200 gets you into UK at the new Sangatte
Abul Taher reports from the jungle in northern France where hundreds of migrants wait
From The Sunday Times
April 8, 2007
The leader of the people smuggling gang waved dismissively at the charred wreckage of his woodland camp, torched during a raid by the Calais border police.
Sher, a tubby Afghan in his late twenties and one of the most notorious of the gangsters who smuggle stowaways into Britain, told an undercover reporter: We were raided by the police and they burnt the camp down. But we set up a new one the following day.
He and his helpers had already handed out blankets, quilts and pillows to the 70 or so young Afghans who had paid him the going rate of 300 (203) to 1,000. Makeshift tents, lashed together from bin-liners, were once again standing in the woodland.
Thanks to Secours Catholique (Catholic Aid), a charity, there had not even been an interruption to the free food supplies. Stacks of tinned rice, tuna, meat, fresh bread, cakes, tea, milk and sugar were waiting for collection as usual at 7pm at the edge of the forest.
The police, said Sher, are ferocious. He added: They hassle us too much. But although he resents their interference in his lucrative trade, it is a distraction that he and his fellow gang leaders have learnt to cope with.
Within minutes of the reporter entering the camp, he and four others were chased by the police. As the group sat by the metal fence that borders the motorway, a police car arrived on the hard shoulder and chased the group back into the scrub-land. This was the second time the reporter had been chased by police in a week.
Shers camp, or the jungle as he and his fellow Afghans call it, lies about nine miles south of Calais in woodland near the picturesque village of Nielles-ls-Ardres. Half a dozen or so similar camps house about 500 illegal immigrants or clandestines, as the locals call them on the periphery of Calais.
They are all within striking distance of the A26 motorway, LAutoroute des Anglais. It ends at the Calais ferry port, carrying an endless flow of juggernauts towards Britain.
The present-day images are a worrying echo of the old Sangatte refugee camp, when immigrants swarmed over wire fencing to clamber aboard UK-bound freight trains. The welfare facilities on the Calais dockside, near the railway station, act as a magnet for the new wave. Up to 200 gather there for lunch and dinner, and tea and croissants are provided in the morning. Most are Afghans but some are from Eritrea and Sudan, and there are a few Iranians and Palestinians.
Secours Catholique, the main charity helping the migrants, also provides clothes and blankets and gives people lifts to nearby facilities where they can shower and shave. Although the French police arrest immigrants who they see on the streets of Calais, the charities and the government have brokered a deal whereby the dockside has become a tolerance zone during the day, with no arrests. The smugglers take full advantage of this to tout for business.
Things look as if they can only get better for the smuggling gangs. A new welfare centre, dubbed Sangatte Two, is to be built conveniently close to the Calais ferry port in a disused football stadium. It will offer food, clothing, toilet facilities, immigration advice and medical care for about 300 migrants at a time.
Talk to the Home Office in Britain and it paints a very different picture. John Reids aides say that since the closure of Sangatte, the number of people caught trying to enter Britain through Kent has dropped from 10,000 in 2002 to 1,526 in 2006.
However, the Sunday Times investigation suggests that the Home Office, which three years ago spectacularly underestimated how many legal migrants would come here from Poland, has again miscalculated.
The 500 illegal immigrants reckon to spend between two to three weeks at Calais, implying that up to 200 get to Britain every week. With the addition of those stowing away at Dunkirk, St Omer and Brussels, an estimate of 10,000 arrivals in the UK looks cautious.
Sher runs his gang with the help of three fellow Afghans, each of whom is an illegal immigrant. They have associates in British cities who can collect money in advance from the relatives of would-be immigrants to Britain.
The undercover reporter, posing as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh desperate to go to London, was told the tariff by Jameel Asmol, a member of the gang. If the money is paid in the UK, then the rate is 1,000. If the would-be immigrant gives cash in hand to the gang, he can pay as little as 300. If the would-be immigrant wants a guaranteed entry into Britain, he has to pay the smugglers 4,400 (3,000). In this case, the immigrant would be smuggled into the UK with the connivance of a truck driver, said Asmol.
The camp is close to a motorway truck-stop where some drivers stop to sleep. As night approached, the reporter watched five people being taken by the gang to be hidden inside lorries. All except one headed to the motorway empty-handed; the last one to leave took a carrier bag full of clothes.
The bravest stowaways get into Britain by holding onto one of the axles of the truck. Bosh, one of the gang, explained: In a long lorry, there are three axles at the back but one of them is not used and is pulled up. We get you to cling on throughout the whole journey.
The gang plays a wary game of cat-and-mouse with the police.
Sher told the reporter that the previous night, police suddenly stormed the truck stop as five immigrants were about to clamber into the lorries. The five were arrested but the gang leaders managed to get away.
The reporter watched as the migrants lit a fire at their makeshift camp, heating metal bars until they became red hot before rubbing their thumbs and index fingers over the metal. One explained that this was to thwart the police who take the finger-prints of every illegal immigrant they arrest.
