Like hundreds of other migrants in the French port city of Calais, Mohammad and Jaber spend every day looking for trucks to hop on in hopes of reaching the UK.
If they are successful and manage to latch onto the moving truck between the front cabin and the cargo, the vehicle and its unsuspected passenger will disappear down a French road, towards the submarine train to Great Britain.
Mohammad and Jaber are young Sudanese refugees who escaped the war in their country, the horror in Libya and crossed the deadly Mediterranean into Italy. They are now in the northern French city of Calais like hundreds of other people, mostly from East Africa and the Middle East, looking for a way to the UK. These young people are trying to get through the heavily guarded tunnel that links the two countries by hiding in a truck.
Anti-migrant rhetoric on both sides of the Canal
Politicians on both sides of the Channel are arguing over how to dissuade them after thousands of people crossed into Britain in recent months and sharpened anti-immigrant rhetoric. Many of the migrants’ attempts fail, but they have come so far that they are not giving up now.
While those with some money can afford to travel on flimsy and crowded boats, in often dangerous waters, those who cannot have to hop on one of the thousands of commercial trucks that pass each week between France and the UK via of the tunnel.
According to refugee advocacy groups, the majority of migrants in Calais either failed to pass through the European refugee application system, or want to reach the UK for language reasons or because of family and community ties. French authorities say another big draw is the lax British rules towards immigrants without residency papers.
Only young, fit and lonely migrants can dare to jump on the truck. It is a team effort.
On a cold autumn day in Calais last week, five young men were crouched on a muddy construction site, chatting with their eyes open. They were placed next to a roundabout where trucks circulate after leaving their warehouse.
One of the youths’ friends was hiding under a makeshift hiding place by the road, while the others were posted a dozen meters away, behind piles of mud, facing the warehouse exit. When a promising truck came out, those behind the piles yelled at the man in hiding to jump.
There is a code on the truck that they must get on. “We tell them number one, no, number two, no, number three, yes!” Mohammad told the AP news agency. He only gave his first name, for fear of being arrested or expelled for trying to cross the borders illegally.
Truckers are used to jumps. They check that no one gets into their truck, they honk at them or stop to tell them that they are not going to the UK, that there is no point getting into their truck. Police patrols also often come, with the alarms blaring, to deter men.
Challenges and dangers along the way
Among patrol cars and cautious truck drivers, most jumpers fail. But some manage to go unnoticed. Mohammad succeeded twice but had to get off. Once inside, the paratroopers begin to feel that the truck is going straight or turning left or right: only a sequence of left and right turns will take them to the promised land on the other side of the Canal. If the combination is wrong, they get off and start over.
And if the combination is right, more challenges await. Police technology in the Channel Tunnel scans trucks for signs of heat and moving shadows. If they are discovered, the police force them to get out of the trucks.
Some are in grave danger: Refugee advocacy groups and rights watchers report receiving calls for help from migrants in refrigerated trucks saying they are suffocating or about to die of hypothermia. Some report police violence to these organizations during their truck evictions.
Men hurt themselves, sometimes limbs break. At the end of September, 20-year-old Yasser Abdallah was crushed by a truck while jumping.
Abdallah had also fled Sudan. I dreamed of being a taxi driver in the UK. The migrant community of Calais grieved him and a week later, more than 300 marched in his memory, according to the French daily Libération.
In a written appeal to the truckers, the protesters asked: “When they see a refugee in the truck, they shake the truck and brake over and over until we let go. Why can’t we continue our journey?”
The truck jumpers grieved, but the idea of surrender did not cross their minds. They see no other option.
At night they sleep in one of the small woods around Calais, if they are lucky in a tent, probably under a tree. They wake up in the morning, pack up and leave the forest. Then wait for the daily police raid – anything that is left behind or not caught in time will likely be destroyed or destroyed by the police.
According to the local NGO Human Rights Observers, some are arrested, tear gassed and their belongings confiscated. They relocate, have breakfast, go to the roundabout, look for a truck, have lunch, return to the roundabout to find a truck, have dinner, maybe explore trucks at night, sleep.
Some pray in the middle; Sometimes aid groups provide food and water, but most go days, if not weeks, without access to showers.
Successes vary. Everyone wants to stop living just in the forest and spend days gambling in the right truck. They estimate that two to three a day are successful.
Ahmad, a 28-year-old Sudanese truck jumper who left his country in 2018 due to the war, showed the AP a TikTok video dated a day after Yasser’s death, of the account of someone who managed to cross. In the video, a man walks past a white and blue van in the roundabout, reaches the level between the cargo and the cab, grabs something, and squeezes himself. In the comments, friends ask where are the lucky ones who made it.
The video is overlaid with Arabic text, an unmistakable red and blue Union Jack flag, and two letters of the Roman alphabet: “United Kingdom.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism