The Promised Land

These bones from arid countries that have walked, run, climbed, crawled, sailed, clung on and hidden for two years on the journey from Africa and the Middle East to reach their promised land, the United Kingdom... when winter comes, having made it this far, if it is an unkind one, some will almost certainly die.

'It snows in England?'

Sometimes, yes.

'For one day, two days? And then it is gone, yes?'

Sometimes for two days. Sometimes for a week. It will be cold.

'But we will have shelter in England?'

Of a kind, yes.

'And it will snow here too?'

I look out at the bleak coastal sky in Calais and wonder if it is better to lie. If it is better to say that this chilly wind already beginning to find its way into our bones is as bad as it will get. That snow will not fall on the fragile tents of these refugees from war-torn countries and saturate the thin blankets they already wrap around themselves to keep warm, when it is only September. That it will not permeate every part of these bones from arid countries that have walked, run, climbed, crawled, sailed, clung on and hidden for two years on the journey from Africa and the Middle East to reach their promised land, the United Kingdom. And that when winter comes, having made it this far, if it is an unkind one, some will almost certainly die.

Asylum seekers eat food handed out by the charity Salam, by the canal in Calais.

I am watching a stream of cars drive onto ferries at the Port of Calais with Hassan and Mohammed, two refugees from Yemen. These two engaging young men have made the long journey from their home country over two years, travelling through Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, imprisoned in Libya, crossing the Mediterranean on a tiny boat no bigger than your average London front room but carrying thirty people, through Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany and later France, where they currently live alongside seven men huddled together in a three-man tent. They are among hundreds of migrants who have made similar journeys, some have lost their lives on the way, desperate to reach a country they view as paradise, where they can speak English, be educated and live freely.

Migrants warm their hands by a fire in the camp known as 'The Jungle'.

Later that night I head out with some of these young men to photograph them trying to stow away on lorries heading to the ferry port. This happens every night. It is surprising how kind the lorry drivers strike me as being to their unwanted passengers. Perhaps it is seeing this desperation face to face that does this to you. As the group crowd around the back of one lorry, climbing in as quickly as they can, the driver comes round to the back. 'Honestly boys,' he calls out, 'I'm on my way to Germany'. The 'boys' do not believe him: 'They all say that they are going to Germany and Belgium, but we know it's not true. He is going to the UK.' A pause, a wry smile.... 'But I have gone to Germany by mistake many times. I do not like it there.'

Migrants from Sudan and Eritrea climb under and inside a lorry at a petol station in Calais in the early hours of the morning.

The driver pleads with the men trying to access his vehicle.

We wait on the road side but it is a bad night, the lorries are few and far between. Finally one with Spanish number plates pulls into the petrol station. The driver gets out to refuel and we race across urgently, the men crawling under the lorry, trying doors, bolts and latches, investigating every part of it for a place to hide. The driver calls out to them in Spanish, but is ignored. I can feel my own heart beating but these men seem to know no fear, perhaps because they try this night after night, perhaps because of all they have been through to get this far. Only the sight of a police car pulling up on the roadside sends us all scattering for cover. Suddenly men are falling over each other looking for places to hide and waving their arms at me to indicate the tasers, pepper spray and temporary blindness that they have told me they experience quite regularly. We crouch in the bushes for ten, maybe twenty minutes, it feels like forever. I start hiding my memory cards in my socks, just in case....

Hiding from police and security.

Then as we lie there waiting, Filmon, from Eritrea, rifles through his bag quietly in the darkness and turning to me whispers: 'Hungry?' He offers me a banana from his bag, food given out earlier by the charity Salam who provide the immigrants with a hot meal every day, and that he has saved for his potential journey. I shake my head and smile 'No, thank you, you keep it.' But he proffers it again, 'You are hungry'. In truth I haven't slept or eaten for hours, my stomach is a chasm of hunger and nerves, but I also loathe even the smell of bananas like they are the Devil's own food. I have never touched one in my life. Yet I think that if anyone could make me try one it will be this man, in this moment, sharing his food with me, apparently unaware that I am not really the one in need, and I take it from him.

Filmon peers out at the police from his hiding place.

After a while the police pull further up the road, and we walk, depleted, back to the roadside to wait. The police presence will deter any efforts for now. It's a game of cat and mouse, where everyone knows the rules. The refugees will not stop trying and the police do not entirely try to stop them, reasonably confident that the scanners, dogs and controls at the port will find them later. The men sink down onto the roadsides again to wait.

As the night turns into morning, more people approach from the nearby camp, walking up to join us at the petrol station to try their hand at accessing the lorries. A young man from Afghanistan, named Aasif, holds out a booklet he obtained on his way here, in Italy, and asks me to look at it. It contains a passport photograph of him. 'Do I have papers now, documents for the UK?' he says. I know minimal Italian but it is clear that the document he has been given does little more than confirm that he is a foreigner in their country. He waited there for eleven months to obtain it.

