In a ditch near Rawand Aziz’s tent in northern France, a dead rat lies in the dirt. Outside the tent-flap, the rain has turned the ground into a churn of liquid mud. Inside, Aziz’s baby son Oscar coughs and cries. At night, the temperature can drop below freezing, so Oscar, like many of the 1,500 people living in this field, is constantly ill.
This is the tent city at Dunkirk, a spillover refugee camp 20 miles east of the bigger and better-known site at Calais. The routine is similar – just as in Calais people rush the trains to try to make it to Britain, here they aim for the ships. But the conditions are even worse . Not just worse than Calais, aid workers report, but also than camps in the middle of war zones.
It is not a place that anyone would come to by choice. But Aziz is not just anyone. If he wanted he could reach Dover tonight, perfectly legally. He rummages in his bags and plucks out a maroon booklet. It’s a British passport. “I’m British,” Aziz says, in an accent that blends a northern brogue with a Kurdish lilt.
“I became British. I know about the culture, the country, the law – everything about Britain.” David Cameron called people like Aziz “a bunch of migrants”, unwanted travellers camped here at the gateway to Britain. But the truth is often more complex, with many refugees at Dunkirk prioritising the UK over other parts of Europe because of family ties to the country.
Aziz is an extreme example of this complexity, one of at least two naturalised British citizens who have chosen to live in one of Europe’s only shanty towns because family members have been denied entry to the UK. The 35-year-old moved here to join his wife, Hataw, and son Oscar, since neither has been granted a British passport.
A few tents away, Saman Sharif, 31, is living with his wife, Shukry, and their four children. Both men are Iraqi Kurds who fled the oppression of Saddam Hussein before the 2003 war. They reached Britain via Calais, and were later granted asylum and then British citizenship.
Neither provide a shining example of a flawless integration system; after more than a decade each in the UK, neither speaks anything approaching perfect English, and Aziz never found permanent work. But their cases lay raw the arbitrary nature of UK border policy – which has forced two British nationals to camp in squalor in France so that they can live alongside their children.
For Aziz, the irony is particularly obvious – he gave Oscar an English name in homage to British values. He decided against an Islamic name in an attempt to distance himself from the Middle East. “I didn’t want my child to copy this life,” Aziz explains. “British name, British culture, British education – everything he gets is British. We are Muslims, but we are fed up with Muslims.”
Aziz remembers the moment he finally won British citizenship in 2009. “I [felt]: I am a human, I have somebody who supports me, and supports my life – I felt at that time I was safe.” Six years on, he adds, “it’s still the same emotion – but for my family, it’s different.” Hints of Britain are sprinkled almost tauntingly across the camp.
A poster of a Tom Hiddleston film is an incongruous addition to a nearby tent. The main dirt track has been named Queen Elizabeth II Street. Someone’s daubed Liverpool FC’s anthem over one of the few walls in the tent city: You’ll Never Walk Alone. The irony is that for the residents of the camp, the reverse is true. They are on their own – never more so than when the Aziz family arrived at the camp in the pouring rain last October.
They had been walking for miles, and by the time they arrived, Oscar seemed to have stopped breathing, Aziz says. Doctors revived him, but Aziz lives in fear of a repeat. “He’s very ill. If we don’t arrive in the UK, probably I’ll lose my child,” he says. “The condition is very freezing, very cold. He’s not strong enough for that situation.” This is the latest challenge in Aziz’s quest for a stable British life.
When he himself first arrived in Britain, his asylum application was initially rejected. He eventually won an appeal in 2007, but life was never easy. He says he studied English and maths at college in Salford, but never found permanent work. He did odd jobs as a cleaner, and worked for a cleaning agency, earning £4 an hour. But stability was hard to come by.
Aziz was granted citizenship in 2009 – a second birth, he says – but when life in Iraqi Kurdistan calmed down, he returned home after a decade away. There he met Hataw, 27, and joined the peshmerga’s fight against Islamic State. By a quirk of fate, he was part of a peshmerga delegation that received British defence minister Michael Fallon in 2015, and an online video shows him briefly at Fallon’s shoulder.
But then, he says, his family was threatened by militants, leading him to look for an exit strategy. Flying to England was not an option – Aziz does not earn enough for his spouse to qualify for a visa. So last autumn he took Hataw and Oscar to Turkey instead. From there, they sailed to the Greek islands, and made their way to this camp in northern France.
They’re still a long way from safety; this week a gunfight between alleged smugglers created a sense of deja vu for those campers who have fled from war. Saman Sharif’s story is also complex, another reminder that the refugee crisis often defies easy explanations. He also fled Hussein’s Iraq, but unlike Aziz, he says he gained asylum in Britain within weeks in 2002.
Since Sharif was already married, he would leave Britain every so often, flying to the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran to meet his wife and growing number of children in a safer third country. He lived in Birmingham, and worked for eight years in a food factory in Evesham – but his English is still halting. One friend in Birmingham remembers him as a hard worker.
“I have known Sharif for many years and he is just trying to make a better life for his family,” the friend said. “We always see him for only little time because he is working or going to France. We hope that something good will happen for him soon.” Sharif won citizenship in 2007 – and ever since he has tried time and again to bring his family to Britain.
But like Aziz, his earnings as a manual labourer are too low to allow him to bring them legally. “Fourteen years I’ve been trying,” Sharif sighs. “There’s no chance – 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013 – four times I’ve applied to bring my wife … But no chance.” Unlike Aziz, Sharif says he had no inkling that his family was coming to Europe.
Living in Kirkuk, in southern Kurdistan, Shukry Sharif had feared that Isis might eventually take the city. So she and the children left in secret without telling Sharif, arriving in Germany last autumn. Sharif joined his family at Dunkirk, where the campers are predominantly Kurdish, and commutes between Britain and France so that he can look for work.
But the chaotic nature of his split life means that he can’t hold down a job and is running out of savings. “It’s not good for me,” Sharif says. Sometimes I’m here, sometimes I’m in the UK, so I can’t work. Now I have to get my family to send me money from Iraq.”
The plight of the Aziz and Sharif families has drawn the attention of Jeremy Corbyn, who is said to have promised to look into their cases during a visit to Dunkirk last week. Britain’s Refugee Council has also condemned their situation, and advised the families to apply for asylum in France and then request a transfer to the UK.
Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council’s head of advocacy, said: “It’s utterly appalling to hear that the families of British citizens who are fleeing the murderous advance of Isis are being prevented from coming to live in safety with their husbands here in Britain. “The British government must ensure that refugees with loved ones in Britain are able to travel safely and legally to join them, rather than leaving them to dice with death on the Mediterranean Sea and then languish in despair in Dunkirk.”
Attempting to escape that despair, Hataw Aziz and Shukry Sharif often take their youngest children for a walk around Dunkirk in a pair of donated buggies. With a row of suburban French houses lying just beyond the camp entrance, Citroëns in the driveway, the two women could be a pair of French residents off on an afternoon stroll.
But then their prams begin to jam, offering a reminder of their predicament. Still inside the dirt of the camp, the wheels have got stuck in the mud.
by Patrick Kingsley and John Domokos