A tale of migration to the “free world”

This piece describes a generic journey that (mostly) young males from Afghanistan & NW Pakistan experience on their way to claiming asylum in the EU, and invariably Britain. The details of this blog piece have been taken from second-hand, research, listening to the stories that migrants in Calais have told me, as well as my own first-hand experience.




“The Free World” – a favourite phrase of the Western elite, nearly always said in juxtaposed reference to places like Afghanistan. This well worn narrative goes that people apparently subservient to the “barbaric” and “backward” Islamic cultures of Asia need “modernizing” “liberating” and the people given the “freedom” they so crave, with simply only one model of the world apt enough for the job. The West of course has regarded itself the end point of the human developmental trajectory for centuries, particularly since the age of discovery in the 15/16th century, when explorers first discovered the mass variety of human cultures in the far flung corners of the globe, that to their eyes were clearly inferior, which provided impetus for social Darwinism in the late 19th Century, un-coincidentally, as Europe was amidst its grand colonizing project.

How ironic then that it is Afghans, who have been at the forefront of “post-colonial” foreign imperialism in the forms of Russian and Western grand modernization plans since the 1970s, that are probably spearheading the experience of thoroughly undignified inhumane rough living within the EU at the beginning of the 21st Century. Since the 1990s, significant numbers of Afghans have been traversing the EU in search of a safe haven from a seemingly perpetual state of war. The EU is currently the focus of several different migratory routes from Africa, but the flow from the Asian East is now currently almost monopolized by Hazara, Tajik, and particularly Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan and the NW frontier provinces in Pakistan.

The journey they face is little short of a hideous crime and should bluntly rip through our moral conscience. This blog piece tries to describe a generic journey from Afghanistan and NW Pakistan to Britain through the EU – a place that is constructed by NATO as a model for civilized society. The evidence for this blog is based on my time spent working and talking with migrants in Calais, and should therefore before regarded as just a snap shot of some of the stories that are forged along this truly treacherous path.

During the age of discovery Western explorers left their lands on extraordinary journeys and travelled far and wide before reporting back on their discoveries, often, but not always, describing with a cultural sense of dismay and disgust. The following blog piece may just offer a small idea of the contents of an Afghan travelogue to the land of his’ or her’s “liberators” in 2009.


I will start however with just a quick history of Afghanistan to highlight the horrors that these refugees have been through before they have even left their homes, and to provide some context and reasoning for the numbers arriving in the EU.

01 afghanistan


Afghanistan has of course only been a geographically definable place since 1919 when it achieved independence from a period of British intervention, and today it is fair to say that largely there is still no such thing as an Afghan, as like with a lot of colonial nation state building, lines are drawn around culturally and linguistically diverse groups that have been created historically through harsh deserts and rugged mountain landscapes that disable easy, regular communication that would otherwise erode such wide cultural distinctions. As such, Afghanistan contains Tajiks, Uzbeks, Aikmans, Turkmen, Hazara, and Pashtuns, but these groups spread across all the neighboring regions of the central “stans”, including Pashtuns who spread into NW Pakistan territory, following their division under the Durrand line drawn by British rule in India in 1893.

Following a series of early coups, the period between 1933 to 1973 was relatively stable and Afghanistan became one of the premier highlights along the beaten overland ‘hippy trail’ between Istanbul and Kathmandu for 20th century western backpackers. In 1973 however, Afghanistan became a republic following a bloodless coup, but the president, Mohammed Damond Khan came immediately under attack from the communist leaning People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan who gained power in 1978, to the displeasure of the conservative Islamic rural regions. The coup occurred during a period when the wider region was rapidly becoming the focal point of US foreign policy – with the Iranian revolution and the Egyptian/Israeli peace agreement – and as such Afghanistan became seen as a key battle in the cold war. Concerned at the swing to the left in Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter – the then US president – started covertly funding those rural conservative clans which were already organizing limited armed resistance against the new communist regime. While these clans were disparate, during the cold war they faced what they believed as a common enemy, and collectively became known as the Mujahdeen.

soviert real

Soviet troops in Afghanistan

As expected,in response, 100,000 soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1987 after a request to occupy, pacify and solidify communist rule in Afghanistan. However, determined guerilla warfare launched primarily by the Mujaheedeen – under financial backing from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, Egypt, the UK and of course the US – led to a full withdrawal of the then crumbling Soviet empire between 1987 and 1989. In the decade long bitter conflict an estimated 1 million Afghans were killed, 5 million fled to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, and another 2 million became internally displaced peoples.

