Page last updated at 01:47 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 02:47 UK

African migrants seeking UK 'dream'

Panorama's Paul Kenyon visited a derelict house near the French port of Calais to hear why so many young African migrants remain determined to reach Britain.

The cellar steps are thick with oil and the walls a congealed buttery yellow. They're steep and twisting, and someone's daubed graffiti in a language I do not recognise.

Clearing work at a Calais migrant camp
The French government has recently dismantled migrant camps in Calais

At the bottom someone has tried to light a fire, and the charcoal remains have been kicked around in the gloom. There is a stinking curtain across a doorway, and when I tug it, a swarm of silent flies tumble out, and bump around the cameraman's light.

On the other side is the skeleton of an arm chair, some half eaten cans of food and an overwhelming smell of stale urine. Upstairs is not much better.

Here in Calais, this is home to around 30 men and two women. They are mostly young and ambitious and some speak several languages.

War zone

They have dreams of becoming doctors, engineers and teachers, yet here in this derelict, abandoned house, they are holed up in a cellar as if they are hiding from the bombs and bullets of a war zone. For many, the sounds of war would ring familiar.

None of them are from here - Europe. They are holed up in this now infamous French port city hoping to find a lorry which they can clamber inside or lash themselves onto.

They tell me they'll even try to cling onto the chassis, which they describe as the best place to catch a ride that they all hope will take them across the Channel.

On the treacherous journey out of Africa, the UK is often whispered about in reverential tones, as a crime-free, multi-cultural nirvana

The lorries that can deliver them to their final destination rumble by every night. They are on their way to Dover - the place that this collection of migrants hiding in the cellar have been planning, plotting and praying to somehow reach.

One of them is called Alex and he is Eritrean. He served in the army of his home country for four years. In Eritrea, mandatory conscription has no apparent end. Some men are conscripted as teenagers and, if they are fortunate enough to survive the perpetual fighting, they are still in the military until late middle age.

Alex told me he grew tired of fighting and deserted. He knows that if he ever returned he would be jailed in grim conditions alongside the politicians, religious leaders, journalists and his fellow deserters. He said he feared he would never come out.

Some call Eritrea Africa's North Korea. It is a brutal regime which is internationally condemned. Those who escape, should they make it safely to Europe, are at the top of the list for political asylum.

Boat burst

Alex reached Europe after crossing the Sahara in a truck crammed with 40 or so others. To preserve the limited supply of water, they had a tactic - they poured petrol into it. It made them want to vomit. After that they only sipped when they really needed it.

Alex ended up on a notorious people-smuggling beach called Zuwarah, in Libya. From there it is 180 miles to Europe. He says he paid around $500 for a place in an inflatable boat.

Clearing work at a Calais migrant camp
French authorities are attempting to dissuade migrants

When they were about 10 minutes into the crossing, it burst. They all tumbled into the sea. There was still some air in the tubes of the boat and despite the chaos, most of them managed to cling on. Two drowned.

After several more failed attempts, Alex made it across the Mediterranean to Italy, the nearest European soil. But Italy was not what he was aiming for. Alex smuggled himself in trucks and trains, travelling further northwards until he arrived at Calais, just 34km from the UK.

He could have claimed political asylum in France, but he resisted.

Despite the views of some commentators in this country, his motivation was not the UK's benefit system.

'Tolerant' Britain

In covering this story of African migration for more than two years, I have met hundreds who braved this clandestine route into Europe and none of them have even heard of hand outs, free housing, or benefit money to be had.

The reasons they want to reach the UK are much more straightforward - they believe it is more tolerant than elsewhere in Europe, they can speak English and they think they can find a job.

African migrants off Tenerife
Many young African migrants risk their lives to reach Europe

Outside the broken-down house with the deep cellar, I tried to explain to Alex that the UK might not be as tolerant of new, illegal migrants and asylum seekers as he thinks.

"Even so, at least there's no crime there," he replied. "I know I can find peace."

"No crime?" I said "There are robberies and murders and kids carry knives in big cities."

He looked genuinely astonished at what I have told him. On the treacherous journey out of Africa, the UK is often whispered about in reverential tones, as a crime-free, multi-cultural nirvana. I have encountered this perception many times.

The men and women hoping for their chance to make that final leap from Calais to the UK are a tiny hard-core of asylum seekers.

Most give up on the idea well before reaching the English Channel. And far from being plagued by asylum seekers, as some in Britain like to suggest, the truth is very different.

Asylum applications per capita in the UK sits 13th in Europe, far behind the top nation, which is Malta. Cyprus, Italy and France all receive more applicants for asylum than Britain.

When we left the cellar in Calais, there was a group of Eritreans surrounding our car. It was a four-wheel drive with a big boot space to fit all the camera gear. The crowd parted apologetically as we approached, and I discovered one man lying on the ground with his head beneath the chassis. I assumed there was an oil leak.

"There is enough room under there, but nothing to hold onto" said one of the men. He was not joking.

When we opened the boot, one of the women tried to slide passed me and tapped a large case to see if it was empty.

"I am very light," she said. "If you are stopped at the port, you just say I broke in. You didn't know I was there."

Two weeks later, the French authorities raided the broken down house in Calais and arrested everyone inside. I have no idea where they are now, but Alex was lucky. He had already applied for asylum in France, and is now living in refugee hostel waiting to hear the result.

Panorama: Migrants Go Home!, BBC One, Monday, 5 October at 2030BST.

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