The death of Raheemullah Oryakhel, a 14-year-boy from Afghanistan, was marked last month with just a couple of paragraphs in the French press, under the headline “One migrant dead on the port ring road”. There was nothing much to excite further interest; the boy was the 12th refugee to die in this year. The news item added that Raheemullah’s body had been found on the N216, on a stretch of motorway where a number of migrants had previously been run over. Police said he had probably been hit by a car. Whoever was behind the wheel had not bothered to stop.
Nor are the details of Raheemullah’s death particularly shocking to the handful of relatives and acquaintances he left behind in the camp, a fetid, cramped cluster of sagging donated tents and roughly built wooden shacks, now home to an estimated 9,000 asylum seekers. The idea that vulnerable children, some as young as eight, who have mostly fled conflict zones, should spend night after night trying to leap on to moving vehicles, in a desperate (and mostly futile) attempt to reach the UK, surprises no one. It’s a risky business. Sometimes people get suffocated in the trucks, or frozen in refrigerated containers; sometimes they choose a different route and drown trying to swim to England or get electrocuted on the railway. And sometimes they just get run over.
But there is sadness and some bitterness at the driver’s failure to stop, and at the apparently cursory nature of the police investigation. Abdul Wali, an older camp resident who helped raise more than €4,000 (£3,516) to send Raheemullah’s body back to his parents, says, “Even in , if someone is hit by a car, at least the driver will take him to a police station or hospital and say sorry. Here, people are dying and no one cares.”
Raheemullah is probably the youngest asylum seeker to die yet, but epitomises the risks that hundreds are taking every night on the roads outside Calais. As the French government prepares to next week, aiming to disperse its residents around the country instead, the sense of urgency surrounding the mission to get to the UK has intensified. It is an intolerable situation for everyone involved: the lorry drivers, Calais residents, local police (who are exhausted by nightly patrols) and, most of all, for the camp’s population.
The last person to see Raheemullah alive was almost certainly his friend Karim, also 14, who was trying to pull him on to the top of a moving lorry shortly before dawn on Friday 16 September. “I was saying, ‘Give me your hand’ but he didn’t,” Karim says. “He didn’t listen.” It was a terrifying few minutes, in total darkness. One second his friend was there, the next he was gone.
Until recently, Karim (an assumed name to avoid anything that might complicate his asylum claim, should he ever be in a position to make one) was showing anyone he met a photograph of his dead friend, taken in the Lille morgue, looking as bad as you might expect after a fatal road accident. Volunteers who have stepped in to help with the hundreds of children at the camp have since persuaded him to delete the image from his phone. They know Karim is devastated, but have little at their disposal to cheer him up. One volunteer took him out of the camp for an ice-cream; another took him to the donations warehouse and got him a new pair of socks.
Because the French authorities are unwilling to recognise the camp, there is no UN presence here, and no mainstream children’s charity on site; the 800 or so parentless children (a third of them from Afghanistan) are left largely to look after themselves. Volunteers with groups such as do their best, but are dismayed at the hopeless inadequacy of what they can offer. “We have a severely traumatised child,” one says, “and what can we do? We say: ‘Your friend’s dead, he’s been squashed, have an ice-cream.’ It’s awful.”
Two weeks after the accident, Karim sits on a wooden pallet at the edge of the camp and explains how he and Raheemullah came to be on the motorway before dawn that night. The two boys had walked for an hour along the high barbed-wire fencing that separates the camp from the road, to a spot where other asylum seekers had dragged some wooden logs into the centre of the road, forcing lorries to slow down.
Sometimes there are 100 people by the road, trying to get into the lorries. Someone is going to fall over and get hit
Both had made frequent night-time attempts to get to England together. Karim has been in the camp since January, trying most nights to make his way across the Channel. Raheemullah, who came from the same part of Afghanistan, arrived in July, and the two became friends. Most evenings they played cricket and volleyball on the wasteland beside the motorway. “He was a good friend,” Karim says. “I liked him very much.”
They found a crowd of people hoping to push their way on to the stream of heavy goods vehicles as they slowed to navigate the obstacles. Karim and Raheemullah followed two older men, climbing on to the axle between the driver’s cab and the container section of the lorry. Karim managed to get on to the top of the container, but Raheemullah was still on the ledge between the cab and the rest of the truck when it began to gather speed. Karim says the lorry started swerving abruptly, as if trying to shake off the uninvited passengers. He leaned over the edge, offering his friend his hand. “Why didn’t he take it?” he asks.
No one knows quite what happened next. One of the older men cut a small hole in the roof of the truck (a black vehicle with an enormous red logo on the side, Karim says). Karim lowered himself through it into the container, which held a consignment of swivelling office chairs, and hid there as the truck continued to the port. Some time later, he was discovered by port officials before the truck drove on to the ferry. When he returned to the camp, he discovered his friend was missing.
