Residents of the Belgian port of Zeebrugge play petanque with a handful of Iranian migrants taking shelter outside a church, hoping to smuggle themselves to Britain.
Migrants gather at Belgian port of Zeebrugge
Refugees dream of England, at Belgian portBrussels (Belgium) – 11 February 2016 03:17 – AFP (Philippe SIUBERSKI) / FOCUS For months Iranian Christian migrants have been sleeping in a makeshift shelter outside a church in the Belgian port town of Zeebrugge, from where they hope to smuggle themselves over to Britain.The growing numbers in the North Sea port has prompted growing fears of another Calais “Jungle”, with local authorities even warning residents not to feed the migrants in a bid to discourage them from staying.But such measures have failed to put off migrants like Ramir, who is aged about 20 and huddles in his ski jacket under a shelter near a deserted crazy-golf course, trying to escape the drizzle.”This is where five or six of us sleep,” he tells AFP, pointing to a stack of folded blankets in a corner of a makeshift shelter where he and the others have also stored food.Further off, dozens of sleeping bags lie in the shelter of the white church that keeps its doors closed to the new arrivals. The beach is about a hundred metres off while beyond that lies the huge North Sea ferry and cargo port.The oldest of the group says he is 32 years old but many are younger. An adolescent among the group stays silent but his colleagues say he is just 13 years old.- ‘I’ll keep trying’ -Many of them have numbers written in indelible marker on the backs of their hands, which show that they have been checked by the Belgian police.Ramir shows a document in Flemish dated February 3 ordering him to leave the area, but it is an order neither he nor the others have any intention of obeying. The only way they say they will leave Belgium is if they can slip into a shipping container or under one of the lorries which are headed for the British coast, 70 kilometres (40 miles) away.They say they have family or friends in Britain, and that they come from either Tehran or Shiraz in Iran. Being a Christian is difficult in the Islamic republic, they say.Mohamed said he converted to Christianity two or three years ago. “Islam, not good,” he says, taking a Bible in a green cover out of his jacket.They came from Iran on lorries, a 20-day journey direct to Zeebrugge, avoiding the overcrowded and squalid Calais and Dunkirk camps in northern France.”There the mafia want to make us pay, whereas here we try on our own,” said a young man whose arm bears the signs of a fall during an earlier unsuccessful attempt to board a lorry.”My brother got through but I was caught by the police and their dogs. I’ll keep trying.”- ‘We can’t sit here’ -As they wait for nightfall, two Iranians play a game of boules in the rain, egged on by local club members.This group of migrants has refused to lodge asylum claims in Belgium which would allow them to stay in a refugee centre.This has sparked fears among local people and authorities that Zeebrugge and other Belgian ports could become the next Calais “Jungle”.”Don’t feed the refugees, otherwise others will come,” Carl Decaluwe, the governor of West Flanders, told the media recently. The mayor of the historic town of Bruges, Renaat Landuyt, meanwhile said that they must “avoid at all costs any tents going up”.As a result the Iranians receive no official aid. Instead, they depend on the charity of local people to survive.As evening falls a white SUV parks outside the church, its boot full of food such as sausages, bottled water and chocolate bars which are quickly distributed.Later resident Didier Franckx, a former docker, brings a trolley carrying big pans of rice, chicken and vegetables.”We don’t want it to become another Calais either,” says Franckx. “But we can’t sit here with our arms folded. I’d like to see the governor come here himself and tell these people face to face that he wouldn’t give them any food.”siu/dk/pvh/ds