Those stowaways who do get into the trucks are often caught in Calais. Gamma ray detectors spot movements inside the container and there are also heart beat detectors and CO2 probes for human breath. As part of the tariff charged by the gangs, they promise the would-be immigrants that no matter how many times they get caught, they will be put back in lorries until they reach Britain.
According to another group of Afghans, milling around outside the charity feeding station, the gangs sometimes put the immigrants inside the wrong lorries. Some claim they know of people who ended up in remote corners of France or Belgium.
The reporter was invited into the jungle by Asmol, with the promise of a berth in a lorry bound for Britain. An Afghan in his early twenties, Asmol came to Calais five months ago with the intention of going to Britain. But instead he decided to become a smuggler himself.
He had met the reporter at the Hospitalier de Calais, a general hospital which runs a daily surgery for illegal immigrants. Initially pretending to be a musafir (traveller) himself, Asmol quickly established that the reporter was originally from Bangladesh and had just arrived in Calais. Asmol asked: Have you had a chat with anyone yet?
He meant to find out if the reporter had already been approached by a rival smuggler. In fact, the reporter had already been approached twice by competing agents. Asmol quickly disclosed he was involved in the business himself and when the reporter said he had no money with him, but had an uncle in London who could pay, Asmol replied that one of his men would pick up the fee from him.
Asmol explained that it was common for relatives in Britain to pay for immigrants in Calais. Within minutes he gave a mobile phone number for his associate Rahulla, who was based in Birmingham.
The next day a second undercover reporter, posing as the cousin of the would-be immigrant, travelled to Birmingham to meet Rahulla, an Afghan in his late twenties who worked as a waiter at a run-down Asian fast-food outlet in the city. It is tucked away among the Asian clothes shops and restaurants that line Alum Rock Road.
Rahulla took the undercover reporter to the kitchen. A colleague, speaking on his behalf, explained how the human smuggling business works: When he [the cousin] will come in London, he can come in any truck. You know, any truck; loading trucks. So when he comes in London, so just jump from the truck.
When the reporter handed over the money, Rahulla reassured him that his cousin could come to Britain inside a lorry within a day to a week. He added: Theres no time guarantee. But within one week it will be sorted out.
This weekend Rahulla refused to speak on the phone about his role as an accomplice in a people smuggling network.
Another Afghan smuggler, who called himself Jawad, also approached the first reporter in France for his business. He said that he had set up his jungle with three Kurdish smugglers and offered to get him into Britain for 800.
Jawad discussed business in Urdu with the reporter as they sat outside Calais police station last week with 100 other immigrants who were protesting against the police.
Jawad gave the contact details of his associate, Derwish Jalat Khan, in Birmingham. When Khan was approached in Britain, he handed over his Barclays bank account details and asked for the agreed fee to be paid into the account immediately.
This weekend Khan hung up the phone twice when The Sunday Times approached him for a comment about his role in people smuggling. West Midlands police said: We will thoroughly investigate any crimes reported to us.
Jawad also boasted that he had smuggled himself in and out of Britain inside lorries when things had become hot for him with the Calais police.
The charities refuse to accept that their assistance may contribute to the build-up of migrants. Jacky Verhaegen, head of migrant welfare for Secours Catholique, said: These migrants dont leave Afghanistan because they heard that the soup we provide is good. They come here to go to England. We have to help these people because they are poor.
The new welfare centre, to be paid for by the French authorities, will open this autumn. Critics of Sangatte Two accuse the French of reneging on the spirit of the deal struck in 2002 between Nicolas Sarkozy, now a candidate for the French presidency, and David Blunkett, then home secretary. This made it clear that no such centre would be built again in Calais.
Blunkett said this weekend: Given the much tougher border controls and surveillance put in place since closure, it is amazing that local, as well as national, French politicians do not appear to have sufficiently recognised the danger of conflict that sucha centre will present.
Unlike the original Sangatte facility, the new centre will have no overnight accommodation, say its creators. A spokesman for Jacky Henin, mayor of Calais, said: For three years we have asked the French, the European and British governments to do something but no one has done anything.
He blamed Britain for the presence of illegal immigrants. Why do the British government give work to migrants? Why is it possible to get jobs in Britain without identity cards? he said.
Additional reporting: Ali Hussain
Spring 1999 Kosovan refugees arrive in Calais en route to Britain and set up a shanty town
August 1999 Police move refugees to a disused warehouse in the coastal village of Sangatte, administered by the Red Cross
February 2001 Riot as Afghan immigrants clash with Kurdish people smugglers
July 2001 Eurotunnel demands closure of Sangatte refugee centre
September 2001 David Blunkett, home secretary, asks French to shut it
February 2002 Full-scale riot
December 2002 Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister, shuts the camp down
2003 Calais charities provide food to migrants
April 2007 Mayor of Calais announces welfare centre for immigrants to be opened in autumn
Reid faces crisis over new migrant influx