Refugees in Calais ‘devastated’ to hear of Channel tragedy still intent on reaching UK

Refugees in Calais said they were “devastated” to hear the news of their fellow asylum-seekers, but insisted they still dreamed of reaching the UK.

Sleeping in tents on drenched, muddy wasteland near Calais’ main hospital, a smattering of refugees at a once sprawling camp spoke to the Mirror.

They said people smugglers’ prices of at least £2,000 per head for a 45 metre boat with around 40-50 people squeezed in, meant the gang involved in the tragedy had taken at least £60,000 in cash from those who died in the sea. Other estimates put the figure as high as £6,000 per person.

Jon, a 27-year-old former electrical engineering student from Eritrea, told how he and 13 other asylum seekers cheated death in the ocean on the same day 27 others perished.

He set out on a small boat and paid £200 for his share.

The group waited in the shadows on the northern French coast from 9pm on Tuesday, watching as police intercepted a number of attempted crossings.

Then, freezing but determined, the group took to the Channel in their flimsy raft as police dispersed at 5am on Wednesday.

There are still a few scattered tents on the site of a former refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais


Phil Harris)

The boat quickly started filling with water until they were up to their necks, coughing and spluttering.

They gave up and clawed their way back to shore. Five hours later – he learned almost 30 fellow refugees had died in a similar crossing.

“The boat was full, it was too rough and we returned,” he told the Mirror.

“Five hours after, I heard the news.

“These people have come through many tough areas – and they all die here in Europe trying to reach England.

Haircuts all round using the generator supplied by Care for Calais to power the clippers


Phil Harris)

Mohamed (L) and Adul (R) live in tents at the site


Phil Harris)

“We managed to get back, but the others didn’t. It is so bad.”

Jon left Eritrea in 2015 and travelled through Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Belgium, and now France.

He said as a result of its authoritarian regime and war-torn history, there is no democracy or opportunities for development.

Wednesday was Jon’s second near miss.

In a previous attempt he was one of nine in a boat, including his brother.

They set off but the boat was clearly too small and they would not have all made it.

Jon and his brother jumped off to give the rest a better chance of crossing.

Care for Calais supply tables and games for the people


Phil Harris)

“They all made it,” he said.

“The boat was going to sink, we would probably have all died. This way we are all alive – and we will go another day.”

Adul, a 31-year-old from Ethiopia, shares a pitch with 18-year-old Mohamed from Sudan – who fled his war-torn home nation aged just 14.

Adul dreams of reaching the UK, where he has a friend who works for courier and delivery service DHL.

He fled Ethiopia in 2014 and has been in Calais for nine long months.

He previously spent time in Germany and Belgium, but says he was faced with such racism he had no choice but leave.

Adul dreams of reaching the UK


Phil Harris)

“In the UK, I don’t think it is like this,” he told the Mirror as a local charity handed out sandwiches for the freezing refugees.

“My friend went to England and he is happy, he has a family now. He works,

he provides, he smiles.

“This is what I want to do. I want to work, to contribute. We deserve a life too.

He said the conditions in the sea were too rough to make attempted crossings in November, but that in better conditions, and in spite of this week’s tragedy, he would still take the risk.

“Sometimes, if the boats are full, they (the smugglers) might let one extra person on for free,” he said.

“Yes, I would do this. I cannot afford to do it the other way.

Care 4 Calais supports the 2,000 refugees sleeping rough in northern France


Phil Harris)

“But it is so dangerous, of course you are risking your life.

“I am devastated to hear what happened yesterday. This is so sad.

“I will probably wait until I get the chance to go on a truck.”

Three weeks ago French authorities chopped down forestry where the refugees were camped, near the hospital, meaning around 600 were displaced and are now split into various groups across Calais.

Mirror reporter Matthew Young talks to Raman and Erag


Phil Harris)

Humanitarian group Care 4 Calais welcomed the Mirror to one of its daily distribution sites, where they provide refugees with food, warm drinks, phone chargers – and even a football or two.

Knocking the ball around with smiles on their faces, it is hard to imagine what horror they have endured to reach this point – and what they are willing to endure further to get to England.

Afghan brothers Mohip, 27, Erag, 18, and Ramen, 17, fled their home together and arrived in Calais two days ago, hours before the fateful journey set off.

They are three of 12 siblings – seven brothers and five sisters. One of their brothers lives in London.

Raman and his brothers already have a sibling in London


Phil Harris)

Their parents back home weeped when they said they would leave and constantly worry about Ramen, the youngest.

“My mum rings me and I tell her we are staying in a hotel,” Erag tells us.

“She doesn’t know we’re in a jungle, they don’t need to know that.

“We have each other and we are strong together – but of course life is tough.

“We have one brother in London and I have friends there too. They work in pizza shops, and are very happy.

“This is what we want too. To work, to learn. We speak English in Afghanistan, we learn it at school, so of course we want to come to England.

“The Taliban is in charge now back in my country and they have banned teaching English in schools.”

Families in Grand Synthe near Dunkirk, France still hope to cross the English Channel



Matt Cowling, operations coordinator at Care 4 Calais, told of his horror at the news.

He has spent 11 months in Calais with the charity.

“It’s just absolutely devastating,” he said.

“It’s not the first time but this is such a huge loss of life, and it simply didn’t have to happen.

“We know how determined these guys are to cross. They are all risking their lives every time.

“The system we have is all wrong. We have to ask ourselves ‘is this the best we can really do?’

Care for Calais Matt Cowling operations coordinator speaks to Matt Young


Phil Harris)

“I don’t know the answer, I’m drawing attention to the humanitarian disaster ongoing here, but this surely cannot be it?

“There are evictions of sites every day. The policies (of both the UK and French governments) are clearly not working.

“Whatever you think about this situation, one thing is clear – human beings are dying and we need some change now.”

Imogen Hardman, also from the charity, says the groups being constantly moved on in northern France is a “hostile environment in all but name”.

She added the actions of the French authorities tend to mirror that of the attitude and towards asylum seekers from the UK government.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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