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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 23:25 GMT
'How I got to UK illegally'
Chinese Muslim refugee in London
Rail firms want to stop asylum seekers hiding on board

Abdullah has crossed half a dozen borders illegally, but the night he entered Britain, he'd almost given up hope of success.

He'd tried eight times during 20 days spent in the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais, but always got stopped by French police.

Once, the Kurdish guides who profit from the crossings had loaded his group into a metal container van carrying chemicals.

"As soon as I got in I felt there was something funny about the smell but I went in as far as I could go and climbed on top of the plastic bags", says Abdullah.

'So tired, so fed-up'

The half dozen refugees inside soon began to choke. "We took our shoes off and banged on the side but nobody heard us."

In desperation, they hammered on the metal walls with a plank and were freed by police.

Xinjiang mountains
Xinjiang: remote, arid, oil-rich

A Muslim from Xinjiang province on China's border with Pakistan, Abdullah - not his real name - is opposed to Beijing's rule of what he sees as a separate country.

He had been travelling since he fled China after being threatened with arrest three years earlier.

"I was getting more and more tired, I didn't look like a human being any more", he says over a plate of lamb chops in the London flat he shares with his British girlfriend.

Click here to see a map of Xinjiang

Tunnel of fear

As he clambered onto his winning truck last August, he was "so fed up - some people had been trying to get across for two years".

Abdullah was "scared" of the Channel Tunnel and opted to go by boat after seeing broken legs and ankles suffered by refugees trying to board moving trains.

Knot of asylum seekers at Frethun
Asylum seekers at Frethun rail freight yard near Calais

At the tunnel, it was also common for them to be chased by police with dogs.

Most of the time, the police weren't too bad, he says.

"Those poor French police, it's tough...If they weren't in a bad mood they'd give us a lift back to the camp."

The night he nearly died in the container, the police caught 120 people.

Too fed up to process them all, a policeman handed his notebook to Abdullah, by now a familiar face, and told him to register half the room.

'Special treatment'

The night he got through, about 120 refugees waited in a disused chemical factory.

Families went first because they'd paid up to $1,000 each. It was a one-off payment, valid for any number of attempts.

Nonetheless, he calculates the Kurdish political group involved was making $10,000 a night.

Abdullah's crossing cost him $500 in total; following his near-fatal fifth attempt he put up an extra $200, earning a meeting with the Kurdish boss "who gave me special treatment".

Postcards in London
Letters home don't arrive

It bore fruit when the boss put him in a truckful of wooden crates. "I was in the middle. I had a lot of luck that night."

French police with body-heat detectors soon stopped their truck. "They told us to get down, and four guys did", but Abdullah stayed put.

"I'd fallen inside the crate, it was quite deep and I fallen down among the goods" - which turned out to be car parts.

"There was another guy who was hiding and they found him, but I waited there for 10 minutes and I was off again."

Soon, "I heard voices, it was English, it wasn't French, and I was very afraid." He'd heard a rumour that capture inside the port of Dover could lead to immediate deportation.

Once again police with heat-seeking devices scanned the truck. This time they found him. "I thought it was just me, but there was a Kurdish lad."

Dover surprise

Even the British immigration police who arrested him had never heard of Xinjiang, which Abdullah calls East Turkestan.

But they had a coffee machine. "It was great, and they gave us food - my first English sandwich!"

For now, he is studying in London but wants eventually to return to Xinjiang: "I'm a human being with the right to see my parents again, to go back to my homeland."

Since 11 September, the Chinese authorities have stepped up a crack-down against the Muslim Uighur ethnic majority in Xinjiang so his chances of returning home soon look slim.

His movement is not Islamist, campaigning for an independent, democratic government to use Xinjiang's oil to tackle poverty, he says.

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See also:

18 Feb 02 | Europe
11 Feb 02 | England
11 Feb 02 | Business
04 Feb 02 | Europe
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