09 afghan refugees 2

Afghan Refugees in the 90s

The human catastrophe in Afghanistan was of course far from over. As soon as the soviet forces withdrew, the Mujahedeen pushed forward to overthrow the regime, achieving that goal in April 1992. At the end of this second civil war, Afghanistan lay in ruins, with the economy completely dependent on Soviet aid, which was rapidly beginning to dry up.

The third civil war from 1992-1996 was first a violent strugg

06 kabul war

Kabul in ruins

le between the disparate Mujahedden war lording factions which no longer were united against a common enemy, so turned on each other in a struggle for power. In 1994, fed up with corrupt power hungry squabbling war lords, a new movement came into fruition in the South of Afghanistan thanks to financial help from elements operating in Pakistan. This new movement called “The Taliban” (the students); forged on a brand of radical Sunnni Islam; it took control of Kabul in September 1996 and instigating their strict code of controversial sharia law over Afghanistan.

05 taliban

The Taliban

Following the Taliban rise to power, the fourth civil war was engaged almost immediately following the birth of the Northern Alliance who were to attempt to rid Afghanistan of the radical Islamic rule of the Taliban, and to bring power to the ethnic groups in the North. They were however largely unsuccessful (until the US arrived), only igniting the Taliban to brutally ravage their territories, pushing many into neighboring countries.

04 americans

Americans & Co arrive

Five years later, on September 11th 2001, two airplanes crashed into the twin towers, and the Bush & Blair’s War of Terror was born. The first target was Afghanistan with objectives to destroy the al-Qaeda network, find Bin-laden and to overthrow the Taliban regime that was apparently harbouring al-Qaeda terrorist training camps. This initial operation had a classically ironic name – “Operation Enduring Freedom” and took little over a month for the Northern Alliance, NATO and the US to capture Kabul on 13th November 2001.

10 afghan women

Just one of the many dead

Since then Afghanistan has been subjected to western attempts at national state building; bringing “democracy”, “prosperity” and “human rights” to the Afghan people. The bloodshed continues with thousands of civilians and foreign troops being killed every year as the coalition forces struggle to contain the spread of the Taliban insurgency which has now spread into Pakistan, bringing horrific violence to Waziristan and the Swat valley, as the Pakistan government and the US lay siege to mountain villages, while the Taliban murder those who do not join in their fight.

As a result hapless civilians, primarily Pashtuns are in a no-win situation, and are forced to seek sanctuary in another land – the land which they have heard is the land of peace, prosperity, human rights and freedom.


11 euroasiamap

The route to safety is a long trecherous and indefinate path

The decision to leave these Pashtun areas is not taken lightly. If leaving your family and community behind to perhaps never see them ever again is not hard enough, then also consider the dear financial costs. I have been told varying figures from a numerous refugees in Calais and England, but depending on the length and route of the journey, on average refugees are paying around £10,000 to complete the journey to England. To raise this amount of money family homes and land are sold in anticipation that one day remittances can be sent back, or loans are taken en route from people smuggling agents in their home land by their families and forwarded on. Debt is then accumulated as the journey goes on, and what must be stressed and kept in mind is that the journey is originally unimaginable in terms of length and difficulty, and as such the level of debt is not foreseen. Being massively in debt then puts further necessity on refugees establishing themselves in the EU with a job, as failure to pay will not be forgotten and unfortunately the age old adage “we know where you live” applies.

This money is raised because people do not have passports to travel “legally” to EU countries such as Britain to claim asylum. The absurdity is that the British government says that “genuine” asylum seekers can claim asylum in Britain, but to do so they have to be in Britain, which is not only illegal, unless you have a passport and legitimate visa, which they are not allowed to have, but the British government actively tries to stop them getting in, making their journey even more risky and costly. So Pashtun refugees are forced to make the following horrendous journey because of their “illegal” status, and it is people smugglers who are the recipients of the cash and the primary means of facilitating their dreams of a safe place to live.

