of rowing, they were down to one oar and the kayak they had crammed into was starting to sink. Sami, 40, says he wanted his younger friends to survive, so he called for help from the French coastguard and left the boat. He was rescued and returned to Calais. His friends made it to England, he says.
Sami (not his real name) is from Mauritania, fleeing political persecution; his friends, like many of the refugees in Calais, are from Sudan. He will try again. Nobody wants to be in Calais, where they queue under a baking sun for a free meal or a blanket to lie on in the rubbish-strewn road verges.
He is heading for the UK because, he says, nothing else has worked. “Italy can’t take everybody, so I came to France. I have been waiting two years here with no answer on my asylum claim. I hear from my friends the UK is much better, fairer.”
During the daily food distribution in Calais, some explain why they have travelled through Europe to make it to Britain. “The UK is my dream, it is the best country,” says Mohamed, a teenager who came overland from Sudan. Why didn’t he claim asylum on the way? He bends his head to show a crack in his skull: “That is where men beat me in Croatia.”
Claire Moseley runs the Care4Calais food distribution charity. As she rushes around taking requests for tents, her phone rings constantly with journalists wanting a quote on the situation in the Channel.
Moseley tells everyone who calls that the boats represent the increasing desperation of those who are all out of options, not an “invasion” by economic migrants. “Look at where people are from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran. These are the worst places to live in the world. Every day I talk to people who have been tortured – they are covered in scars,” she says.
Asked why they don’t stay in the first safe country, she is incensed. “They do! France has four times as many asylum seekers as the UK, and Germany even more. The question shouldn’t be ‘Why are people trying to reach the UK?’, it should be ‘Why shouldn’t they try to reach the UK?’ For some, that is where they have family; others can’t get protection anywhere else.”
Several of the teenage boys in Calais are trying to reach family members in Britain. Ali, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, is trying to reach his uncle, his only close relative. One day, while he was playing cricket in his home country, his entire family – including both parents and his seven-year-old sister – were killed at home by the Taliban, he says.
Today Ali is despondent. “Where will we go if they close this border? Every day I try to get to the UK. Recently I climbed into a concrete mixer by mistake – we nearly died. One day I will just swim. If I die, that is OK, I am relaxed about it.” Moseley is worried that Ali is talking about hurting himself.
He is one of two boys she was talking to lawyers about arranging a transfer under family reunion laws. It is a race against time, as EU family reunion law finishes at the end of the Brexit transition period.
The majority of asylum seekers in Europe stop well before they reach Calais. Germany received a quarter of all asylum applications in Europe last year, with France second, followed by Italy and Greece.
Speak to anyone here and they say they have nowhere else to go. There is no “Jungle” any more – it was dismantled in 2016 – but hidden down barely visible paths through the tall grasses, Sudanese people camp together. A fire has been lit and a communal dinner is cooking.
Mohammed sits by the fire and whispers his story. Now 34, he has spent the past six years being pushed out of several countries in Europe after fleeing what he says was political persecution in Sudan. He was detained for months in Hungary, deported more than once, and finally his asylum case was refused in France.
“I think they don’t want political refugees here,” he says. He knows that under the “Dublin” law, he is not officially allowed to apply for asylum now in the UK, but he has faith in the British asylum system. “Sudan is not safe. In Britain they know about Sudan because the UK colonised us. I think they would listen to my claim.”
He tried the sea route to England recently; it cost him €1,000. He was rescued by the French after huge waves hit the boat 20 minutes out to sea. “I have a fear of water – I can’t swim. But you put yourself in a place of death so that you can live,” he says.