World

How one Iraqi migrant achieved his 'dream' of reaching England: Margaret Evans

Musadaq Aladban's journey is not unusual, but the fact that the Iraqi migrant ended up in Liverpool, England is a testament to sheer determination, Margaret Evans reports.

Iraqi migrant hid on a vegetable truck travelling from Calais, France to England

Musadaq Aladban was born in the Iraqi city of Basra, and after deciding to flee the war-torn region, paid smugglers to take him by boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. He eventually made it to the French port city of Calais and is now in Liverpool, England. (Musadeq Aladban)

"It was like… the sound of life, of the future. It was amazing."

That's how Musadaq Aladban describes hearing the Eurotunnel train carrying the vegetable truck he was hiding on start to move away from the main terminal at Coquelles near Calais, France, bound for England.

Earlier in the day, the 24-year-old from Iraq had clambered aboard the truck with about eight other residents of the makeshift migrant camps collectively known as "The Jungle" in and around Calais.

They'd broken the seal on the cold storage truck to do it.

The driver heard them and called French police to the scene. Trucking firms or drivers are fined £2,000 per person by the British government for any stowaways, so drivers want to make sure they are thoroughly checked.

The police arrived with sniffer dogs and pulled five of the migrants off the truck. But Aladban and two others were hidden so far in the back — having wedged themselves in small spaces behind the boxes — that they went undetected.

"We could not even speak to each other because we were afraid [that] security will hear us," Aladban explains. "We decided to keep calm and breathe, like easily and softly, and after that, the truck got on the train. And when [the train] moved, we were screaming and we hugged each other and cried a lot."

Migrants walk near a road after leaving their hiding spot at the Eurotunnel site in Calais in northern France. From here, many migrants try to stow away on trucks in the hopes of crossing the English Channel into the U.K. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

They knew they'd actually made it all the way to the United Kingdom when their mobile phones sprang back to life, the GPS showing them past Dover.

They didn't start pounding on the door to alert the driver to their presence until they got north of London.

The driver stopped at a gas station and called the police. When they showed up, Aladban and his fellow stowaways said they wanted to make asylum claims, and they were taken into custody, where Aladban says they felt safe and were treated very well.

Sheer determination

Aladban's journey is not unusual, but it demonstrates the sheer determination of many of the migrants trying to make their way north to England after reaching European shores.

Musadaq Aladban took this selfie, which also depicts two police officers, while he was trying to find a truck to stow away on in Calais, France. (Musadaq Aladban)

I first met Aladban in Calais in June, when he was still trying every day and every night to find a truck to stow away on. Prior to his successful journey to the U.K., he reckons he'd made 50 attempts.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 asylum seekers and economic migrants living rough in and around the French port town, hoping to make it across the Channel to England.

Just about every one of the world's trouble spots is represented in the camp, from Eritrea to Afghanistan, Sudan to Syria.

The migrants are dependent on local charities for the most basic of services, the French government not wanting to offer any inducements for them to stay.

No "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" here. 

Britain's response has been to start building higher fences around the ports and the Eurotunnel, as well as bringing in more sniffer dogs.

The U.K. government, stung by France's criticism that Britain is a soft touch for economic migrants, also plans to start fining, or even jailing, British landlords who fail to detect and evict illegal immigrants.

Both governments have managed to render the residents of the camp faceless, making statements about the annoyance they present to holiday makers and the economic interests of the cross channel services, while saying little about the ills many in the camp face in the countries they've left behind.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to migrants crossing the Mediterranean as a "swarm" of people trying to come to the U.K. because it offers a good standard of living.

'I want to reach freedom'

For his part, Aladban says he isn't looking for a handout — just a chance at life.

"I want to reach freedom," he told me back in Calais, standing near the church steps where he'd been sleeping each night along with a group of Syrians.

"I guess in Britain there is a lot of freedom there. It's one of the cool countries. It has open-minded government there."

When I met Aladban again on Aug. 6, it was in Liverpool, arguably one of the coolest cities in the U.K., with its connection to the Beatles and a new Tate Liverpool museum along the Mersey River. It's also a major processing hub for asylum claimants.

Aladban has made an official asylum claim and is awaiting the next step in his application process. We took a riverside stroll, a hard sun glinting off the typically English bunting strung along the walkway.

Europe is seeing a surge in migrants fleeing hunger and war in Africa and the Middle East, after over 600,000 people sought refuge in the EU last year. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Aladban is being given accommodation by the British government, which contracts out to a private company called Serco to find housing for asylum claimants. He is entitled to that, as well as £5 a day, as long as his claim is active.

He looked thinner than he had in Calais, if that's possible. But compared to what he'd just come through, he said, this was a "dream."

Aladban was born in the Iraqi city of Basra, but says he grew up in Karbala. To get to where he is now, he paid smugglers to take him by boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, the same island in the news these days because hundreds of mainly Syrian refugees arrive there every day.

He then went through Macedonia on foot, he says, drinking river water and eating "almost from the ground" to survive. Once past Hungary, he made his way to Calais and onto the vegetable truck that would bring him here.

"It changed me a lot," he says of the journey. "I'm more responsible, more confident … it gave me extra things that I hadn't [had] at the time there in my country."

But the ground is shifting in the U.K., in part because of the often chaotic scenes at Calais. Anti-immigrant groups have seized upon them here, as they have elsewhere in the European Union, urging a harder line.

'It's going to get worse'

Wole Ajagbe, who works at a Liverpool charity called Asylum Link, says things have been getting harder for asylum seekers in the U.K. since 2010.

And he predicts "that it's going to get worse because of continued change in the policies of the government," he says.

Although on the rise in recent years, the number of asylum seekers in Britain is actually less than it was a decade ago, according to figures from the U.K.'s Home Office.

But the impression that the country is being overrun by illegal immigrants and refugee claimants continues to dominate the media and the public imagination.

Musadaq Aladban is now preparing to begin yet another journey, entering the bureaucratic maze that will ultimately decide whether he meets the U.K.'s criteria for an asylum seeker.

For now, his view is one of unrelenting optimism. He doesn't have a bad word to say about his hosts, and refuses even to judge those who are actively campaigning to keep people like him out of the country.

He says they don't understand why anyone would want to leave their native country, and that Brits assume that every place is as safe as the U.K.

"I don't blame such people," he says.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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