England! After years of wandering, weeks of waiting in an unsanitary camp on the French coast, seven hours of anguish on a tire tossed around the Channel, the Kuwaiti Walid has won his bet: crossing the “road to the dead “. His friend Falah is still waiting.
From Grande-Synthe (northern France) to Dover (southern England), passing through French territorial waters, AFP teams followed Walid, his Iraqi friend Falah and his two daughters for three weeks, Arwa, 9, and Rawane, 13, severely diabetic.
The 33 km that separate the French Opal Coast from the limestone cliffs of Dover, on the British coast visible on a clear day, is renowned as one of the busiest and most dangerous sea routes in the world.
However, since 2018, attempts to cross have multiplied. Between January 1 and August 31, 6,200 migrants – according to the French maritime prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea – tried their luck, on an inflatable boat for the better-off, a paddle, a kayak or a simple buoy for the others.
Chronicle of a crossing.
In an undergrowth, on the edge of a Grande-Synthe railway line, under a shaky tent made of plastic sheeting, 29-year-old Kuwaiti Walid and 50-year-old Iraqi Falah are hanging on their phones.
It is their sesame, the only link with the ferryman who will give the green light to go to sea. For 3,000 euros per person, they will be able to board a “small boat”, these tires with small quality engines. poor.
On a call from “WhatsApp”, the silhouette of the smuggler appears – they have never met him: these criminal networks, often Kurdish or Albanian, use intermediaries to establish contact.
– “How are you, my brother?
– Thank God, good.
– So, do you have any news?
– Demain, inch’Allah?
– Inch’Allah. (…) If the weather is nice tomorrow, let’s go. “
Walid has been waiting for a month with Falah’s family, met on the road to exile in Frankfurt, for a clandestine passage for a better life.
“Even if this journey is nicknamed + the road of death, + we want to cross. We go into the unknown: there is only God, water and us. It is Allah who will decide our destiny”, says Falah who prefers to give an assumed name for security reasons.
This quiet man fled Iraq in 2015, when the Islamic State group was booming. From Kerbala (south of Baghdad), he walked to Turkey, Greece, then Macedonia and Croatia. It is the year of the great migratory wave in Europe, when Germany opens its doors to nearly 900,000 migrants before closing its borders.
The last two years spent in this country have given him the fleeting feeling of having found a welcoming country. But the failure of his asylum applications prompted him to hit the road again.
Falah does not “ask for the Moon”: “I just want to live decently and that my daughters feel free and safe,” blurted out the man with salt and pepper hair who has not seen his wife since leaving Iraq .
Walid, exiled since 2018, is a “Bidoune”, these Bedouins originally from Kuwait but stateless from generation to generation. Without a passport, they have neither the status of national nor that of alien in their own country, which denies them any political, social or economic rights.
Passed in particular by Greece – where he left his imprints within the framework of the Dublin procedure – he is today disappointed by the European Union which “gives you nothing and ends up expelling you”.
The crossing does “not scare” this man with a square face, a three-day-old beard and medium-length jet black hair. “The hardest part is not knowing when you are leaving”. “Before, I never stayed more than five days in the same place. But now, we do not know if it is tomorrow, in two days or in two months.”
– “Be ready every night” –
Before the sky is clear, the sea is mild, the gendarmes not too deployed – departures have accelerated in recent months – we have to wait and wait in trying conditions.
They are not the only ones. Dozens of migrants are scattered around the area. Four years after the dismantling of the large camp in the “Jungle” of Calais (northern France) at the end of 2016, Eritreans, Iranians, Afghans and Syrians continue to flock to the coast in the hope of passing. Those who succeed are immediately replaced, despite the regular dismantling of the camps.
Amid the wasps, the four exiles kill time, sleep little and badly, constantly awakened by the strident noise of the trains.
Material recovered here and there – burnt pan, stove abandoned by the previous occupants – allows them to meet their needs as best they can. The yoghurt pots act as glasses, pieces of cardboard as groundsheets.
“Look, we live in garbage cans, with insects,” Walid breathes.
Every day Falah scrambles to find ice cubes to keep her older sister’s insulin stock.
When the weather is good, they will wash in the nearby canal and wash their clothes in the muddy water. The days are punctuated by the collection of wood for the fire and the two daily distributions of food provided by associations a kilometer away.