12 lorry migration

Inside and underneath the truck is the way in

People smugglers will either fix up or find trucks to take refugees through countries or across borders, or smugglers will provide boats, or other forms of help such as closing lorry doors. The most common way to get from Afghanistan all the way across to Western Europe (over 3,500km as the crow flies) is by hiding underneath lorries, clinging on the underside and balancing on the wheel fixings. On this Asian route, boats are also frequently used on the Turkish – Greek crossing despite the fact that nearly all migrants can’t swim and the boats are always incredibly cheap,

13 migrant boat

Stuffed boats from Northern African shores

flimsy and rammed full, and of course they always travel at night by being simply pointed in the general direction and left to their own divisive (African boats leaving North African shores frequently have fatal consequences for all those on board). Walking is also unfortunately not an uncommon method of transport – many refugees have told me they walked from Italy into France, over the Alps, leaving in groups, brushing the boundaries of hypothermia; some even being left behind en route.

12 Deaths in Europe

Graphic showing the number of migrant deaths http://www.unitedagainstracism.org/images/mapFortressEuropeEng.png

It should be clearly stated that the age range making the following journey is enormous. Toddlers have been found making this trip with their mother and father, and it is certainly not uncommon to see young boys around 12 years old making this journey alone or with fellow brothers. The most common age found among Pashtun and Afghan refugees is however probably about 16 to 20.

Copy of 14 migrant bus greece

Young children stuffed into migrant buses following release from Greek detention


As far as I know, the first couple of countries – Iran and Turkey – are not particularly tricky to get smuggled through – a discreet transfer of monetary value seems to do the trick.  However, over the past few years increasingly violent attacks on Afghan refugees in rural Turkey have been occurring, as word is spreading that those walking through could have pockets full of cash to pay smugglers.

After Turkey, the next stop is the European Union – otherwise known as “Fortress Europe”, and the first port of call is Greece. Some get smuggled in on or underneath trucks; others will take flimsy boats that only sail at night from Turkey, which are crammed full of women, men and children to the Island of Lesvos.

15 petras

13 year long migrant camp in Patra

If you’re lucky your will get smuggled right through Greece, if your unlucky…well, then you won’t. Welcome to Greece. You will either reside in a pretty squalor secret migrant camps in port cities like Patra, where you face a fascist police force. One refugee, in a recent Guardian film showed a mug shot of himself with a black eye and broken nose after the Greek police paid him a visit [1]. Alternatively, or most likely, in addition, you will end up

14 lesvos

Pagani detention centre on Lesvos

in a Greek migrant concentration camp such as Pagani centre on the Island of Lesvos. No borders activists in Greece have revealed numbers of up to 150, including women and children, stuffed into a single prison room, with people hanging out of the bars for fresh air, with little access to clean water and sanitary facilities [2]. Conditions are so bad that children will go on hunger strike, riot and burn mattresses. However, at the end of October 2009 the Greek authorities announced the indefinite closure of Pangani, and while refugees will be simply taken to other detention centre, this is a

14 revolt

One of the many migrant revolts at Pagani

small victory for human rights activists and migrant revolt. In July of this year the Greek authorities set a president in the EU by removing the 13 year long migrant camp in the port city of Patra, causing hundreds of migrants to riot in the streets, which was then copied by the French in Calais in September 2009 [3].

Greece is such a hell hole that some refugees have told me in Calais that they would rather get deported back to their respective war zone, than Greece. The reason refugees keep being deported back to Greece is two-fold: (1) The Dublin Convention states that refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country they arrived in; (2) The same convention created the Eurodac identity system, whereby refugees have their finger prints stored on a centralized database, which, when being picked up by the police in the EU, it registers that person as present in a particular country. For refugees from Afgh


Migrants riot in patra after their camp was flattened

anistan and NW Pakistan, Greece is nearly always the first EU country they arrive in, but Greece has a very simple policy of a next to 0% asylum rate and brutal repression, forcing refugees further West. However, many refugees have finger prints in Greece and under Eurodac, other EU countries can then deport them back to Greece.

So, Greece is not the introduction to the EU that these refugees probably imagined, but, once released from prison they are given a 30 day people and told to leave. Rejected from Greece, refugees then head West towards Italy and sleep rough in the port city of Patra trying to get through the border. For those that get through, life in Italy is not made much easier, although it appears that for those who manage to get in, Italy seems to have a policy of beating you out of the country as soon as possible. Fascism, racism and violence is rife throughout the bonds of Italian society – a group of African migrants were massacred in Southern Italy earlier this year and I have met one Iranian migrant in Calais who has a deep scare across the side of his face where is was a slashed with a knife.

