Syrian refugees: ‘Every other European country is better than France’

Syrian refugees pass through France towards the UK. They hope to be treated better there than at Calais, where they roam the streets after they were recently ejected from their squat. Sweden, which has granted official refugee status to Syrians, is another coveted destination.

There is no shelter in Calais for the Syrian refugees. Their squat was emptied on September 5, explains the prefecture, for reasons of security and improper sanitation. Since then they have been wandering the streets in small groups. The pressure from the police to keep them from squatting again in an abandoned building never lets up. It’s impossible to relax, to lay out their personal effects. “They are truly in an intense process of ever deepening homelessness,” worries Cécile Bossy, Coordinator of the Coastal Migrant Programme of the Doctors of the World organisation. The NGO, along with five other organisations, has launched a call for better reception of Syrian refugees in France.

On the eve of being deported, Youssef, a 25-year-old English student, was furious. “We’re getting by here without anyone’s help. There’s no water, no toilets, it’s completely rotten, all we have is a roof. Why do they want to throw us out?”

Dishes were washed over a drain, and socks dried on the fence that surrounds the industrial wasteland. Things had been precarious, but organised, in this old wholesale warehouse that everyone calls the “Beer House” near the port of Calais. Several tons of full beer cans had been abandoned there, past their sell-by-date back in 2007, and the entire neighbourhood had shown up to help themselves to this lucky windfall.

Hospitality rules remain

Today the big depot, where a hundred Sudanese once lived, is walled off. The 20 or so Syrians had preferred to stay away, and kept to an old prefabricated building gathering dust next to it. On its side they drew an British flag, never to forget the purpose of their trip. Inside, camping mattresses and blankets littered the floor over three levels. The rules of hospitality, though, were honoured, including sharing an impromptu meal with the handful of visitors, journalists, activists from the No Borders movement, volunteers of the Marmite aux Idées association of Calais, and members of Doctors of the World. Olives, white cheese, tuna in oil.

Punitive strikes on the Syrian regime? The Syrians shrugged, disbelieving, and for good reason. “It’s been a long time since the Europeans have done anything,” says Youssef. “There’s no hope.” It’s the voice of a fatalist. It cracks only when he is asked for news of his parents and his brothers and sisters, still back in Syria: he has had none. They fled to a village, he said, to a safer place. Youssef has been on the move for six months.

When his house was destroyed by missiles, he decided to head abroad. The tall man loves to show off his greying temples: “The white hair is because of Bashar”

In Calais there are always between 30 and 50 Syrian refugees, trying to cross the Channel. “They arrived this winter,” says Philippe Wannesson, from the Marmite aux idées. A steady stream from Damascus, Homs, Deraa, near the Israeli border. “These are people who had just enough money to make it so far.” Youssef paid $7,500 dollars (€5,500) to get to France. The passage to the UK? Between €1,000 and €2,000. Hassan, 30, a painter and decorator, joins the discussion. When his house was destroyed by missiles, he decided to head abroad. The tall man loves to show off his greying temples: “The white hair is because of Bashar”, he thunders in Arabic, while his companions try to translate into English. He has been here 70 days, tempting fate every night, and he has lost count of how many times he has been arrested by the border police – at least 20, he says.

‘Asylum? No, thank you’

Each time he was released: and yet it’s impossible for him to go back to a country at war. Apply for asylum in France? He shakes his head. He knows what happened to the Sudanese. Many have filed an application for asylum, which normally entitles them to a place to stay in a reception centre for asylum-seekers (Cada) – but there aren’t enough beds, and they live in the same conditions as the others.

“After two years of the asylum application process, they say ‘No, thank you’.” “Usually”, notes Philippe Wannesson, “they have a family waiting to follow them. Those who come to Calais, and see what’s happening, won’t stay in France.” In England the refugees are housed right away. Sweden is even better: “It just decided to give a three-year transitional refugee status to all Syrians who show up,” says Philippe Wannesson, and with possible family reunification. And that is just what’s behind Youssef’s cri de coeur: “Every other country in Europe is better than France.”

Translated from the French by Anton Baer

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