Why we shunned France and chose Britain – migrants in their own words
Endless questions have been asked since the freezing waters of the English Channel claimed the lives of 27 people last Wednesday afternoon, in what is thought to be the biggest loss of life since the migrant crisis began.
Perhaps one of the most pertinent is what persuades desperate people to risk life and limb to flee one safe country for another?
For Alem*, a young Eritrean man who travelled to Britain from the northern coast of France in a small boat earlier this year, the answer lies in poor treatment at the hands of the French authorities. He is speaking to The Telegraph just outside the Napier Barracks, near Folkestone in Kent, a converted army centre now used by the Home Office to house hundreds of asylum seekers, most of whom have recently arrived from France.
It’s a wet and windy afternoon, but in the streets around the barracks, other asylum seekers – mostly also young men in their 20s – mill about, chatting, smoking and texting.
Alem used to live in a tent in the Calais “Jungle”, the squalid 1.5 sq mile area of scrubland that became a symbol of Europe’s migration crisis. The jungle itself was demolished in 2016, but some 2,000 migrants remain in makeshift camps in wooded areas nearby.
Every day, the French police arrive to move the migrants on; by nightfall, they have to find another home, under a bridge or in a disused warehouse. The Calais authorities have even been accused of installing large rocks at some distribution points to prevent aid vans from parking.
“I like England more than France, I have friends here,” Alem says in broken English. “It was not good in France; England is better. I want to study [in the UK], I hope later.”
His sentiment is echoed by many of the men we speak to by the barracks. In a survey of 402 people at the Calais Jungle camp conducted in 2015, and published in the International Health journal in 2017, researchers found that two-thirds had experienced at least one act of violence; only 12 per cent wanted to remain in France, while 82 per cent hoped to travel to Britain.
Indeed, hostility from local authorities is a key reason why many migrants to Europe move from one country to another, says Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.
“Whilst the UK is by no stretch of the imagination the most chosen location [for migrants] in Europe, it’s the end of the line, it’s not a transit country,” he says.
“If you are travelling through... countries, facing prejudice and rejection… the idea of something being better somewhere else is not preposterous.”
Jawmar Ali Mahmoud, who fled from Kurdistan to Calais after being tortured for political dissent in an Iraqi prison, says he would “never” claim asylum in France – citing fear of the French police as one of the main reasons.
“People [here in Calais] are cold, hungry, penniless,” he told last week’s Media Storm podcast. “I think police in Kurdistan, police in France are no different... Even if I am in the Jungle 10 years, I won’t want asylum in France.”
His testimony is typical of those in the camps. Another, unnamed Sudanese refugee told the podcast of a recent incident when a security guard at a Calais service station set his dog on a group of migrants.
“They call it the station of the devil,” he said. “[The dog] bit his leg and drew blood, while another man fell and broke his leg running away. I ask the UK to take all the Sudanese refugees from the Jungle. Being here is an unbearable struggle.”
Fingers have been pointed at the violent tactics used by smugglers to “encourage” migrants into making the dangerous crossing.
“Smuggler violence, police violence… it’s all part of the deal,” says Bahoz, a Kurdish asylum seeker who crossed the Channel two months ago; he was discovered by French patrol boats en route, but not turned back. He is now seeking asylum while being housed in a hostel just outside London.
“The media is wrong to say we are being manipulated by smugglers. We make these choices because we have to. There is a reason we have survived for so long, and it is not because we are stupid.”
Indeed, beside the “push” from France, is the “pull” of Britain. Many migrants are coming from countries such as Sudan, where the English language is reasonably well-known, due to the legacy of the empire. Others simply recognise it as the global language of opportunity.
Hussein, a 27-year-old Iraqi, was one of 35 migrants to sail across the Channel in a 16ft boat three months ago: “It was 12 hours on the boat and I was very cold – I was getting the water out with my shoes.” He also now lives at the Napier Barracks, and mentions English as a key selling point of his new home.
“The language, the people are good,” he says. “Iraq was no good because of the war. I have no family here, but I will bring them when I have my papers.”
Dezhwah, 24, a fellow Iraqi came by boat on June 1, having read “lots of books, lots of novels” about Britain before crossing: “I know England is a very good country, they help other guys,” he says.
“There [are] in England many people from other places. But in France it is a very different country. I want to study and be an IT technician. I was very clever in school.”
Even those who don’t know any English would probably like to learn some, says McNeil.
“The English language is ubiquitous,” he says. “Many, many people speak it, or believe that learning to speak it will be an opportunity which will serve them better than learning to speak Dutch, Swedish, or another language.”
The housing picture is a little less clear. The UK promises that every asylum seeker will be given somewhere to live, whether in a flat, house, hostel or bed-and-breakfast (though this promise isn’t always kept, and a small number do become homeless).
This is in strong contrast to France, where thousands live in squalor in shanty towns along the northern coast.
Some argue that generous UK benefits are attracting migrants, persuading them to take a dangerous journey. But the reality is a little more complicated.
The UK’s £39.63 weekly allowance for asylum seekers is actually marginally less generous than France, where they receive €6.80 a day, equivalent to £40.40 a week.
But, under electoral pressure from the far Right, President Macron in 2019 introduced a slew of measures to make France less attractive to potential migrants, including a new rule that asylum seekers will have to wait three months before qualifying for non-urgent healthcare (in the UK, asylum seekers with an active application are entitled to free NHS care).
What’s more, informal work on the black market is usually easier to come by in Britain, due to looser regulations. In France, all citizens must have some form of government-approved identification, a rule that does not exist in the UK (a plan to introduce compulsory ID cards was considered briefly by Tony Blair’s government in 2006, but dropped after a public backlash).
The UK government has in recent years tried to tighten these rules, forcing employers and landlords to conduct immigration checks on their staff and tenants. But the rules are not always enforced.
Behind each migrant, of course, is a unique human story, one that is often filled with harrowing accounts of trauma.
Additional reporting by Mathilda Mallinson