Then they arrive in France. There is a quick stop in a park in Paris, known as ‘little kabul’, before onto Calais. From 1999 until 2002, when the first mass waves of over land refugees were arriving in Calais from Afghanistan, the Red Cross ran a humanitarian centre in Sangatte which provided basic shelter and hot food. In 2002, under pressure from the British government that believed that Sangatte was creating a magnetic pull for ‘illegal immigration’ into Britain, Nicholas Sarkozy, the then interior minister, ordered the closure of Sangatte and its subsequent demolition, citing reasons of “national embarrassment” of the sites existence. Of course, refugees kept coming, as having a camp bed and some hot food in a Calais warehouse is surprisingly not very high up the list of reasons why refugees and migrants from Africa, Middle East and Central Asia risk their lives to come.

30 uk border agency

UK Border agency

Calais is a small town in North Eastern France and is the principle border crossing between Britain and mainland Europe. Britain did not sign the Shengen agreement however, so people cannot pass freely, but instead come up against what is probably the most heavily policed border in the EU. Since the crushing of Sangatte a series of financial deals have been struck between the French and the British to strengthen the border, and as a result the number of asylum seekers managing to get into Britain has plummeted.

This, combined with the closure of humanitarian provisions, has created a humanitarian crisis in Calais. Before September 22nd there were at least 8 squalor refugee camps – known as “jungles” – and squats in and around Calais, each one of which were home to a specific ethinic, nationality or language group. The numbers in Calais naturally fluctuate but over the past few years there have consistently been around 300-500 refugees in Calais at given time, from Eretrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Lybia, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, but around 80% tend to be from Afghanistan or North West Pakistan.

18 arial jungle

Pashtun "jungle" in Calais

House in the "jungle"

A house in the "jungle"

“Jungles” consist of scrub land with small modest homes built from discarded or donated wood, plastic, carpet, cardboard and metal. Although most of homes tended to be waterproof, the sanitary conditions were appalling and the municipal council in Calais refused to collect any of their household waste, leaving it to pile up for the rats to consume. The largest “jungle” was the Pashtun “jungle” which was home to about 80% of the refugees in Calais at any given time; it was riddled with scabies, and only had one single ground well water pipe for the several hundred inhabitants.

25 dinner queue

Evening dinner queue provided by Salam association in Calais

35 hospitalised

Hospitalised by the police

However, although the living conditions in Calais were seriously degrading, and the lunch and dinner handout provided by a couple of local French charities tends to be quite meager, the refugees’s biggest concern in Calais is their treatment at the hands of the police. There are quite a lot of police in Calais and in the evening and very early morning the CRS elite forces drive around in vans harassing the migrants in their camps and squats, in the local park, under bridges and on the streets. The level of repression is shocking and has reached inhumane proportions. Refugees complain that their mobile phones get taken or smashed, that tear gas has been put in their drinking water, that they get woken up very early in the morning by the police spraying tear gas into their homes before photographing them and hitting anyone who does not comply. The CRS will come and knock down some of their homes and then walk off, or they may arrive and steel their blankets, sleeping bags, clothes and food [4].

The police constantly arrest refugees for not having the correct documentation and raid squats and camps nightly, but the arrests are deployed principally as a tactic to grind refugees down. On one occasion, for 5 nights in a row the CRS arrested all the Iranian migrants from under the bridges in Calais, only to take them to a police station 3 kilometers out of town, before telling them to walk back. In short, all the refugees in Calais fear and despise the police throughout the EU. It is a simple policy of making their lives miserable so they eventually give up, return home and report back on their miserable time in the EU.





56 bulldozer arial

Pashtun homes flattened

This was the situation in Calais before 22nd September. Things have now however changed for the worse, as from late september, through into the first couple of weeks in October, the French authorities proceeded to destroy all but one of the refugee camps and squats in Calais. This was simply a PR stunt as the refugees do not disappear, but are simply homeless [5]. In Calais, the police are currently intent on not letting refugees build new jungles; and as such they constantly put knifes through or burn the plastic sheets or tents that are given to refugees, and have fences off some of the bridges which they used for just limited shelter.

