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‘I’ll try to get across’: people camped out in Dunkirk still hope to reach UK

Everybody at the camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk, little more than a scrappy collection of tents with no toilets or running water, has heard about the 27 people who drowned on Wednesday.

Everybody knows the risks. But everybody says they still have the same plan, to try to get on a boat to the UK, because they do not believe that death will come to them – and because of their hope for a better life.

Mira, an Iraqi Kurd, said he left the city of Sulaymaniyah because “there is no life” at home, a simple phrase repeated by many in and around the camp. He acknowledges that travelling by boat to Britain “is very dangerous; there will be big waves”, but he is ready to make the perilous journey in the hope of eventually making money to send back home.

Like Mira, many in the camp say they have come via Belarus. Muhammed, who looks far older than the 17 years he says he is, said he flew to Qatar, then Minsk before getting across the border into Poland. After that, getting across Germany to northern France was straightforward – but the next part was not.

But charities say that the number of people in camps in France’s northern region is down overall because of the autumn cold
Charities say that the number of people in camps in France’s northern region is down overall because of the autumn cold. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“The police found me and moved me to a hotel near the Spanish border. But I don’t want to go to Spain, I want to come to England. I have friends in Nottingham, in London and Birmingham,” he said. “So I came back here and I will try to get across and join them” – to conclude a journey that has already taken him well over a month.

Mohammed said he would have to find $2,000 to pay a people smuggler for a journey that costs a fraction of that price on a ferry. It was not immediately clear where that money would come from, although others in the camp said that family members at home were paying on their behalf.

Campsites such as the one outside Dunkirk, which is by a canal and disused railway line, are at the mercy of the French authorities, where charities say police raids can take place as frequently as every couple of days.

As a result, the site is extremely basic; there is minimal protection from the cold, with heating provided by open fires during daytime. There is food relief, and charities that provide free wifi and electricity, allowing people to crowd around and charge their mobile phones, but there are no toilets.

People charge phones outdoors
Charities provide free electricity for people to charge their phones. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Ten days ago, a nearby site near a shopping mall was broken up on the orders of France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. The directive came after the number of migrants, the majority of whom are young adult men, had more than doubled from an estimated 400 to more than 1,000.

The change in numbers, it would appear, came after Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, opened up his country to people hoping to come to Europe. But charities say that the number of people in camps in France’s northern region is down overall because of the autumn cold.

Iraqi Kurds dominate the camp near Dunkirk, but people from countries such as Sudan and Eritrea tend to locate in nearby Calais. “Just in and around Calais we think the number now is closer to 1,000; it was 2,000 before in the summer,” says Álvaro Lucas, the coordinator for the charity Refugee Info Bus, which provides advice and support.

What has given the crisis more prominence is the growing numbers attempting to cross the Channel by boat, with the greater risk to life. Matt Cowling, an operations coordinator with Care4Calais, a relief charity, said: “What is so frustrating is that we are talking about only 1,500 or 2,000 people who want to come to the UK; it feels a problem that could easily be solved if there was a different approach.”


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