Monday, 3 August 2015
After long treks across desert sands they set out in their rickety boats; barely seaworthy craft that listed heavily and handled like barrels, with just enough fuel to get them out of African coastal waters and into the path of naval vessels, compelled by international maritime law to rescue them from drowning. A boat trip to heaven if they survived, but still there were obstacles to surmount and no welcome in any country, save for the grudging shelter and food provided by the relief operations. But this worked to their advantage because they became invisible.
Encouraged to escape the loose confines of reception centres and fed stories of a life of plenty in Great Britain that country became a fabled land; they told each other stories to keep the dream alive and soon found how easy it was to travel north. Across baking desert, in open-topped trucks or on foot, fleeing armed conflict, persecution or grinding poverty, they were always at risk of being robbed. If not directly held up they were persuaded to put their lives and what money they had in the hands of people traffickers. But here in Europe it was different.
Nobody wanted to help, but nobody did much to hinder their progress. Food and water were abundant and the penalties for stealing were laughable, although they were rarely challenged. The expressions of fear and loathing they attracted were soon realised to be signs of weakness in populations grown soft and pampered. Fearful of the strangers the local officials did all they could to aid them in their passage to the rich pickings of Britain. Some said that this was a myth, others believed all they were told. Across the water one more time and – they told each other – their journey would rewarded with untold riches and anew citizenship.
But they also herd stories of running battles, of storming the fences and stowing away in lorries. Armed police and dogs, tear gas and baton rounds. Of repulsion and retreat and endless waiting for nightly opportunities to try again. They were ready though; compared to Africa, what was a fence and a non-lethal response? Compared to life in their home countries, this was but a game to be played and although the stakes might be high, the winning of it was simply a matter of persistence.
But when they got to Calais they found little of any of this. The once sprawling camps were largely abandoned and the ruined fences left where they lay. Signs in several languages directed them to the migrant reception and processing centre where they were encouraged o stand in line to receive what they first thought to be identity cards, but proved to be ferry tickets. The British and French, it seemed, were tired of the game and the border was wide open. They marched over to the ferry terminal and walked on board what, in comparison with their flaky Mediterranean hulks, was a mighty, modern ship.
All aboard, thousands packed tightly together, the boarding ramps were raised and they felt the judder of mighty engines engaging propeller shafts and they saw dockside workers slipping the lines. England, here they come! Soon an inquisitive few began to explore, but they discovered the upper decks were locked against them. No matter, there was food in the dining halls and besides, the crossing was under an hour they had heard. The ship, rolling slightly in the swell, steamed on.
By daybreak, however, after several hours in which they had told themselves they were probably going to another port, or in a holding pattern, they knew something was wrong. Applying the same brute force they had been ready to use against the fences they managed to break their way onto the upper decks where they found... nobody. No land was in sight, either, yet they knew England to be so close. Then one of them noticed the position of the sun, astern of them; they were clearly sailing west. A cry from aloft, a note of panic in his voice. The bridge also, was empty and the ferry was in auto-pilot, headed into the mid-Atlantic.
Immigration policy on the rocks...
A few minutes later and the engines suddenly died. From far below them the muffled sound of synchronised charges accompanied a jarring vibration. Water poured in below the plimsoll line and the scuppered ship began its slow descent to journey’s end. Exhausting all other options the British and French authorities had finally done what their public secretly wished. This time there was no rescue.