Writing on road markings encouraging fellow hopeful stowaways.

Aasif is one of the most beautiful people I think I have ever seen but his eyes are bleak, hopeless. He wears a scarf and fake bomber jacket and looks, ironically, almost like he's about to take part in the Battle of Britain. It has taken three years for him to get here, he has spent all his money in the process. The man has walked and hitchhiked for three years to arrive at this terrible impasse. It is almost unthinkable. 'I think it is some kind of joke' he says again and again. 'No', I reply, 'because jokes are supposed to be funny'. He smiles, but this is one of the least funny things I have ever seen.

Sadik's thirteenth pair of shoes. Sadik also walked, for two years, to get this far. I offer to help him find another pair, telling him thirteen is not lucky but he says: 'These are the shoes, the ones that will get me to England.'

On one occasion, to my astonishment, three men get inside a lorry and it drives away. As we watch it go I find myself unexpectedly jumping up and down, clapping my hands with the others as we celebrate their success. Later that morning two of them return, disappointed expressions on their faces; they are clearly used to this cycle: 'The dogs found us at the control.' But one man has not returned. I look around and see that Filmon is not in our number. 'Perhaps he will make it' one man, Jonah says: 'We hope'.

I'm not sure if you could meet this many extraordinary young men so easily on the streets of the city of 8 million that is London, but in 48 hours on the roadsides and squats of Calais it was more than enough. Hassan and Mohammed who walk for fifteen miles every day, from camp to port and back again and again, watched over me like brothers as I snapped away in the notoriously dangerous and pitch black 'Jungle' camp where many of these men live, telling myself I was unaware of its reputation.

Hassan exits the 'Jungle'.

Men look out at the lights of Calais Port from the 'Jungle', home to scores of asylum seekers trying to make their way to the UK.

Jacob, from Sudan, whose face was lit with intelligence and interest in the world, has taught himself English and is learning French. Jonah a former teacher from Eritrea encourages the other men with their English so that they can tell the police in the UK where they have come from when they get there, and asked only that my photographs could be useful to the refugees.

Jonah's language teaching board.

And Filmon, who has scars on his body that I could hardly look at, he says from torture in his country. Not one of these refugees spoke of England as a land of benefits and free handouts, but instead as somewhere they could make a life for themselves.

These men ask only for the opportunity to be able to work or be educated, with a government that will not try to kill you for your efforts. They would tell me often, smiling, that the UK is paradise for them for so many reasons. 'The government in the UK helps you to go to study at university, doesn't it?' they queried again and again, the hint of concern that all might not be as they have dreamed. I did not know what to say.

Sudanese immigrants on the steps of an abandoned building that they have made their home.

If you could buy freedom, earn the right to be educated, work and live in a country without arbitrary detention and torture, but which instead upholds freedom of speech, has a National Health Service, a police force who do not routinely abuse their rights, and that values education so highly that it operates a system where your parents will actually be prosecuted for not sending you to school, then these young men would have have earned it with every breath of their journey to get there.

Men sleep in a tent after a long night trying to stow away on lorries heading to the UK.

'Ana asifa' I said, in my broken Arabic over and over again to people from these fractured countries. 'I'm sorry'. I'm British so inevitably it is one of the first phrases I have made my own, learning the language. Our fingerprints are everywhere in their history though we offer them nothing now, and it is the expression that seems to escape my lips most often. I'm sorry.

A man stands among shelters and tents in the Eritrean camp in the 'Jungle'.

Before boarding the ferry later that morning I wander up to the lorry park and see groups of young men and a few women making similar attempts before being chased away by a police patrol. Drivers of empty lorries, yet to pick up goods, leave their doors open to show the would-be stowaways that there is no point trying the locks. It is an endless cycle.

A man lies on the roadside watching the ferries load up with cars and lorries heading to the UK.

Later as I breeze through security and passport control, the officer wishing me a pleasant journey, I sit on a horrible blue plastic chair waiting to board the ferry to Dover and look down at my passport. It feels heavy as I turn it over in my hands. I actually trace the gold lettering on its proud front with my finger, and pore over the stamps filling its pages, so easily obtained because unknowingly, I realise now, I have won the lottery. As we pull out of the harbour, I wonder if down there in the darkness of the hold, hidden in a lorry somewhere, among boxes and pallets, or clinging on with desperate fingers to its underside, a fearless young man with a tortured body is waiting, stowed silently away, on the final part of his long journey to the promised land.

This post first appeared at my blog:


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