Kabul to Calais: A 13-year-old's dangerous attempt to reach a new life in London
Updated 21 November 2017, 19:10 AEDT
By Emma Morris
On the streets of Calais, you can sense the fear.
On the streets of Calais, you can sense the fear from everyone. Locals resent the influx of migrants, drivers are scared of the hooded teens chasing their moving trucks. And children, like Mahmoud, are scared of everyone they've met on their lonely path to safety.
It's late on a Tuesday and 13-year-old Mahmoud is standing alone on the outskirts of the French port city of Calais, beside a roundabout.
Braced against the bitter cold of the autumn night, his eyes flash with terror and determination.
Calais is the second last stop on a treacherous journey of more than 7,000 kilometres that began last year, when he left his home just north of the Afghan capital of Kabul to escape violence and poverty.
He's been in Calais now for two months, trying to complete the final leg of his odyssey.
"I'm heading toward London," he tells me in broken English. "My father told me to go."
From here, the British port of Dover is just 80km away. In Mahmoud's mind, all he needs to do is scamper onto one of the many trucks as they slow down to take the exit.
Like so many before who have stood on this spot, his goal is to make his way to Britain where he hopes a better future awaits. Homeless and unwelcomed in a hostile environment, the teenager just wants to resume his interrupted childhood, go to school and kick a football.
That's the dream. The reality, however, is that if Mahmoud isn't caught and shipped off to a facility, he will be back here again tomorrow, attempting the same dangerous routine.
The lottery of asylum seeker life
This is a journey thousands of migrants have attempted before Mahmoud. Since the 1990s, tens of thousands have made their way to the north coast of France in the hope of seeking asylum on English shores.
But this is not just France's problem. Calais is a microcosm for what is happening around the world. According to a British government report, more than 65 million people are displaced and many of them have also been forced to quit their homeland to face the lottery of life as an asylum seeker.
About 3km from the roundabout, there's an industrial estate where people gather twice a day for food served by volunteers.
This is where I first met Mahmoud the night before, hanging out with Chris Fuakwah from Glasgow, Scotland, one of the volunteers at the Refugee Info Bus.
Music blares from the van's sound system as people huddle around their phones checking Facebook. Many migrants don't have bags or belongings, except for a mobile phone. It's their most prized possession, a connection to the past and a conduit to their future.
Chris is a youthful-looking 24-year-old who wears a bright yellow parka and a big smile. The young asylum seekers seem to gravitate to him.
"It's a few hours every day where they can chill and not worry about all the things they have to worry about. We just chat and check the football scores."
Chris says he feels responsible for these kids. "You go in with such enthusiasm and idealism. It's an absurd situation, I can pay 40 pounds to cross the border and people are risking everything, every night."
But the biggest battle is managing people's dreams. "They're dead-set on the UK. They have preconceptions about state protection, the UK and France."
Mahmoud tells me his only option is to stow away in a truck.
He tells me about a place known as "Belgium Parking". They call it Belgium Parking because so many of the trucks come from Belgium to Calais on their way to the UK.
It's a hub for hiding and jumping on trucks. He shows me the location on Google Maps.
He's lost count of the attempts he's made. Each time he ends up in the hands of the police. "Then we have to come back and try preparing for the next night," he says.
Belgium Parking is in fact a Total petrol station where the truckies park, rest and fuel up before the Channel crossing. It's close to the roundabout where Mahmoud will chance his hand as the trucks slow down.
He shows me how he plans to jump and scurry up the side of the truck and climb inside, under the wheels. It's a reckless plan borne out of desperation and despair.
But despite his bravado, tonight is not the night and after a while Mahmoud abandons his position and scampers off into the dark.
Fear on all sides
It's easy to see the viewpoint of the locals and the truck drivers who resent the influx of migrants. The gangs of hooded teenagers who emerge from the scrublands and dart across roads make for a threatening atmosphere. Even if they are just kids.
A recent report by the Refugee Rights Data Project found 40 per cent of the asylum seekers in the Calais area were under the age of 17 — 97 per cent of whom were boys.
But the fear cuts both ways. And for the thousands of asylum seekers, they must confront the prospect of rough-house treatment at the hands of the Compagnies Republicaines de Securite (CRS), France's national riot police.
They face conflict on almost a daily basis; harassment augmented with the use of batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and dogs. The CRS are under orders to destroy their tents, confiscate sleeping bags and damage belongings to prevent people from lingering in one spot.
"I faced unspeakable hardships and problems," Mahmoud says. "I'm sleepless with no good place to rest. Police don't allow us to sleep."
But he's also scared of the other groups of migrants. "The biggest thing I'm scared of here is fighting. When Africans and Afghans fight they use knives and it terrifies me."
Pretending it's not happening
The next morning we return to the roundabout to find kids sleeping rough everywhere.
In the light of day, Belgium Parking looks like any normal 24-hour petrol station. Except for the fact it's heavily guarded by police in their riot gear.
The staff at the petrol station don't want the migrants here — or us, for that matter.
"S'il vous plait partir maintenant," a voice barks over the petrol station's loudspeakers.
His loud voice resonates inside and out of the petrol station and into the parking lot, where 10 or more CRS vans are guarding the trucks as migrant teenagers sit looking on.
So everyone just goes about their day, pretending it's not happening. Even the police pop in for coffee breaks.
One minute they're arresting two young men for hiding in a boat that's being towed; the next, they're standing in the cafeteria sipping espressos and laughing over baby photos.
I spend a lot of my time sitting in what we call the "getaway car". While my colleagues head off into the industrial estate to find the asylum seeker kids, I keep an eye out for angry policemen and menacing kids.
A never-ending journey
A few weeks later we catch up with Mahmoud again. This time, we find him at a reception centre in another part of Calais.
Kids are often picked up by the police and taken to these reception centres in the hope they take the complicated, lengthy and confusing route to seek asylum in France.
"The place where I am right now has good facilities," he admits. "We are sleeping on a bed and before we were sleeping on the ground."
"There's a good shower and we live in a clean environment. We don't get dirty or fall ill here."
But Mahmoud can't go back to his home and he has no interest in staying in France, despite the relative comfort and safety afforded by the centre.
His only wish is to cross The Channel and reach his destination.
He'll stay at the centre for two more days, before returning to the roundabout to once again try to complete his never-ending journey.