Discouragement is sometimes not far away. Falah happened to cry.
“We have no specific date. Every night, you have to be ready to leave everything behind. Otherwise, the boat is not waiting for you. For two days, we even slept with our shoes on,” Walid laments.
Three times he tried to cross. Three failures.
“The first time, there were too many controls. The second, we were on the beach. After five hours of waiting, we carried and inflated the boat, but at the last moment the ferryman asked us to come down because the tire was torn, “says Walid, pulling on his cigarette.
Bored and impatient, he no longer trusts their ferryman who, he thinks, is swindling them. Falah, who has already paid the money in cash, is stuck. Walid, he decides to change: he will pay more, 3,000 pounds (3,360 euros), but his new contact has a success of “100%”, he wants to believe. The paths of the two men separate.
– The engine stalls –
This Thursday, September 10, a month and thirteen days after his arrival in Grande-Synthe, the summer sun and a weak wind revive Walid’s hopes. The crossing is imminent, confirms his ferryman.
“We do not know until what time we will wait before taking the road,” he said before reaching the meeting point.
A few kilometers away, Falah, who has changed camp, is also on the start.
Hastily, he puts his daughter’s medicine in a case and croissants in a bag. “I’m afraid to believe it because, in more than a month, I’ve only seen the sea once,” he says, as if to anticipate another disappointment. In England, “everything will be easier”: “I will be able to work with my skills, in the restoration or the automobile.”
8:00 p.m. Walid and his group arrive at a beach about 25 km from Calais. The English Channel is calm like an oil sea, the sky clear. The gendarmes patrol the coast. In the night, the beams of their flashlights sweep the dunes intermittently.
Hidden in a forest behind the beach and whispering, the group waits for an opportunity to present itself.
Twice, a patrol of gendarmes appears, even seizes a boat, immediately replaced by smugglers determined to recover more than 40,000 euros per boat in the event of success, Walid said.
It was barely 7:00 a.m. when, in the first light of dawn, three tires were launched at full speed. Walid’s group moves away in the lead.
Pulled by a 15 horsepower engine, the boat is heading north-west at 3 knots, or 5.5 km / h. On board, 14 people, including women, an infant and at least three children, all dressed in a fluorescent orange life jacket. In August, a migrant who left in a canoe drowned. But their only fear is to break down in French waters, a scenario that would bring them back to square one.
– Arms to the sky –
Two hours after having taken to sea, the Thémis, a patrol vessel of the French Maritime Affairs Directorate, arrives at the height of the group, can see AFP.
Their position is reported to surveillance units on both sides of the strait. But no intervention at sea. It would be too risky – except in the event of distress.
“From the moment you are at sea, the priority is no longer to prevent the crossing, but to ensure the protection of human life” in an area where 25% of the world’s maritime traffic passes, explained the prefecture. maritime.
The smugglers know this well.
Walid and his companions continue the journey. The engine, the noise of which covers the voices, stalls. Then restart. The border is only a few kilometers away.
10:00 a.m. In the distance, a red shape emerges: here is the Sandettie, a beacon boat which marks the entrance to British waters.
Walid rejoices, exhausted but moved. With a gesture, he throws his mobile phone into the water to erase all traces of his past, his neighbors raise their arms to the sky, shouting, observes AFP from a distance. Soon, a Coast Guard patrol boat came to tow them to the port of Dover.
After seven hours of crossing, under a misty sky, the passengers set foot on British soil one by one, like dozens of other migrants that day.
Walid, jeans, dark jacket and white mask, unloads the last, some clothes in a small backpack. Barely half an hour and he boards a bus under escort to a temporary reception center in the port town of Kent.
Everyone can officially apply for asylum and a first interview, in accordance with the law, before being referred to a state-funded accommodation center, with very uncertain comfort. Months of administrative procedures await him. But, in a very liberal economy open to cheap labor, staying in hiding does not frighten the exiles.
Walid is ready to do anything to earn a living: now he is in Great Britain.
On the other side of the Channel, Falah is annoyed, the crossing was ultimately not attempted. Morale undermined by this new failure, exhausted and without prospects, the father and his daughters are still waiting.