A Jungle Migrant's Tale: 'Why I crawled through the Channel Tunnel to escape hell'

Calais Jungle on fire

A young Afghan migrant films with his phone a shack on fire, with a placard reading 'living space' in the foreground, in the southern part of the Jungle. Umer (not pictured) endured several months in the Jungle before finally escaping

Monday, September 5, 2016

The chaos of the Calais Jungle continues to provoke huge controversy, with protests taking place in the French town and leading politicians demanding border controls be relocated to the UK.

But what of the migrants themselves, the ones at the crux of this crisis? What horrors are they witnessing in the Jungle? What tales can they tell of life in Europe's most notorious crucible of humanity?

To find out, talkRADIO tracked down Umer, a 13-year-old migrant who arrived in Britain last year, having spent several months in the Jungle. He is originally from Afghanistan.

This is Umer's incredible, unabridged story. Thanks to SportsAid for making the article possible.

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My father was a small doctor in Afghanistan, who raised us in a village near Jalalabad, a Taliban base. You could see militants fighting in the mountains when you went outside.

My uncle, my father's brother was a member of the Taliban, and militants would regularly demand dressings and treatment for their wounds. My father kept bandaging them up, even though he hated them.

Then one day, he said no. He was scared, the government could find out, think he was part of that. The Taliban just said "you shouldn’t have done that, you’ll regret it." The following day he was on his way to work. They killed him.

When it happened I was at home, like always. It wasn’t safe for us to play outside. If you went to school, they’d think you were a Christian, they would kill your family.

I remember screaming in my house. My mum was screaming, she told us what had happened. I felt pain inside my body, I was very frightened.

We moved to my mother’s brother’s house, but I couldn’t stay. The Taliban had already pursued me. They’d promised me exciting journeys, nice food, cars. My uncle had even promised me a special jacket. I didn’t understand what he was trying to do, I just thought he was being nice. But my mum slapped me in the face when she found out about this. She knew the Taliban would come back for me.

One night my mother and uncle called for me. There was a man with them. I’d never seen him before, but he told me I wasn’t safe there. My mum told me to put on the coat she was holding, to go with this man. "Don’t speak, don’t do anything, just go," that’s what she told me.

'When we didn't stop, they shot at us'

We left at night, it was the only way to be safe. I was crying, my mum as well. I didn’t ask anything. The agent didn’t tell me where we were going.

When we got in the car the guy had a glass bottle. He said that if I spoke he’d hit me with it. I was crying and sad, I was tired. I couldn’t get any sleep.

We walked for two days to reach the Iranian border. The agent was hitting me all the way, telling me I was holding up the group. To cross the border we had to get into a car. I don’t remember exactly but I think there were 16 people in there, four or five in the boot with me.

The police told our car to stop, and they shot at us when we didn’t. The agent drove very fast and we managed to get away, but there was a man who was shot sitting near me. The agent stopped the car and pulled him out of the car. Left him on the road. Drove off.

After that I’m not sure how I got to the Jungle. I remember travelling to Turkey, and arriving in Calais. But the months in between – I don’t remember. All that comes to my mind is travelling in cars, lorries and on foot, being locked in rooms for days, travelling in containers. We slept on the floor, without blankets. No-one spoke.

The agents would lock us away for days, coming back only to give us an egg or a small sandwich, one between two. The hunger was horrible. I remember eating snow in Iran, which gave me stomach pains, and I even drank my own urine.

I think I was in the Jungle for eight months, sleeping in a small tent. There were eight of us in there. You had to fight for food, there was fighting every night, Afghanistan men would fight with Somalian men and that kind of stuff.

I remember knives, and there were some horrible places. One tent was really bad, filled with old men. Boys were told not to go there. One night a boy went into the tent. When he came back he was crying, he didn’t say anything, just shaking. He couldn’t walk.

Migrants and refugees build a church in the Jungle in February 2016 (Getty Images).

Agents were always trying to herd us onto lorries, so they would get paid. The police hit us and sprayed us in the eyes with pepper spray when they found us. One time a policeman hit me on the nose, I heard a cracking sound. I was in agony.

'The Tunnel was cold - we were so hungry'

Eventually, a few us decided to try the Channel Tunnel. We knew it was dangerous, but we were desperate. An agent showed us the way there.

I remember that was cold, and we were so hungry. We spent a whole day in there. It was so dark, and we had to crawl along the side of the tunnel. When a train came past, we had to stop. 

After spending a day in the tunnel, we had to stop and turn back. We wanted to reach Britain so much, but it was too dangerous. I was scared for my life.

Finally, we got to Britain on two lorries. The first was a freezer lorry, which was so cold that my body wouldn’t stop shaking. Thankfully the lorry driver dragged me out before I froze to death. Then came three days on a lorry filled with cleaning products. When the doors swung open, we were in a factory. The police came and put me in handcuffs.

My foster parents came shortly afterwards. My foster mum tells me now that I looked so scared, and that the interpreter who’d been asked to help me didn’t understand what I was saying, because he wasn’t from Afghanistan. When my foster carer took me in, I didn’t know how to read or write or even use the toilet, but the foster family has been amazing with me.

I’ve been here for over a year now. I think my English is improving and I absolutely love the country. Of course I still think of home a lot, and my dad, but my foster parents have helped me so much. They’re a new family for me.

I owe Britain so much, and am so glad I managed to make it out of the Jungle. Whatever people read about the Jungle, or have been told, I can promise you that it is far, far worse.