Raheemullah lived in the camp in a windowless chipboard hut with his first cousin, Wahid, 23, and two other men. No one has moved his belongings, a few clothes stored in plastic bags. The grubby brown blanket and mattress where he slept for the last two and a half months of his life are still there.
Wahid is better able to articulate the loss and anger he feels about his cousin’s death. He speaks good English, having spent three years at secondary school in Norwich, after fleeing the Taliban when he was 14. He was taken in by a foster family, made friends, studied hard, took a part-time job in a Chinese takeaway – and then, at 17 and a half, his case was reconsidered and he was told he would be deported back to Afghanistan, which the Home Office categorises as a safe destination. He spent some time trying to appeal, but left for rather than be sent back. There are many young Afghan men, with fluent English, in a similar situation in Calais.
Wahid’s friend Abdul went to school in Birmingham (also after being threatened by the Taliban), before being told at 17 that he was no longer eligible to remain in England. Both hope to return to the UK, which is the place they consider home, to appeal for leave to stay.
Wahid was shocked to see his cousin, whom he had not seen since he was a child, arrive in the camp. While ambivalent about Raheemullah’s determination to get to England, given his own mixed experiences, Wahid didn’t try to dissuade him. “It was not my job to tell him how to decide his life.” Instead, he invited him to come and share his hut. Raheemullah had travelled alone from Afghanistan, and been badly beaten by Bulgarian police; he was relieved to find someone to protect him. For a month, they went out together five nights a week, to try to jump on a lorry.
“In the beginning he was happy,” Wahid says. “He said it was good fun. Slowly he realised it was not easy, that it was risky. Sometimes I’d say, let’s go tonight, and he’d say, ‘No, tomorrow.’ I knew he didn’t want to go. He was very scared. It’s a one-hour walk in the dark. You feel scared of the French people. You worry that if they see you alone, maybe they will beat you. Sometimes there are 100 people by the road, trying to get into the lorries. People are pushing. Of course someone is going to fall over and get hit.”
I said, ‘The sooner you can go from here, the better.’ There is fighting. It is not a good place for a child
Wahid was also aware the camp wasn’t a safe place for Raheemullah. “That’s why I said, ‘The sooner you can go from here, the better.’ There is fighting between the Sudanese and the Afghans, between the Afghans and the Afghans – for no reason, just because of the tension here. It gets boring. You sleep, wake up, sleep, wake up. You can’t shower for a week. People are desperate. It is not a good place for anyone, especially not a child.”
He feels anger at how slow the British response has been. Raheemullah had an older brother in Manchester, and was in theory eligible to join him in the UK; but the process for organising reunification is very slow, bureaucratic and hard to understand. It is not clear how much his brother was able to help with the application, or if the papers had even been lodged. Charities estimate there are 300 to 400 unaccompanied children in Calais with relatives in the UK; but even in straightforward cases, the legal process takes between five and 10 months, during which time the children often give up waiting and start making the nightly journey to the motorway instead.
Security has been increased around the port, so that finding a way in has become harder and much more dangerous. Work has recently begun on , half-funded by the UK. Although French president François Hollande has , there is scepticism about how easy it will be to find homes for everyone. Officials believe that people will stay on, and the barriers will still be needed. “Why are you spending the money on building a wall?” Abdul wonders, sitting with Wahid in a caravan that serves as a clothes distribution point, donated tracksuits piled up on the surfaces. “You are wasting money. If they hadn’t built these fences, people wouldn’t risk their lives.”
Wahid and Raheemullah managed to get on lorries together three times, but each time were pulled off at the border by officials with sniffer dogs. “The police were nice with him. And, because of him, they were nice with me as well. They take you to the front of the port and say, ‘Go back to the jungle.’” Early last month, Wahid hurt his back badly after his friends put a heavy box over him to hide him inside a lorry. “I was under it for eight hours. I couldn’t stand [it] any more, so I left.”
When Raheemullah suggested he come with him early on the morning of 16 September, Wahid said no: his back was too painful. “I told him to be careful. He knew it was very dangerous.” The next morning, when it became obvious Raheemullah was missing, a youth worker from the camp visited local hospitals and police stations to look for him. Later, Wahid went to the morgue to identify the body. Raheemullah’s face was so badly damaged, he was unrecognisable, except for his clothes and a distinctive mark on his arm. Wahid thinks his cousin wasn’t strong enough to pull himself up on to the roof. “He was young, he had no muscles.”
Wahid spoke to his uncle, Raheemullah’s father, in Afghanistan, but found himself unable to break the news. “They asked what happened, and I said, ‘He is injured.’ I told them a lie. His parents are quite old. I didn’t want to hurt them.” He assumes their older son called later, from Manchester, to tell them. Since the body arrived back in Afghanistan, accompanied by another relative who came from Norway to travel with the coffin, Raheemullah’s parents have called again to ask how their son died. The calls are distressing: “They keep ringing me. I say, ‘You don’t need to know. He is dead.’ Why make them more upset?”
