“The game”: the perilous journey of the Afghans to reach the United Kingdom by boat

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On August 6, after hearing of the Taliban’s advance into southern Afghanistan, Harif Ahmadzai fled his hometown of Gardez without saying goodbye to his parents. It marked the start of a 106-day trip to a makeshift camp in northern France – and the possibility of a dangerous boat ride to the UK.

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

In a camp in Grande-Synthe near the port of Dunkirk, Ahmadzai is one of a growing number of men and children who have fled the Taliban regime following the chaotic withdrawal American and British troops from Afghanistan during the summer. These men join hundreds of migrants trying to reach the English coast by sea from northern France, after a police crackdown made illegal crossings by train, truck and car too difficult. People in the camp estimated that there were around 100 Afghans waiting to cross the Channel, even after 27 migrants died at sea Last week.

Harif Ahmadzai, 25, queues with other migrants to receive clothes during a distribution organized by a migrant aid organization © Bruno Fert / FT

Ahmadzai shows injuries he says came from a car bomb explosion © Bruno Fert / FT

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

Even though the FT has not been able to verify the details of the testimonies of the individuals, the countries of origin of these people and the persecutions they recount suggest that their asylum claims would be credible. A high proportion of Afghan asylum claims in the UK are accepted: of the 826 cases decided in the year up to June, 62% were granted asylum or some other form of refugee protection after their initial request. About half of those refused at the initial stage usually succeed in overturning the decision, which means that about 80% will eventually succeed.

But they have to get to the UK first.

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

Ahmadzai raised around $ 10,000 for his escape. Half of the money came from the sale of land and savings hidden in the house, and the other half from a loan. Most of it was used to pay smugglers to enter Iran from the border town of Nimruz and travel through Europe. In Dunkirk, he spent £ 2,500 on a ticket on a motor inflatable boat to reach the UK – or ‘the game’ as the 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 and police slashed the boats on the beach on the other two attempts. If they don’t reach the other side, they can try again as many times as it takes to get there, at no additional cost.

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

Ahmedzai is patient. At the beginning of the afternoon in Grande-Synthe, with temperatures oscillating just above zero, he took off his shoes and put his jacket on the ground to pray. When he was finished, he offered the place to a 14-year-old Afghan boy who had arrived at the camp alone.

Kabuli, who said he was a translator for German forces, said his own journey began before the US and British military withdrawal. He said he was captured driving a German government car, jailed in the northeastern town of Kunduz, and beaten regularly for several weeks in February. When he managed to escape, he headed straight for Nimruz, from where he left across the Middle East to Europe, paying smugglers $ 3,000 along the way.

He said he was initially denied asylum in Greece after learning he had to apply in Germany due to his previous translation work. After paying an additional € 2,500 to the smugglers, he arrived in Germany, where he spent two months trying to claim asylum. Finally, he was told that he could not because of the “Dublin Regulation”.

This regulation typically requires refugees to seek asylum in the first country deemed safe they set foot in – Greece in Kabuli’s case – or to wait 18 months without the right to work before they can reapply. The EU registered a total of 56,000 asylum applications in August 2021 alone, according to EU data. Almost a fifth of these were made by Afghans, who overtook the Syrians to become the largest group of candidates.

Many often reach the EU in countries like Malta or Greece, where large numbers 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 in Grande-Synthe
A truck from a migrant aid association distributes sleeping bags and clothes in Grande-Synthe © Bruno Fert / FT

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

After Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the Dublin framework, which means that while the UK system is difficult and slow to navigate, they are currently unlikely to be sent back to mainland Europe. The fact that many of them speak English and have parents in the UK is also a big plus. The UK received 1,974 asylum claims from Afghan citizens in the year through September, representing 5% of all claims.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August, the United Kingdom promised to set up an Afghan citizen resettlement program to admit up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, at a rate of 5,000 per year over the next four years. However, CASI has still not been opened and no date has been given for it to do so.

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

A prominent member of the British Afghan community, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said: “We have to understand that we can expect people to come illegally if there is no has no legal avenues.

Kabuli is among those who opt for the underground route to the United Kingdom. “There is at least one place to sleep for us there, food for us there. . . until our asylum application is processed, ”he said. “Here,” he said, pointing to dozens of rain-crushed tents, “there is nothing.”


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