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‘The game’: the perilous journey for Afghans to reach UK by boat

On August 6, after hearing about the Taliban advance in southern Afghanistan, Harif Ahmadzai fled his hometown of Gardez without saying goodbye to his parents. That marked the start of a 106-day journey to a makeshift camp in northern France — and the chance of a dangerous boat ride to the UK.

“If I stayed, they would have killed me. They’re cleansing the land,” said the 25-year-old soldier and father of two, showing scars on his body that he said came from a car bomb set off by the Islamist militants three years earlier. Two of his cousins, also in the army, had been murdered, he added. “All our lives we helped the government, but they abandoned us on the land, left us there to die.”

At a camp in Grande-Synthe near the port of Dunkirk, Ahmadzai is among a growing number of men and children who fled the Taliban regime in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal of US and UK troops from Afghanistan in the summer. These men are joining hundreds of migrants attempting to reach the English shore by sea from northern France, after a police crackdown has made clandestine crossings by train, lorry and car too difficult. People at the camp estimated there were about 100 Afghans waiting to cross the Channel, even after 27 migrants died at sea last week.

Anna Richel, a co-ordinator at Utopia 56, a charity in Dunkirk, has noticed “a lot of people from Afghanistan” in recent months including unaccompanied minors. Governments across Europe “need to discuss creating a safe place in France for people to apply for asylum, as well as a legal way for them to travel”, she said.

Even though the FT was not able to verify the details of individuals’ accounts, the country these people come from and the persecution they recount suggests their asylum applications would be credible. A high proportion of asylum applications from Afghans in the UK are successful: of the 826 cases decided in the year to June, 62 per cent were granted asylum or some other form of refugee protection after their initial application. Around half of people refused at the initial stage typically succeed in overturning the decision, meaning around 80 per cent will eventually succeed.

But they have to make it to the UK first.

People at an informal camp near Grande-Synthe in northern France wait in difficult conditions to reach the UK
People at an informal camp near Grande-Synthe in northern France wait in difficult conditions to reach the UK © Bruno Fert/FT

Ahmadzai gathered about $10,000 for his escape. Half of the money came from the sale of land and savings stashed at home, and half from a loan. Most of it was used to pay smugglers to get into Iran from the town of Nimruz near the border, and travel across Europe. In Dunkirk, he spent £2,500 for a ticket on a motorised inflatable boat to reach the UK — or “the game” as people in the camp call the risky sea crossing.

When the Financial Times met him, he said he had attempted the crossing three times — the first time the engine cut out, and police slashed the boats at the beach in the other two attempts. If they do not reach the other side, they can try again as many times as it takes to get there, at no extra cost.

A map showing the route of an Afghan refugee's 3-month journey from Gardez to Dunkirk, via Iran, Turkey, Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Serbia, Hungary and Paris

Ahmedzai is patient. In the early afternoon in Grande-Synthe, with temperatures hovering just above freezing, he took off his shoes and laid his jacket on the ground to pray. When he was finished, he offered the spot to a 14-year-old Afghan boy who had arrived at the camp alone.

Kabuli, who said he had been a translator for the German forces, said his own journey started before the US and British military withdrawal. He said he had been captured driving a German government car, imprisoned in the north-eastern town of Kunduz and regularly beaten for several weeks in February. When he managed to escape, he headed straight for Nimruz, from where he set off across the Middle East to Europe, paying $3,000 to smugglers along the way.

He said he was first refused asylum in Greece after being told he needed to apply in Germany because of his previous translation work. After paying smugglers another €2,500, he arrived in Germany, where he spent two months trying to apply for asylum. Eventually he was told he could not because of the “Dublin regulation”.

This regulation generally requires refugees apply for asylum in the first country deemed safe that they set foot in — Greece in Kabuli’s case — or wait 18 months without the right to work before they can apply again. The EU registered a total of 56,000 asylum applications in the month of August 2021 alone, according to EU data. Almost a fifth of them were made by Afghans, who overtook Syrians to become the largest applicant group.

Many often reach the EU in countries like Malta or Greece where a large number of applications take more than six months to process, according to EU data. When they leave, it is impossible for them to receive asylum in countries like Germany and France.

A truck from a migrant aid association distributes sleeping bags and clothes at Grande-Synthe
A truck from a migrant aid association distributes sleeping bags and clothes at Grande-Synthe © Bruno Fert/FT

“People want to stay in France,” Kabuli said. “All of the Afghans here — you can ask all of these people here — they tried to get asylum but they got [hit with] Dublin. Dublin means ‘you are nothing’.”

Following Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the Dublin framework, meaning that, while the British system is difficult and slow to navigate, they are currently unlikely to be returned to mainland Europe. The fact that many of them speak English and have relatives in the UK are also major draws. The UK received 1,974 applications for asylum from Afghan citizens in the year to September, 5 per cent of all applications.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August, the UK promised to set up an Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme to admit up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, at a rate of 5,000 a year over the next four years. However, the ACRS has still not been opened and no date has been given for it to do so.

Life jackets are stored in a shopping cart in the informal migrant camp near Grande-Synthe
Life jackets are stored in a shopping cart in the informal migrant camp near Grande-Synthe © Bruno Fert/FT

One leading member of the British Afghan community, who declined to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity, said: “We need to understand that we can expect people to come illegally if there are no legal routes.”

Kabuli is one of those opting for the clandestine route to the UK. “There is at least a sleeping place for us there, some food for us there . . . until our asylum application is dealt with,” he said. “Here,” he said, pointing to dozens of tents being dashed by the rain, “there is nothing.”

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