Like hundreds of other migrants in the French port city of Calais, Mohammad and Jaber spend every day looking for trucks to climb onto in the hopes of making it to the UK.
If they are successful and manage to latch on the moving truck between the front cabin and the cargo, the vehicle and its unsuspected passenger will disappear down a French highway, toward the undersea train to Britain.
Mohammad and Jaber are young Sudanese refugees who escaped war in their country, horror in Libya and crossed the deadly Mediterranean to Italy. They are now in the northern French town of Calais, like hundreds of other people mostly from Eastern Africa and the Middle East looking for a way to the UK. These young men are trying to traverse the heavily policed tunnel linking the two countries by hiding on a truck.
Anti-migrant rhetoric on both sides of the Channel
Politicians on both sides of the Channel are arguing about how to deter 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 pay to go on flimsy, overcrowded boats, in often dangerous waters, the ones who can’t have to jump on one of the tens of thousands of commercial trucks that pass each week between France and the UK through the tunnel.
According to refugee advocacy groups, most of the migrants in Calais were unsuccessful going 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 lax British rules toward migrants without residency papers.
Only young, fit and solitary migrants can dare the truck-jumping. It’s a team effort.
On a cold autumn day in Calais last week, five young men were crouched on a muddy construction site, chit-chatting with an eye out. They were posted by a roundabout that trucks go around after exiting their warehouse.
One of the young men’s friends was hidden under a makeshift hideout directly by the road, while the others were posted a dozen yards away, behind mud piles, looking at the warehouse exit. When a promising truck came out, the ones behind the piles screamed to the hidden one to jump in.
There’s a code to which truck they should jump on. “We tell them number one, no, number two, no, number three, yes!,” Mohammad told AP news agency. He only gave his first name, out of fear of arrest or expulsion for trying to cross borders illegally.
The truck drivers are used to the jumps. They check that no one enters their truck, honk at them or stop to tell them they are not going to the UK, that there is no point in climbing their truck. The police patrols come often too, alarms blaring, to deter the men.
Challenges and dangers along the way
Between the patrols and wary truck drivers, most jumpers fail. But some succeed to get on unnoticed. Mohammad managed twice but had to get off. Once on, the jumpers start feeling the truck go straight or take left or right turn: only one sequence of left and right turns will lead them to the promised land across the Channel. If the combination is the wrong one, they get off and start all over again.
And if the combination is right, more challenges await them. Police technology at the Channel tunnel scans trucks for heat signatures and moving shadows. If they are found out, they are forced out of the trucks by police.
Some get in serious danger: refugee advocacy groups and rights observers report receiving calls for help from migrants in refrigerated trucks saying they are asphyxiating or about to die from hypothermia. Some report police violence to those organisations during their expulsions from trucks.
The men injure themselves, sometimes break limbs. In late September, 20-year-old Yasser Abdallah died crushed by a truck while jumping.
Abdallah, too, had fled Sudan. He dreamed of being a taxi driver in the UK. The Calais migrant community grieved him, and a week later, more than 300 came out to march in his memory, according to French newspaper Libération.
In a written appeal to truck drivers, the marchers asked: “When you notice a refugee in the truck, you shake the truck and brake again and again until we let go. Why can’t we continue our travel?”
The truck jumpers grieved, but the idea of giving up does not cross their minds. They see no other choice.
At night, they sleep in one of the small forests around Calais, if they are lucky in a tent, most probably under a tree. They wake up in the morning, pack up and leave the forest. Then wait for the daily police raid: anything left behind or not caught in time will probably get destroyed or trashed by police.
According to local NGO Human Rights Observers, some get arrested, tear-gassed, their belongings confiscated. They resettle, have breakfast, go to the roundabout, scout for a truck, get lunch, get back to the roundabout for a truck, have dinner, maybe scout trucks at night time, sleep.
Some pray in between; food and water are sometimes provided by aid groups, but most go days if not weeks without access to showers.
Successes vary. Everyone wants out of living barely in the forest, and spending days gambling on the right truck. They estimate two to three a day succeed.
Ahmad, a 28-year-old, Sudanese truck jumper who left his country in 2018 because of the war, showed the AP a TikTok video dated one day after Yasser died, from the account of someone who made it across. On the video, a man runs by a white and blue truck on the roundabout, reaches the level between the cargo and the cabin, grabs something and squeezes in. In the comments, the friends ask where the lucky ones who made it are.
The video is overlaid with Arabic text, an unmistakable, red and blue Union Jack and two letters from the Roman alphabet: “UK.”