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August 7, 2013

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

It was Sunday July 14th, Bastille Day in France and I was catching the 09:30pm Euroline coach from Paris Porte de Bagnolet to London Victoria.

It was a nine hour coach journey with two stops on the French side, followed by a ferry across the English Channel, followed by a non-stop run to London's Victoria coach station.

I was not too enamored by the prospect of a 'red-eye' overnight coach ride to London in cramped seats, to then get into London at 6am the next day. However, it was out of necessity rather than choice.

I arrived at Porte de Bagnolet an hour before the scheduled departure time, yet me and my fellow passengers had to wait until 10:30pm to leave. Most of us were hot and bothered wilting in the sweltering evening heat. When the coach eventually arrived, there was no orderly queue or anyone directing people on to the coach. It was a free-for-all. Everyone made a mad dash for the coach dumping their bags hurriedly in the belly of the metal people transporter and up the steps to get a prime seat. Passengers for the later 11pm coach surged en masse to get on board, only to be turned away by the gruff French driver. This caused an almost stampede like situation with the 9:30pm passengers shoving to get on and the later passengers trying to get off.

Eventually, the chaos died down and with all the passengers on board we departed. I sat in an aisle seat with a gentleman from the Far East in the window seat. The seats were extremely cramped with no toilet facilities. I shook my head in dismay as I heard babies crying and little kids being settled down by their parents. I thought how inconsiderate of Eurolines to have a vehicle with no toilets when the journey was so long.

The mixture of passengers was extremely diverse; on my left across the aisle sat two young female American backpackers, there were people of African origin, others from Eastern Europe, a couple of south Asian families and some natives from the UK shores.

The heat had exhausted me so much that the cool air-conditioned interior of the coach led me to fall fast asleep within seconds of sitting down.

The first time I awoke was somewhere between Paris and Lille where the driver called a ten minute comfort break. I could barely open my eyes and slept through. The second time was in Lille, again I was too tired to even open my eyes.

It was sometime at around 3am that we arrived into the port of Calais. Before we could board we had to go through French and UK immigration controls.

All the passengers alighted from the vehicle and queued up in a portacabin and one by one were called to the desk by a French immigration officer. All the people looked dead tired. No one was in conversation, it seemed that everyone wanted to get back on the coach and catch some sleep.

Then I caught a glimpse of a young lady being escorted away by one of the two French officers, leaving the sole desk to process the remaining passengers. I groaned silently.

Eventually I arrived at the desk, got the cursory glance as my details were checked and then ushered on. Outside I was directed to another makeshift cabin building where the UK immigration were based.

Here the scene was very different. In contrast to the French two desks, reduced to one, here there were six manned desks plus several officers just standing and watching the passengers with their keen eyes.

Here a lot of the passengers looked alert yet intimidated and frazzled. Initially it did not register with me what was going on, the fuzziness of sleep deprivation was not making me think clearly. However, I was seeing more people being pulled aside and then 'click', it dawned on me that these people had questionable papers and they were potentially trying to enter the UK illegally. I watched several people of various nationalities being pulled aside into rooms out of sight.

I gulped and thought, "Wow! this is the hard coal face of illegal migration".

The whole scene woke me up from my walking slumber as I approached the desk. Once cleared I went back to the coach and retook my seat. The coach slowly started to fill up except the two seats in front of me and my Oriental seat buddy. I thought he may have been stopped too, but he turned up running just seconds before the coach left.

As the driver fired up the engine I scanned the vehicle and saw approximately six seats empty which were occupied prior to the immigration checks. I came to the realization that those six were detained for potentially trying to get into the UK illegally. I thought about those people, I thought about the money they must have spent either through getting the paperwork on their own or paying middlemen who probably charged extortionate fees.

If these people were trying to illegally enter the UK it was wrong, yet I felt sorry that they probably spent their life savings trying to get here. The coach driver did not wait and he drove the coach onto the waiting ferry. I began to contemplate the lives these people were leaving and what drove them to go to such extreme measures to try and get into another country illegally. I could not judge their circumstances as I did not know what they were fleeing.

One thing I realized by what I witnessed was that I was extremely lucky, my father had arrived into the UK as a genuine immigrant. Even though I had heard of illegal immigrants around the world this is the first time I had witnessed the reality of it. Furthermore, I was humbled to the core. I was humbled by the fact that I can, I have and I am still able to travel as a global citizen without any obvious restrictions on entry to any country. I was humbled by the fact that I had a choice in determining my country of residence. I was humbled by the simple right of freedom that I had. A right that many human beings do not have in many guises and forms.