Britain! After years trekking through countless countries, weeks in a filthy camp on the French coast, seven gruelling hours on a small boat tossed about by the Channel, Walid has finally made it.
He's managed to cross the so-called death route. His friend Falah, though, is still waiting.
For three weeks, two AFP teams followed Walid, a Kuwaiti, Falah, an Iraqi and his two daughters, nine-year-old Arwa and 13-year-old Rawane, who is severely diabetic, from the town of Grande-Synthe in northern France to Dover in the south of England via the choppy waters of the Channel.
Just 33 kilometers separate the French coast from the white cliffs of Dover, visible on a clear day, but the crossing is one of the world's busiest—and most dangerous.
Still, more and more people are attempting the risky passage.
Between January 1 and August 31, at least 6,200 migrants tried their luck, according to French maritime authorities.
In the whole of 2019, some 2,294 migrants attempted to cross.
Those who have a bit more cash get an inflatable dinghy. Those who don't resort to paddleboards, kayaks or a simple rubber ring.
In August, a 28-year-old drowned while trying to cross on an inflatable dinghy. Last year, four migrants were found dead at sea or on a French beach.
In a wood on the edge of the Grande-Synthe railway line, under a makeshift tarpaulin tent, Walid and Falah are glued to their phone.
It's their holy grail, their only link with the people smuggler who will give them the green light to take to the sea.
For 3,000 euros ($3,500) per person, they will board a small rubber boat with a rickety engine.
On a WhatsApp call, the silhouette of the smuggler pops up.
They have never met him. These types of criminal networks, often Kurdish or Albanian, use go-betweens to establish contact.
- "How are you, my brother?" asks Walid, 29.
- "Well, thanks be to God."
- "So, do you have news?"
- "Tomorrow, Inshallah?"
- "Inshallah... If it's good weather tomorrow, we're going."
For a month now, Walid has been waiting with Falah and his girls, whom he met in Frankfurt on the migrant route towards a better life – full of hope.
"Even if this journey is nicknamed 'the death route', we want to cross. We're heading into the unknown – there is just God, the water and us. Allah will decide our fate," says Falah.
A reserved man in his fifties, Falah escaped Iraq in 2015 when the Islamic State group was in full expansion, joining hundreds of thousands of others on the road to Europe.
Leaving his wife behind – a matter he refused to dwell on – he travelled on foot from Karbala in Iraq to Germany, which in 2015 decided to welcome close to 900,000 migrants before closing its borders, via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Croatia, among others.
In Germany for two years, he felt he'd found a host country. But his requests for asylum failed, so he set off again.
Falah, his dark hair streaked with grey, said he's not "asking for the moon."
"I just want to live decently, I want my daughters to feel free and safe."
Walid, meanwhile, is a "Bidoon," a stateless tribesman.
These have no passport, and Kuwait won't recognize them as citizens or foreign nationals which means they have no political, social or economic rights.
The choppy crossing doesn't scare Walid, whose square, stubbly face is framed by mid-length black hair.
"The hardest thing is not knowing when you're leaving," he says. "Before this, I had never stayed more than five days in the same place. But here, we don't know if it's tomorrow, in two days or in two months."
On Thursday, September 10 – one month and 13 days after he arrived in Grande-Synthe – warm sunshine and a light wind revived Walid's hopes.
His smuggler confirms that the crossing is imminent.
"We don't know until what time we're going to wait before setting off," Walid says, as he goes to the meeting point.
Two hours after setting off, the Themis, a French patrol vessel, comes level with the dinghy. It sends the rubber boat's position to surveillance units on either side of the Channel, but doesn't intervene at sea – too risky, unless there is a problem.
"As soon as we're at sea, the priority is no longer to stop the crossing but to ensure we safeguard human lives" in an area where 25 percent of the world's sea traffic transits, French maritime authorities tell AFP.
So it is that Walid and his companions continue their journey.
After a seven-hour crossing, the passengers set foot on British soil under hazy skies, like dozens of other migrants that day.
Walid, wearing jeans, a dark jacket and a white mask, crams a few clothes into his small backpack. He is soon escorted into a bus to an immigration processing center in Dover.
There, by law, people can officially ask for asylum before being taken to a shelter. Months of administrative procedures await. But Walid is determined to earn a living, now that he is in Britain.
On the other side of the Channel, Falah is distraught. His group never attempted the crossing. Father and daughters are still waiting.
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