Lost in France: the Iraqi Kurds seeking a
new life in Britain
In a makeshift tent on wasteland behind a French
lycée, a former peshmerga soldier from Iraq's
Kurdistan sat huddled in a sleeping bag, cleaning
his ears with a cotton bud.
Ali, 23, insisted on maintaining personal hygiene
amid the detritus of food wrappers, old garden
furniture and shopping trolleys dotted around the
camp of Iraqis with no toilets or running water.
"I'm going to get out of here if it's the last thing
I do," he muttered.
Two months ago, Ali paid $10,000 (£5,000) to people
traffickers to be smuggled out of northern Iraq,
through Turkey, to the "great country" of England.
He had learnt basic English from dealings with US
troops in Kurdistan. But after 40 "terrible" days,
instead of being deposited in Britain, he was dumped
in Cherbourg, the windswept Normandy port famous for
its umbrellas and ferries to Poole and Portsmouth.
For the past few weeks, Ali, like the Iraqis from
Kurdistan or Baghdad sleeping rough alongside him,
has repeatedly attempted to smuggle himself on to
freight lorries making the ferry crossing to
Britain. The men break into the port at night while
drivers are asleep, and hide in the underbelly of
lorries, squeezed up against axles.
Ali has been caught under trucks by French police
several times, and was once briefly held in a
detention centre, but he is determined to keep
trying. Some of his friends have made it as far as
Poole before being turned back.
Iraqi Kurds await their chance at the camp in
The build-up of Iraqis
sleeping rough in Cherbourg is now alarming local
politicians. The northern French port has become a
no man's land of Iraqis desperately trying to get to
England to claim asylum. Known as the "ghosts of
Cherbourg", the young Iraqis have only one goal:
Britain. They know they have one chance at claiming
asylum in Europe and must pick their country
carefully. France, they believe, is a miserable
place for them. "But England is a good country,"
said Ali. "It gives you a job, gives you a passport,
gives you a house."
Because Iraq is at war, the Iraqis cannot be
forcibly deported. Caught by French police at the
ferry terminal, they end up being released and head
straight back to Cherbourg. Caught at a British
ferry terminal, they are escorted back to their port
of departure - Cherbourg, where the cycle restarts.
In the leftwing town, people are proud of France's
anti-war stance and see the fleeing Iraqis as
victims. But Bernard Cazeneuve, Cherbourg's
Socialist mayor, recently spoke out in the French
National Assembly demanding the government take
responsibility for the "extreme suffering" of the
migrants risking their lives.
In July, one Iraqi was injured by a bullet as a
driver fired a gun, trying to stop stowaways. This
week the government sent riot police to guard the
terminal. On Tuesday, the courts will rule whether
the camp can be evicted.
At the port this week, workers were mending patches
of the perimeter fence that had been forced by
One lorry driver, who had worked the
Cherbourg-England route for 30 years, said: "I
secure my truck with padlocks. Drivers often have no
idea if someone has cut into their tarpaulin or
hidden below the lorry.
But if you're caught with someone stowed away,
you're treated like a people trafficker." Some said
drivers carried baseball bats to protect themselves
from stowaways. Serge Henry, of the port authority,
said: "At the worst stage, 100 to 150 people would
try and get into the port each night. It has
improved since the riot police arrived, but there's
a risk that if they leave, it will get worse."
Marie-Thérèse Chauvin, from Brittany Ferries, said
the company had to pay fines for every illegal
immigrant caught and meet costs for police to escort
them back to Cherbourg. "We used to see the same
people night after night, trying again."
At the camp, around 40 people sat in tents, biding
their time. One Iraqi Kurd, aged 27, said he had
once reached Poole hidden beneath a truck but was
sent back. "Hiding yourself away under a lorry and
hanging there is like dying. But what can you do? In
our country, things are terrible. What choice is
Another Iraqi Kurd had slept rough in France for two
years, including several months outside Paris's Gare
du Nord. "It's only England I want," he said. "In
France, you can't even get a shower."
Also sleeping in the camp were some Afghans, an
Iranian, a Palestinian and some Somalis. Some
Africans who arrived here have survived the perilous
boat trips from Libya to the coast of Malta or
Most chance Cherbourg's port on their own
initiative. But people traffickers have offered to
help newcomers for €500 to €600 (£350-£420). Pascal
Besuelle, of the local Collective against Racism,
said: "These people must be allowed to apply for
British asylum from here and have their cases dealt
No one on the French coast wants to return to the
days of Sangatte, the notorious refugee centre near
Calais, shut in 2002.
But charity workers say homeless migrants have
turned up on the streets ever since its closure.
In the Iraqi tents, mobile phones rang with calls
from home. Cherbourg is now a familiar place name
among families sending their brightest sons to find
a new life.
Ali said: "My mother cries to me, she says, 'Get out
of Cherbourg, no more Cherbourg, get to England'."
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