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SOAS goes to Calais to meet Syrian refugees

Marta Garcia Aliaga, LLB (Law)

They are 80. And they are trapped behind the double wall of barbed wire that separates the French city of Calais and the English Channel. All forms of transport that could take them to the promised land that is meant to grant them asylum — Britain — are barred from them. “My friend and I try swimming [through the channel]” every day, explains Ahmad. He has spent the last three months attempting to reach Wales, his final destination. “Believe me, if we didn’t have any relatives there (in the UK), we wouldn’t go,” he nods while explaining that his mother works there as a teacher.

There are many other reasons to attempt to get to the United Kingdom. Sayid, another refugee, says that their second language tends to be English since it is taught in Syrian schools and universities. His tone becomes agitated when he rightfully speaks about the promises made by the British Executive to accept more Syrian refugees in what the United Nations has called “the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era”. Half of the population of Syria — over 3 million persons — have been displaced.

As a few others do subsequently, Sayid tells me that they are all educated individuals that were in a stable position before the war broke out in Syria in 2011. “There, he is a doctor. And he is a teacher. [These guys] are engineers.” Sayid himself used to be a journalist with editorial experience. Unlike other migration waves, they are not pursuing a better future than the one they had in their country. They are temporarily fleeing a situation.

Although the possibility of Syria returning to normal seems rather afar; they know what their next move will be when that moment finally arrives. “I will [go] back to my country. Syria before the war was a very good country!”

There are not many refugee families to be found in Calais. Ahmad mentions, “I have seen a woman with her children that were dying in the sea. I have seen the pain in Syria, but also the pain from Syria to here”. Like Ahmad, most that make it to France are men in their late twenties or thirties. “I have my wife in Syria. She is stuck there. I have not seen her in the last two years and I have had no news from her in the last six months. I have tried to contact her, but I can’t. There is no internet and no phones. I am helpless now. I want to hear her voice, just her voice.” The journey would have been rather “dangerous for her”, he says. “It is horrible for us, [because of both] the situation here and the situation in Syria.”

Ahmad’s journey from the countryside near Damascus to the port of Calais started over six months ago: first, he moved to Lebanon and from there, to Egypt. Then, he paid over $2000 to be smuggled to Italy in a boat with some other hundreds of Syrian asylum seekers. “13 days in the sea. It was a bad experience, believe me. Around 600 [people] were in the ship. It was horrible. You couldn’t stand. I spent three days without eating and two days without water.”

Life did not get not much easier when he arrived in France. Although the locals are vastly supporting them, their unstable situation is blatant. The soil on which we met them used to host their homes — a camp of tents which was destroyed by the French police forces back in May 2014. Ever since, they have been sleeping in a combination of squats and parks.

Along with many other sans papiers from different African or Middle Eastern countries, they receive food once a day from an organisation named Salam. They often run out of supplies before every person in the queue receives what is most probably the only meal they will have until the distribution happens again.

Speaking again to Sayid, he explains the mechanisms they have developed to attempt to cross the Channel. “There are no legal ways to reach England. There are many illegal ways, like jumping over the fence. But they are very dangerous. Somebody lost a finger, another one broke his shoulder.”

Speaking about crossing the channel camouflaged in different ways, he says, “Sometimes we stay six hours in the trucks. And then the car goes to Belgium or France, not to England!” An alternative is ‘to jump on a train’ as it leaves, when the speed is not too high. A few have already died using this escaping technique.

The success rate is rather limited. Ahmad points out with a smile that 40–50 Syrians reached the UK about four months ago. Considering the amount of attempts that I heard about during my weekend stay in Calais, that number sounds disappointing. “They are closing the doors in our face.”

Uncertainty marks the future of these Syrians transiting to the UK. In the meantime, their resilience, hope and positivity are their biggest allies. Even so, they are conscious of the grave situation back home and the repercussions it has around the globe. As I leave the Syrian territory, Ahmad makes one more remark: “The fire now in Syria will spread around the world.”

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