Dinghy deaths tragedy brings home our hostility to the world’s desperate
Closing off all safer options forces abject refugees to approach our shores by the most perilous means
- At least 31 people drown after dinghy capsizes in Channel
The sheer terror of crossing the busy, dark and freezing cold Channel between France and the UK in a flimsy, unseaworthy 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 takeover. “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 made through the night. They are among thousands of children thought to have crossed the Channel in small boats this year.
Some came with parents who could hug them close and whisper that everything would be OK. Others, teenagers, came alone. At least one child was on board the packed inflatable dinghy that capsized off the French coast killing more than 30 people on Wednesday in dangerous winter weather conditions. A young girl’s body was recovered, French officials said.
It is unclear where the passengers had been on the French coast before boarding the boat. Dunkirk has more refugee families than Calais, many from Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish backgrounds.
A few weeks ago the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, told a parliamentary committee that 70% of those crossing in small boats are economic migrants. But they are people who have fled war zones, a recent Refugee Council report indicated.
The growing number of people attempting very dangerous small boat crossings in makeshift vessels and inflatable dinghies – drifting out into one of the busiest, most dangerous shipping lanes in the world – shows how refugees fighting for their lives face a hostile environment that extends beyond the UK and across Europe. And how they have a shrinking number of options available to them.
Only a small minority go to northern France trying to cross to the UK. Those who do find it is becoming increasingly inhospitable with evictions of refugee camps every morning by the French police.
People with the misfortune to be the poorest cannot afford to pay the smugglers, and try their luck with blow-up kayaks, which are even more dangerous than dinghies. The French sports shop Decathlon last week announced it would no longer sell sports canoes in stores on the northern French coast because they were being used for crossings.
Those who can pay for the crossing are often then frogmarched to the shore, sometimes with guns held to their heads, even in atrocious weather. Those who are too scared to get into the boats are forced inside anyway.
Until 2018, lorries were the preferred route for refugees to reach the UK. But the French and the British governments have proudly showcased how they have sealed off this option, with walls, high wire fences, security patrols and cameras changing the landscape to shut off access to the Channel tunnel. This has driven people to the much more dangerous option of small boats. Nobody who has choices would step into such a boat, local charity workers say.
Wednesday’s tragic deaths mark a new milestone when it comes to fatalities: the highest death toll since the small boats crisis began. But it was all too predictable. In 2020, a family of five Iraqi Kurds perished crossing the Channel to England, with the body of a 15-month-old baby, Artin, washing up in Norway months later.
How did it come to this? After the notorious Sangatte Red Cross centre, which once housed up to 2,000 migrants, was closed in 2002, migrants trying to get to the UK have slept rough in illegal squats, slums and outdoor camps, which have been bulldozed by police before cropping up elsewhere. Some in small groups report being woken in dawn raids to have their tents confiscated and be moved on by police. They are desperate to reach greater perceived safety.
In the past 20 years, it was dangerousfor refugees sleeping rough on freezing Calais wasteland with no access to proper sanitation – described by one Afghan man as “not fit for animals” – as they attempted to stowaway or hide under lorries travelling through the Channel tunnel.
One 25-year-old Nigerian man died from smoke inhalation in his tent after he lit a fire to try to keep warm. In 2014, at least 15 migrants in and around the French port of Calais died – one man was killed after attempting to jump from a motorway bridge on to a moving lorry, and two more died in nearby Dunkirk when the truck they were hiding in caught fire. In 2015, an Eritrean man was knocked down and killed by a freight train as he attempted to find a way to reach the UK.
But from 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, the small boat crossings – and how to police and prevent them – have become an element of the current post-Brexit political friction between the UK and France.
Last week the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, accused the UK of using France as a “punching bag” for domestic political squabbles over immigration. In France, Boris Johnson’s current UK government is seen, as the French foreign minister recently said on French radio, as taking a “populist” turn. But in Paris, there has been a real fear for months that the small boat crisis could lead to large fatalities at sea, unacceptable to the French electorate.
When in September Patel suggested that small boats carrying migrants could be turned around and sent back to France, French officials dismissed it out of hand as against maritime law and impossibly dangerous. It was clear then that in the corridors of French power, deaths in the Channel would be a tragedy that could not be tolerated.
One interior ministry official said this autumn that France wanted to avoid “making the Channel a new theatre of human tragedy like other seas have seen; that is very important to us”. In France, images of the hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean have made front pages.
This month, French rescue services have pulled many small boat passengers from the sea. On 12 November, 71 migrants were saved between Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer. A day earlier, three people were declared missing after trying to cross from the Calais coast by kayak.
The French interior ministry works closely with the UK and insists it is managing to prevent the departure of small boats, with more than 600 police and gendarmes on the north coast every day.
62.5% of departures were stopped in 2021, up from about 50% last year, France says.
But the clamour for safe and legal routes for those whose lives are at risk is getting louder, and the UK response is ever angrier and more politicised.
At the heart of the policy of closing off all routes to safety for people fleeing persecution – apart from the option of small boats – is the fear from both the British government and the Labour opposition that they must not be seen as a “soft touch” in their treatment of those who are most vulnerable. But votes cannot be more important than lives, campaigners say.
While the numbers crossing the Channel in small boats have more than tripled so far this year compared with last year’s total – an increase from 8,469 for the whole of 2020 compared with 25,700 so far this year – overall annual numbers claiming asylum are down 4% from the previous 12 months to June 2020. Rhetoric about new arrivals being economic migrants is inevitably fuelling backlash from far right groups.
But as one Iranian asylum seeker who recently arrived in the UK told the Guardian: “British people live here in their houses with their families and with their cars and their clothes in the cupboard. In Iran I 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 of others have lost their lives in the sea between two of the richest countries in the world, failing to deal with a crisis that has been years in the making.
- Immigration and asylum