How many migrants or refugees has Natacha Bouchart spoken to lately? Judging by her evidence to the home affairs select committee earlier this week, the answer is none. Bouchart is mayor of Calais, a small town in France where a transient population of migrants and refugees has bedded down for more than a decade. From week to week, month to month, year to year, the population changes; people leave for England, people leave for Sweden or Italy, people leave for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many stay in Calais. To suggest that £36 a week is a key motivating force is to ignore the nuances of migratory journeys made across Europe by refugees today.
Fyori is starting to forget her English, but her French is excellent. The 26-year-old was born in Eritrea where she grew up speaking English and Teghani. When Fyore turned 18 her mother told her to leave the country. A few years earlier Fyore’s brother had been called up to Sawa, the Eritrean army, and the family lost contact with him. “If you get good grades, you can go to university, if not you go to Sawa.” Young people are conscripted for indefinite periods and, if they’re lucky, permitted to visit family once or twice a year. Fyore’s mother sold jewelry to bribe border guards for her daughter’s passage to Sudan.
Fyore lived and worked in Khartoum for three years and then, like many young bilingual Africans, moved to Libya attracted by stories of decent work. Back then sub-Saharan migrants from conflict-ridden countries could find work and earn a sort of living in Libya. The darker their skin, the more likely they would be attacked on the streets or harassed by the police (officers would storm the cafe where Fyore worked most days), but there was solace in expat communities.
Fyore fell in love with a mechanic from Sudan and gave birth to their child in Benghazi. Dreaming of a better life for their son, unwilling to turn back, they moved to Tripoli and there heard stories of work and opportunities in Europe. They paid the fare for a boat across the sea and attempted to begin a life in Italy. “It was not good. You cannot get papers or work, nothing. Many, many people sleeping on the road.”
Through the migrant and refugee grapevine they heard that not all of Europe was like Italy and, unable to see a clear path back to Africa, they wanted to believe this. So when they were advised to make their way to France and then England, the young family did so.
By the time they reached Paris, both Fyore and her baby boy were sick and spent nearly a month in a French hospital. Weakened mentally and physically, Fyore and her family considered starting over in France. It would mean learning another language (Fyore had by now added Arabic to her English and Teghani) and continued destitution. The murky underground network that sucks in all sans-papiers or people without papers, had led them to Calais. Here they discovered racism nearly as bad as in Libya; the police regularly accost black and brown people, destroy their makeshift shelters in dilapidated buildings and constantly move them on. It is difficult to access housing set aside for asylum seekers because of low stocks and high demand, while the shelter available is shared with homeless drunks and drug addicts.
Hundreds and thousands of migrants and refugees find themselves at this point. In Calais, having to make a choice, continue to England or interrupt the intended journey and stay put in France. Some have made similar journeys to Fyore; others have watched friends and family drown in the Mediterranean sea; some have watched their livelihoods destroyed in Syria or Libya; others have been enslaved in Turkey and Bulgaria or forced into prostitution in Greece and Italy; others beaten and imprisoned by police in Hungary; others will have fled forced marriage in Afghanistan; others destitution in refugee camps in the Swat Valley, in Jordan, in Kenya.
When they arrive in Calais they are not thinking of anything as tangible as £36 a week. They look around them and desperately hope that the next step of the journey will bring the misery to an end; that the grass really will be greener.
The public accounts committee’s recent report on the Home Office’s mismanagement of the immigration and asylum system detailed seven-year backlogs, tens of thousands of asylum applications outstanding and up to a billion wasted on a failed IT project. There is talk of taxpayers money being wasted and British people let down by a government failing to manage immigration, but the real victims are the asylum seekers and migrants who must put their lives on hold, often for years, while waiting for the Home Office to decide if they can live, work and receive sanctuary in Britain or whether they must return home.
Rachel, a Congolese national, has been waiting one year and 10 months for a decision on her asylum application. The first time the militia stormed her village and raped her, she picked herself up and carried on. The second time, she fled. On her arrival in the UK she applied for asylum and while awaiting the decision stayed at a hostel provided by a charity. One morning she awoke to find blood streaming down her legs; she can’t remember much else, but spent a week in hospital and gave birth to a premature baby. She hadn’t realised she was pregnant and at first didn’t want to keep the baby, a reminder of the rape and torture she had endured at home.
More than a year later Rachel and her son live in a small room in a six-bedroom house with 10 other people. The Home Office still hasn’t decided what to do with her; in the mean time, she is not legally able to work and receives around £70 a week on a payment card. She uses this to buy baby products and food; usually from Tescos or Morrisons, which is dependent on the staff on the checkouts being aware of the card. Rachel borrows money from “friends” to cover her bus fare so she can report to the Home Office once a month (a 90-minute bus journey when the traffic is good), visit a psychiatrist at Freedom from Torture every two weeks and take her son to hospital for regular check-ups. Recently she enquired at a local college, but “there was nowhere for the baby, and the money . . . ” So she stays at home most days, waiting. This is not Eldorado.
Fortunately for Fyore, she met Mariam; a brusque but kind French woman of Algerian descent, who persuaded her to consider applying for asylum in France. At first Fyore resisted; in Calais she was miserable and if there was chance that life might be better in England, shouldn’t she take it? Having got this far, one more dangerous journey would be surely worth it?
But Fyore stayed, after two years was granted temporary leave to remain, which lasts 10 years. In the meantime she teaches French and helps local charities with translation.
Fyore’s is one story of many in Calais, just as Rachel’s story is one of many here in the UK. These stories are important because they dispel the myths we perpetuate when we talk about immigration. Illegal migrants, failed asylum seekers, even refugees; all of these labels are inadequate catch-all terms that can only dehumanise, and rarely capture the range of human experience you find at the ports of France, on the streets of Athens and in immigration detention centres across the UK.
It is time that European politicians, in this case the French mayor and British politicians, stopped making up stories and started listening. More listening and less talking might just lead to more informed policy-making and a fairer and more practical European-wide asylum and immigration system.