It is still unclear why Raheemullah’s parents sent their son 4,000 miles across Europe to try to start a new life in England. Wahid isn’t forthcoming; his own experiences of hostile questioning by the Home Office have made him wary of the question and he will say only that “it wasn’t an economic problem. There was a danger for him.” But Karim thinks the absence of work in postwar Afghanistan was a factor. “He was going to send money to his family. His father was an old man – he couldn’t work. No one wants to go to England, but if they have problems at home, that’s why they go.”
Whatever the reason, the decision to send a child away is never taken lightly, Wahid says. “Of course they will be wishing with their hearts now that they hadn’t. They didn’t know he was going to die.” His own advice to other parents now is not to send their children to Europe, but there is often a reluctance to listen. On the whole, children do not tell their parents about the difficulties they have encountered, so an unrealistic perception prevails. “Life [in Afghanistan] is very hard. There’s Isis and the Taliban, and no security. They don’t know anything about the situation in Calais. The parents don’t know about the risks.” Abdul has become equally firm. “I have five brothers. They call me and ask, shall we come? I say, if you come, you will sleep in the street. Please don’t waste your time.”
Volunteers attempt to persuade refugees to claim asylum in France, rather than wasting months and risking their lives trying to get to the UK. They point out that – particularly for young people from Afghanistan – it makes more sense to remain in , because there is less risk of being deported when they approach 18. But it is hard to persuade children whose parents have paid large sums of money to dispatch them across Europe. People smugglers operating in the camp also have a vested interest in encouraging others to get to the UK, otherwise their business model disappears.
Increasing numbers of camp residents ; it is now largely those with relatives in the UK who persist in their attempts to join them. But many of those children who decide to stay in France are told there is no room for them in the nearby emergency shelter, which is turning away between 15 and 35 children a day, so they remain in a dangerous limbo. No one knows where the children will be sent once the camp is shut down.
Wahid believes any investigation into his cousin’s death has already been closed. No one has come to look for witnesses in the camp. He made one visit to the police station when he was searching for Raheemullah, where he says the police officer was rude; he is reluctant to go again because of his illegal status in France. “They don’t care who has died. To them, we’re just illegal migrants, ‘jungly people’.” The prosecutor’s office of Boulogne-sur-Mer did not respond to emailed requests for details of the police investigation.
Meanwhile, a minute’s silence was held for Raheemullah in the camp at the end of September. Friends who spent time with him in , a wooden hut serving free food to unaccompanied children, say he was shyer than most. Mary Jones, an English volunteer who runs the cafe, describes him as “very quiet and polite”. He attended some of the English lessons given by volunteers, who remember him as “reserved, in a well-brought up way” and “very determined in everything he did, especially learning English”.
If Raheemullah’s death failed to register more widely in France, it has had a quiet but significant impact in the UK – both positive and negative. Some of the news reporting prompted delight among the more extreme anti-immigration voices on Twitter (even to hardened eyes, to respond to this death by typing tweets such as “Can’t they show it happening I would enjoy watching it one less to worry about” goes beyond the normal parameters of nastiness).
As the demolition date approaches, concern about the fate of unaccompanied children is rising
More constructive was the decision by a group of Conservative MPs to . The letter, signed by former education secretary Nicky Morgan and nine others, told Rudd that Raheemullah had “a legal right to be with his brother” but that, “having waited for months in wretched conditions”, he “took fate into his own hands with devastating consequences”.
It was discussed at last month’s Labour party conference, too, by , who in May , agreeing to give homes to some of the estimated 88,000 unaccompanied asylum seekers in Europe. Since his amendment was passed, has arrived in the UK. At a conference fringe meeting, Dubs dropped his determination to be politely cooperative with the government, describing them as “bloody liars” for failing to act.
As the demolition date approaches, concern about the fate of unaccompanied children is rising, but a solution has yet to be found. Last time French police attempted to demolish the camp, 129 children went missing, according to Help Refugees. Karim has promised volunteers that he won’t try climbing on lorries again, but they suspect he is still going every night anyway.
On Monday, that she wanted to speed up the transfer of those children with family in the UK, and that Britain would help to fund a shelter in France for children whose cases needed longer consideration. She promised to cut the bureaucracy involved, but there were no details of how many children would be given sanctuary here, and when they could arrive.
Meanwhile, the bald list of “registered migrant deaths” compiled by the local police grows longer, with a 13th death in late September and a 14th death last Sunday. This year’s toll includes: “a migrant whose sex could not be identified at the time of the discovery of the body, found drowned in Calais port”; “an Afghan migrant, 22 years, hit by an HGV on the A16 just before 6am”; “body of a migrant found dead around 7am near the port bypass – injuries suggest this migrant was hit by a vehicle”; “a Sudanese migrant, 30 years, hit by a freight train on the railway, close to the port bypass”; “a migrant of unknown nationality on the A16 at the A47 interchange. No witness.” Raheemullah’s death is there, recorded succinctly: “Around 5:30am, the lifeless body of a migrant found on the port ring road.”