Written by by Rosa Abrantes-Metz, CNN
Nearly one year ago on August 26, 2017, a group of 50 immigrants was led to a pile of wood logs, soaked in water and a portable heater. This was the first of many fires they would light to keep warm and melt the ice in the smuggling tunnel under the Channel.
For three weeks, they spent all of their time in the dark, waiting to cross the Channel to England. And they waited. They saw babies die. They made somber candlelight vigils. Many of them turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Eventually, they came close to dying.
“The smell of bodies, the smell of the decomposing bodies, the smell of decay, the smell of the spit of dead animals on the branches of the trees, everything was really bad.”
‘I’m here for my children’
Malek Farajoui, 30, originally from Somalia, is one of the immigrants who remained in Calais for three weeks without sleep. Although he believes he’s about halfway to the border, he still has no guarantees — he says British police still ask for cash.
“In order to cross the channel, I have to pay about one, two or maybe three thousand pounds ($1,200-$2,100),” he says. “That makes it worse than staying inside.”
He says another obstacle to the thousands of migrants already living in Calais, to the rampaging gangs and the gangs looking to take control, is France’s labor laws. Because of them, he’s unable to find work in the city and any of his options for resettlement in the UK are quite limited.
“Before, we were trained and we worked in this town, but now everything has changed,” he says. “After being trained to work, they now made me to be a social worker, they made me to work with the poor people, people who need help, but they’re not helping us at all.”
“We’re not capable to work and provide for our family and the kids and everything.”
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For Joachim Gihel, 29, that list of job prospects is long and varied.
“I’m a chef and I can send people to the schools,” he says. “I can be the business leader. I’m prepared. I’m so much happier — I’m a chef, I’m alive.”
Although the men are all painfully aware of the danger they face, they are convinced that crossing the Channel is worth the risk, and they will continue to do so.
“I’m going to go back tomorrow,” says Issa Mohammed, 30, from Yemen. “You can see for yourself. There’s no conditions, there’s no problems.”
Joachim Gihel, 29, from France, can only think of what he’d do if he doesn’t get his papers. Credit: Theo Stroomer/ for CNN
But that doesn’t mean that the migrants aren’t worried. Many of them, if not most, don’t have a job in the city, and they realize that life and love in the UK would be grim.
“It’s very hard to find a person who is happy in London, after three weeks,” says Gregory Rekouah, 25, originally from Guinea. “After three weeks you don’t know the details of a person. If you’re on the street and you go back here you’re not getting anything.”
But they also believe that nothing else will change.
“You can’t do anything,” says Leorez Mohammed, 20, from Guinea. “We’re alive here, we’re still alive. We have to go.”