31 men in flour tanker

Afghans found inside tanker full of flour

All the refugees in Calais are desperately trying to make it across the Anglo-Franco border. The most popular method of trying to get through the border is still in or underneath trucks, but waiting for them is a border regime of trained sniffer dogs, co2 probes, heat scanners, and a small army of people whose job it is, is to smash people’s dream of a better life and return them to a crushing life of misery. Other methods include boats, but migrants can rarely swim, or trains, which involve a 20minute 250km/ph journey beyond most people’s imagination, such is the level of danger. It is common to see people walking around Calais with broken ankles, wrists and arms having fallen from trucks, and reports of people suffocating inside trucks or getting mashed under trains are sadly to be found.

In short, the Anglo-Franco border, despite the claims to the contrary from the right-wing press, is one of the tightest in the world. Many refugees in Calais have been there for more than 8 months, trying a couple of times a week in some cases. Every time they are caught, processed and dumped back on the streets. It has become a degrading and demoralising ritual.

36 migrants burn fingers

Cigarete lighter used to try and remove finger prints

The big fear is still however being put in a detention centre and removed, usually not Afghanistan, but to one of the countries in which a particular refugee will have finger prints. Removal to Greece is frequent due to the number of refugees who have been there and been finger printed. On arrival in Greece the refugees simply start the same process again and start heading West. Refugees are so desperate not to get taken back, that some will use cigarette litters to try and burn off or disfigure their finger prints.

In Calais i have met people who are on their 5th trip to Calais, and i know a man from Eritrea who has been playing the Dublin Convention football game – which involves just being kicked around Europe, refused at each turn – for 7 years. This one particular individual was a complete mess; drinking heavily and every other word was “fuck”… “fuck France… fuck England… fuck Greece…fuck the police…. fuck everyone”

Does this sound like the “free world” to you?


[1] The link to the online guardian film is: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2009/aug/03/calais-jungle

[2] No Borders in Lesvos can be found at: http://lesvos09.antira.info/

[3] A personal account of the evictions and destruction in Calais can befound in my post: “Tear and fears: The Eviction of the Pashtun jungle”

[4] For documentation of police abuse of migrants in Calais, please see calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com

[5] Please see both of the blog piece on the desturction and the aftermath


~ by tep86 on November 14, 2009.

10 Responses to “A tale of migration to the “free world””

  1. Excellent work comrade with your permission i would like to translate this in Greek and present it to the Immigrants Shelter in Thessaloniki Greece. We work and participate in the Network for the protection of human rights and although happy is not the right word to use, we feel honored that you included videos of our activity (No border 09 Pagani). We wish we could be more supportive to your struggle in Calais but the logistics were against us being there and we were engaged in local activities too.Be sure that people here follow up your excellent efforts and take courage to continue supporting and sheltering the humans arriving in Europe.

    • Yes, of course! I am honoured that you would like to do this! Thank you. Your work in Greece is fantastically important, and your website for lesvos is very information. I remember now that i forgot to put a link to it on my blog, i will do that now.

      If you find any of the information in this blog piece incorrect, or your know of extra information, then please let me know.

      Thank you for your work down in Greece, one day i will see you down there!

  2. great work you did! thanks
    only two small things to correct:
    1.change the word petras(13 yera long camp) with PATRA so that people know wher it is.
    2.the picture with the kids in the buas is when they got freed from pagani.driving to the harbour of mitilini.

  3. This was such an excellent post that we linked to it on our blog:


    We have a question, however. Where can we see the full-size version of the map (of migrant deaths and causes of death) that you have inserted (above)? It’s hard to make anything out.

  4. […] https://newleftglobaljustice.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/a-tale-of-migration-to-the-free-world/ […]

  5. wow, this is a great write up thanks! i feel for these folks because i had similar yet so different experiences getting out of the crazy u.s. i left the u.s. because as a arab/muslim born there i caught hell!!, fbi/homeland security called me a bunch of times trying to question me(about people i’m associated with , my past travels,etc, i refused to talk to them. i got evicted from 2 homes because of their visits, they terrorized my friends, neighbors, my roommate(who was so scared he left his job and our city), my brother, my boss, my landlords(who evicted me in response). the fbi told my lawyer (who is a friend so no $, thank god) that if i continue to refuse to talk to them they will “deal with me by other means”. when i got arrested (years before this drama) for 7 days, they did not let me sleep for 7 days, burnt my eye and wrists with cigarettes, pulled out bits of hair, cut me with a razor and put salt on the cut, the cell was cold as hell.etc. i am sooo glad to be out of the u.s.a!!

  6. i did a whole write up about it all in detail. let me know if you want me to send it to you and how i should send it.

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