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UK Rwanda plan met with fear and determination in Calais camps

News of Britain's plan to send refugees to Africa is making waves in northern France, but those intending to cross the Channel are undeterred
An injured man enroute to the UK walks towards a tent outside Calais, northern France (MEE/Abdul Saboor)
An injured man en route to the UK at a tent outside Calais, northern France (MEE/Abdul Saboor)
By Frank Andrews in Calais, France

Gathered beside a generator charging their phones, a group of Sudanese men near a makeshift camp in a field close to Calais catch up with each other, and with friends and family at home.

One subject is repeatedly coming up, says Mustafa*, a 22-year-old from Sudan's Nuba mountains. "People are talking a lot about Rwanda."

Mustafa and the other Sudanese men using the generator, provided by a local refugee charity, are in Calais, at the northeastern tip of France, seeking passage to Britain, a dangerous trip attempted by people in the back of lorries or in small rubber dinghies on the choppy seas of the English Channel.

More than 2,500 people have crossed the Channel this year. Escaping war, persecution and hardship, they have travelled for months, even years, hoping to reach the UK. Yet, if the British government has its way, refugees and migrants arriving on British shores may soon find themselves transported 6,000km back to Africa.

Refugees attempt crossings to Britain in the backs of lorries or on dinghies (MEE/Abdul Saboor)
Refugees attempt the crossing from France to Britain in the backs of lorries or on dinghies (MEE/Abdul Saboor)

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Last week, the British government announced plans to send adults who arrive without authorisation to Rwanda, a plan that has been condemned as immoral, unworkable and quite possibly illegal. 

The UK last year flirted with the idea of pushbacks - a widely condemned practice used in the Mediterranean, whereby boats are pushed into the waters of another country - but is now pursuing the equally controversial Rwanda scheme, which is yet to pass into law.

Mustafa fled conflict in Sudan three years ago. Some of his family were killed in the fighting; he has no idea if the rest are still alive. With such horrors behind him, he says neither he nor his friends have changed their minds about trying to cross the Channel, despite the chilling news about the Rwanda scheme.

“I ran away from Africa," he told Middle East Eye. "Why would they send me back there?”

Pressure in Calais

Amira, a 28-year-old Sudanese woman born and raised in Tripoli, Libya, who now has political asylum in France and lives in Calais, volunteers as an Arabic-French interpreter with the displaced people living in the town. 

“Everyone’s asking about Rwanda," she told MEE.

Around 2,000 or so displaced people currently live in Calais and its surroundings, beside disused warehouses, in woodland or under bridges in town.

'I ran away from Africa. Why would they send me back there?'

- Mustafa, Sudanese refugee

NGOs - some of which have struggled for funding recently, since high-profile refugee aid group Choose Love pulled out of Calais - do what they can to give people legal advice, food and shelter. 

But police officers regularly raid living spaces, seizing belongings and destroying or confiscating tents - 505 in March alone, according to Human Rights Observers

Local legislation prevents NGOs from distributing food and water in certain spots, while authorities have dug trenches and used boulders and sandbanks to keep aid groups as far from the various makeshift camps as possible. 

In March, the Calais prefect, Louis Le Franc, was condemned for illegally demolishing a camp that was home to 800 people in 2020. The case goes to a hearing in May.

"We hope the government will change its practices in Calais," Francois Guennoc, head of the NGO L’auberge des Migrants, said at the time. "We're not extremely optimistic."

‘We just want to get to the UK’

"We don’t have a solution here in France,” Mark, a 23-year-old from South Sudan’s capital city, Juba, told MEE.

With no phone or access to the internet, Mark has only heard about the Rwanda plan by word of mouth. He still intends to cross over to Britain.

Refugee tents seen near the French-British border at Calais (MEE/Abdul Saboor)
Refugees' tents near the Channel at Calais (MEE/Abdul Saboor)

"We just want to get to the UK," said Musab, an 18-year-old from Darfur, who spent two years in Libya after leaving his home and was twice thrown into Libya’s notorious detention centres.

Asked about whether he was worried about the Rwanda situation, he replied: “I care too much, very bad… but what can you do? If they want to send me to Rwanda, I’ll come back here.”

*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.

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