A ticket to nowhere

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Migrants, mostly Afghans, from the controversial Sangatte refugee centre on the north coast of France, who regularly risk life and limb to smuggle into Britain via the Channel tunnel, have been told the camp will close by April 2003. Mohammad Bashir heard their views of a grim future.

Despite assurances that security in the Afghan capital has improved since the arrival of a 5,000-strong international security force, the refugees say they are not prepared to return to their homeland devastated by more than two decades of conflict.

"Either death or London. We cannot afford to sleep in streets and parks here," said Abdur Razaq, a refugee from northern Afghanistan, who has tried at least 50 times to make it through the tunnel.

And with the Sangatte camp now due to close early next year, many are desperately turning to ever more extreme acts to reach Britain, tantalisingly close with the tunnel stretching just some 50 kilometres.

In July, one Afghan man had his leg severed by a train speeding through the tunnel when he slipped while clinging to its side, hoping for a swift passage onto British soil, refugees said.

Two Kurds were electrocuted and died when they jumped on top of another train. The trains can reach speeds of up to 297 kilometres per hour. But despite the accidents, the refugees remain undeterred.

"We have another six months to continue trying before the camp is closed," said Razaq as he cooled down with four other ethnic Pashtun youths at a beach close to the camp.

"We have come here to ensure our human rights are protected and to enjoy these," he said, pointing to the beach where local French women - some of them topless - were tanning themselves.

Ali Amiri, 21, from Kabul, said he had twice sprained his ankle by jumping for speeding trains only to be caught by French police and customs officers.

"Everybody is putting their life in danger. We need to get out of here because we have no money in this camp," Amiri said.

The Sangatte camp, set up in a disused hangar in September 1999 - initially for refugees from Kosovo - is home to about 1,500 mainly Afghan and Kurdish asylum seekers.

Their constant attempts to reach Britain via the Tunnel have severely disrupted rail freight traffic, and led to pressure from London, worried about a wave of illegal immigration, to close down the camp.

France's agreement to shut the facility from early next year has only increased the sense of desperation and frustration among the refugees.They also complain of excess force by French police, accusing them of beating them with batons and attacking them with dogs and gas.

Amiri said in several cases the police had sprayed gas at refugees. "It happened to me. The police sprayed gas at us after they detained our group one night," he said.

Paris and London have accepted UN aid to repatriate hundreds of Afghan refugees from the Sangatte centre.But refugees say even that cannot tempt them to return home.

"I will not go back even if I am paid USD 100,000. Because if I return with this money, they will kill me and take the dollars," said Sajan, from the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Khaleq Merzaie, from the Afghan province of Ghazni, said last year's collapse of the Taliban militia had led to a return of the same chaotic rule by local mujahedin as in 1992-1996 when thousands of Afghans were killed and Kabul destroyed.

"The same groups and the same people are back in power. They will not fight each other as long as there are foreign troops," Merzaie said.

Most Afghans said they had sold their houses, shops and land to pay the USD 5,000 to USD 10,000 demanded for a clandestine trip via Iran to Turkey, Greece, Italy and eventually France.

Outside the hangars, under heavy police guard, refugees had hung up washing to dry. They complained the facility was ill-equipped, that there were regular power cuts and that there were only 14 showers for 1,500 people.

They said queues for food often lasted two hours, and the sparse beds were infested with bugs.

"We sailed in boats and we have seen up to 60 Afghans drown in the Greek waters. Nobody can take us back to a country which is uncertain and will remain so for years to come," said Mohammad Shah Nazari, another refugee.

Most are still lured by tales of easy jobs for the picking in Britain.

Ahmad Shafiq, 22, from the Afghan province of Herat was among about a dozen new Afghan and Kurdish arrivals at the camp lat month. "I have come here with the hope to go to London," he said wearily.

August 2002

Copyright AFP

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