August 20, 2022

A tale of two refugees at Calais

“There’s no water, no eating, no heating,” says Agram. “I can’t live like a human. I live like an animal.”

He is stirring tinned tomatoes outside his tent in Calais, northern France. At the age of 24, this young Sudanese is a refugee. His hopes of a better future are pinned on making the  perilous crossing across the Channel to England. 

A 10-minute drive away, Ukrainians refugees are given hostel rooms, hot meals and visa support from British officials – a welcome at odds with the experience of most non-European migrants here.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. More than 2 million people have fled the country since fighting began last month, with a further 3-5 million expected to join the exodus.

Like thousands of others from across the world, many have come to Calais – the last post on the refugee trail to Britain.

The train track next to Agram’s tent has claimed many of his friend’s lives

Their presence has triggered an outpouring of support, with donations coming in from around Europe. Local people have joined the aid effort, donating clothes, food, nappies, even spare rooms in their homes. The town hall has provided food and hundreds of beds – all at the taxpayer’s expense.

Among them is Tanya who escaped her hometown of Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine. Her dad, uncle and cousins live in Britain, so she assumed she would be able to join them on a family visa. But she was stopped at the border.

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“I still don’t know if they will say no to our visas,” she says – on her fifth day waiting for clearance in Calais.

Despite being in shock at having to leave her homeland, she has been treated well. “A lot of people are helping with food, clothes and places to stay,” she says.

But for the Afghan, Kurdish, and Syrian refugees scattered in camps around Calais, there is no warm welcome.

According to local NGOs, there are around 2,000 refugees currently living in tents around the French coast. Ostracised into gutter towns of tents, surrounded by rubbish and with no access to clean water, the groups are regularly broken-up by police. Last week, French officials ransacked two of the areas – tearing down tents, and throwing away the few belongings they had left.

Agram arrived here in September after fleeing the fallout from the brutal civil conflict that has ravaged his homeland. 

He can’t understand why Ukrainian refugees are treated differently: “I can’t see a doctor, I can’t see the police, I’m starving. They’re in hotels, I’m living in a tent. I don’t understand. It’s just inhumane.”

“I’ll try tonight, I’ll try tomorrow, I’ll try until I get [to Britain]” he says. His plan is to cross the border by securing himself to the undercarriage of a car travelling to Dover.

Agram and Tanya are both victims of the UK’s hostile border policy.

But while Tanya has the option of resettling in Britain through a visa process, Agram must apply as an asylum seeker.

Tanya fled her home in the Western Ukrainian town of Khmelnytskyi last month

To claim asylum in the UK, you must already be in England. The instability in his homeland has convinced Agram that it is worth risking his life to reach the relative safety of Britain.

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He is one of the 60,000 refugees expected to attempt to cross the Channel this year, a forecast made before the Ukraine crisis. So far, this year 2,100 have made the crossing.

In December, French President Emmanuel Macron asked Britain to set up an asylum-seeker centre in Calais to help deal with the thousands of people displaced around the town. The ideas was that processing migrants on the French side would reduce the number of deaths from those trying to make it across – but the Home Office rejected the plan, arguing it would attract more migrants to the UK.

Now as the number of refugees arriving from Ukraine grows daily, it seems their position is finally shifting. A new centre is scheduled to open in Lille. The unit is a one hour drive from the hostel where many Ukrainians are being housed. A free bus service will shuttle people there, where they will be able to get clearance for safe passage into the UK.

The catch? Only Ukrainians will be eligible for processing in this centre.

Sonya Sceats, the chief executive of Freedom for Torture is campaigning for a fairer migration policy for all migrants, no matter where they come from. 

“Discrimination is the golden thread that runs through the government’s entire approach to refugees,” she says. “From their disastrous response to the human tragedy unfolding in Ukraine to the cruel borders bill they are currently forcing through parliament.” 

Agram has a question for the local authorities: “I want to ask everyone here, why do people in Africa stay in tents – while Ukrainians are given hotels?

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“Everyone here is human. Why must I stay in a tent, while Ukrainians are given good food and help to England?”