Waiting in no-man's land

Every week, 400 immigrants arrive in Calais, where they remain in limbo until - legally or illegally

Falakaddin stood at the entrance of the Sangatte Red Cross centre outside Calais, staring at the white cliffs of Dover that were visible across the Channel. "I've tried to get there 17 times," he said in a voice so soft that it was almost inaudible, "and I've not made it yet. Maybe tonight I'll be lucky."

An agricultural economist from the city of Shiraz, in Iranian Kurdistan, Falakaddin, 33, arrived at Sangatte in mid-July for what he thought would be the easiest part of a long journey. He was mistaken. Blocked in northern France since then, he has been plunged into the absurd ordeal faced by a growing number of would-be immigrants heading for the Kent coast.

The immigrants are picked up by French police officers or security guards, often on a regular basis, as they attempt to slip on to a lorry crossing the Channel; they are returned to Sangatte - only to try again the next night. The British authorities do not want them. The French authorities do not know what to do with them. And the road hauliers, who face heavy fines if caught with them, are often hostile and violent.

Yet these are people, like Falakaddin, who have sold all their belongings and abandoned mostly middle-class lifestyles in countries such as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to travel to Britain. They are not about to give up in Calais.

For most of the asylum-seekers and economic migrants, the gangs of Albanian, Russian and Chinese smugglers now established in French ports represent their only hope.

By day, the immigrants sleep on camp-beds at the Red Cross centre, set up last year in an empty factory that once made the machines for digging the Channel Tunnel. By night, they walk in groups along the unlit country roads that lead to the Eurotunnel terminal and the ferry port. It takes two hours to get there and, for those who fail to leave Calais, two hours to get back.

On a cold Thursday night at the end of September, several hundred lorries were parked at the port, waiting for a crossing the next morning. By 2am, between 200 and 300 people were dodging through the lorry park, hoping to get into a trailer while the drivers slept. A smuggler could be seen cutting the steel cord around a blue lorry, waving a group of four young men on board, then sealing it again with a soldering iron. The going rate charged by the gangs is DM1,000 per person.

It is a hazardous business. The British government's decision to start fining lorry drivers £2,000 per illegal immigrant as of April has turned the ports into places of fear.

The previous night, an Afghan family of four had been found in the back of a French truck. "The driver was so angry that he hit the first person to climb out," said a security guard at the port. "It was a 16-year-old boy, who had to be taken to hospital."

In June, under pressure from French lorry drivers' unions that were keen to avoid fines in Dover, the Calais Chamber of Commerce introduced carbon dioxide tests that can detect human bodies inside the trailers. When security guards at the ferry port ran their instruments over one lorry, they discovered four men.

"We'll take them to the police station," said the security guard. "But ten minutes later they will be free again. They'll probably come back here later, tonight. Sometimes, we catch the same people several times a night. We work in a legal void."

Few of the immigrants in Calais make asylum claims in France, so they have no official right to stay and, therefore, no right to welfare payments. But none, or almost none, has identity papers, making it difficult for the authorities to expel the migrants to their country of origin. In Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, the police hardly ever bother. "Sometimes they pick on someone and send them back," said Emmanuelle Osmont, a lawyer in Boulogne, "but it is rare and entirely arbitrary."

As a result, a majority end up getting across the Channel sooner or later, according to Michel Derr, the head of the Sangatte Red Cross centre. Only a tiny minority make a formal request to stay in France. Yet, despite the difficulties and the dissuasive measures introduced by the British government, more and more are willing to try to reach England.

"At the beginning of the year, we had 400 or 500 people at the centre every day. Now we have 850," said Derr. "This sort of movement is extremely difficult to stop. Totalitarian regimes may be able to block the immigration flow, but democracies cannot."

From Sangatte, the tough, the rich or the lucky quickly make it to Britain. But Falakaddin is not among them. "All I want to do is continue my studies in agricultural economics," he said. "I cannot do that in Iran. I need to go to an English university, but I couldn't afford to pay the fees they charge overseas students, so I thought I'd do it this way. But I'm not brave like some of the people here. I do not want to risk my life by getting on to the undercarriage of a lorry, and I have no more money for the smugglers."

The month-long journey by lorry from Shiraz cost him $6,000, eating up all of his own and most of his parents' savings. When he arrived in Calais, he had $1,000 left. "I paid it to a smuggler, but the man disappeared and now I have nothing," he said.

It is 1.30am and Mustafa and his wife, Ariwan, their six-year-old daughter Lana between them, are at the ferry port. They had been there the previous night as well, but there had been no sign of the smuggler whom they had paid $3,000 to get them across the Channel. Mustafa and his family paid $18,000 to travel in the back of a lorry from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In theory, Mustafa could stay in France and request refugee status. Claimants are housed, given an initial welfare payment of F2,000, and then receive F1,700 a month while their demand is reviewed. Although he says he has not been persecuted by the Iraqi authorities, and would therefore be unlikely to succeed in his asylum claim, the process takes several months, giving Mustafa time to settle and perhaps find a job on the black market.

In Britain, where income support for asylum-seekers is fixed at £36.54 a week per person aged 25 and over - all but £10 of it in vouchers - the family would be no better off. Yet, along with the 400 or so immigrants from the developing world who arrive in Calais every week, Mustafa is determined to get across the Channel.

"English is the international language and England is the gateway to the world," he said. "It is there that we must get to."

Such sentiments are widespread among those at Sangatte. "It is what I call the CNN effect," said Derr. "In the third world, anglophone countries are glorified by satellite television and lumped to-gether as a kind of golden dream. People think that, by getting to England, they are a step away from Canada, the US and Australia."

In the four weeks that he has been at Sangatte, Jafer Mohamadi, 58, has come across many people who think just this. A psychologist with a successful practice in Tehran, he wants to join his wife, who was given a British visa for a heart operation in London next month.

"I never thought I would find myself in a situation like this," he said, looking at the campbeds lined up in the Portakabin that serves as a dormitory. "But professionally, it is interesting.

"A lot of people here have psychological problems. They cannot understand why Britain doesn't want them. They go round and round, from the port to the centre, and back to the port, until they crack up."