TThe sheer terror of crossing the busy, dark and icy channel between France and the UK on a flimsy and unsafe boat was best described by 12-year-old Mohammad, who made the journey with his mother and eight-year-old sister. in June after fleeing Afghanistan before the Taliban take over. “It was like a horror movie,” he said. And that was summer, not the depths of November.
Mohammad and his sister survived the 21-mile journey they made overnight. They are among the thousands of children believed to have crossed the English Channel in small boats this year.
Some came with parents who could hug them and whisper that everything would be fine. Others, teenagers, came alone. At least one child was aboard the full inflatable boat that capsized off the French coast and killed more than 30 people Wednesday in dangerous winter weather conditions. The body of a girl was recovered, French officials said.
It is unclear where the passengers had been on the French coast before boarding the ship. Dunkirk has more refugee families than Calais, many of them of Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish origin.
A few weeks ago, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel told a parliamentary committee that 70% of those who cross in small boats are economic migrants. But they are people who have fled war zones, a recent report by the Refugee Council said.
The increasing number of people attempting very dangerous small craft cruises on makeshift craft and inflatable boats, which venture off one of the world’s busiest and most dangerous shipping lanes, shows how refugees fighting for their lives cope with an environment hostile that extends beyond the UK. and throughout Europe. And how they have fewer and fewer options available.
Only a small minority go to the north of France trying to cross into the UK. Those who find it are becoming increasingly inhospitable with evictions from refugee camps every morning by the French police.
People who are unfortunate enough to be the poorest cannot afford to pay smugglers and try their luck with inflatable kayaks, which are even more dangerous than boats. The French sports store Decathlon announced last week that it would stop selling sports canoes in stores on the north coast of France because they were being used for touring.
Those who can pay for the journey are often then brought to shore, sometimes with guns to their heads, even in dire weather. Those who are too scared to get on the boats are forced to enter anyway.
Until 2018, trucks were the preferred route for refugees to reach the UK. But the French and British governments have proudly shown how they have sealed this option, with walls, tall barbed wire, security patrols and landscape-changing cameras to close off access to the Channel Tunnel. This has led people to the much more dangerous option of small boats. No one with options will get on such a boat, say local charity workers.
Wednesday’s tragic deaths mark a new milestone when it comes to fatalities – the highest death toll since the small boat crisis began. But everything was too predictable. In 2020, a family of five Iraqi Kurds died crossing the English Channel into England, with the body of a 15-month-old baby, Artin, washing up in Norway months later.
How did this come about? After the notorious Sangatte Red Cross Center, which once housed 2,000 migrants, was closed in 2002, migrants trying to reach the UK have slept rough in illegal settlements, slums and open-air camps. , which have been razed by the police before turning up elsewhere. . Some in small groups report that they were awakened in raids at dawn to have their tents confiscated and transferred by the police. They are desperate for greater perceived security.
Over the past 20 years, it was dangerous for refugees sleeping out in the open in the frozen wastelands of Calais without access to proper sanitation, described by an Afghan man as “not suitable for animals”, as they tried to hide or hide under the trucks going through the Channel Tunnel. .
A 25-year-old Nigerian died of smoke inhalation in his tent after lighting a fire to try to keep warm. In 2014, at least 15 migrants in and around the French port of Calais died: one man died after attempting to jump from a motorway bridge onto a moving truck, and two more died in the vicinity of Dunkirk when the truck in the one hiding was caught. fire. In 2015, an Eritrean was shot down and killed by a freight train while trying to find a way to get to the UK.
But starting in 2018, the danger factor increased dramatically as desperate people turned to the sea route.
Amid an increasingly hostile political debate in the UK around immigration and asylum, small boat crossings, and how to monitor and prevent them, have become an element of the current post-Brexit political friction between the UK and France.
Last week, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused the UK of using France as a “punching bag” for internal political disputes over immigration. In France, the current government of Boris Johnson in the UK, as the French Foreign Minister recently put it on French radio, is seen as taking a “populist” turn. But in Paris, there has been a real fear for months that the small boat crisis could lead to huge deaths at sea, unacceptable to the French electorate.
When Patel suggested in September that small boats carrying immigrants could be returned and shipped back to France, French officials dismissed it outright as against maritime law and incredibly dangerous. It was clear then that in the corridors of French power, the deaths in the Channel would be a tragedy that could not be tolerated.
An Interior Ministry official said this fall that France wanted to avoid “making the Canal a new theater of human tragedies like other seas have seen; that is very important to us ”. In France, images of the hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean have been covered.
This month, French rescue services have taken many small boat passengers out of the sea. On November 12, 71 migrants were saved between Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer. A day earlier, three people were declared missing after trying to cross by kayak from the coast of Calais.
The French Home Office works closely with the UK and insists it is managing to prevent small boats from leaving, with more than 600 police and gendarmes on the north coast every day.
62.5% of departures were stopped in 2021, up from 50% last year, France says.
But the clamor for safe and legal routes for those whose lives are in danger is growing louder, and the UK’s response is increasingly angry and more politicized.
At the heart of the policy of closing all routes to safety for people fleeing persecution, apart from the option of small boats, is the fear of both the British government and the Labor opposition that they should not be seen. as a “soft touch”. in his treatment of the most vulnerable. But votes cannot be more important than lives, activists say.
While the number of people crossing the English Channel in small boats has more than tripled so far this year compared to last year’s total (an increase of 8,469 for all of 2020 compared to 25,700 so far this year). last year), overall annual numbers seeking asylum have dropped 4% from the previous 12 months to June 2020. The rhetoric that the newcomers are economic migrants is inevitably fueling the backlash from far-right groups.
But as an Iranian asylum seeker who recently arrived in the UK told The Guardian: “The British live here in their homes with their families and with their cars and their clothes in the closet. In Iran he had all those things. If my life had been safe in Iran, would I leave my country and come to the UK? The answer is no.”
Twelve-year-old Mohammad and his family are safe for now, but dozens more have lost their lives at sea between two of the world’s richest countries, unable to cope with a crisis that has been brewing for some time. years.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism