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We have learned nothing from the tragedy of The 27

A year on from tragedy in the Channel, the British government still does not understand those who claim asylum, or how to treat them fairly and safely

Image: The New European

In the cold inky seas, their bodies frozen to the point of death, at least 27 people died in the Channel one gloomy November night almost exactly a year ago. Their cries for help ignored, they breathed their last in one of the busiest waterways in the world, their dreams forever lost between the frontiers of Britain and France.

It was the worst disaster in the Channel for more than 30 years in those waters, and the death toll is certainly higher. There were 33 or 34 people on that unseaworthy dinghy that left from the beaches of Dunkirk for the Kent coast, and only two survived. The 27 were those whose bodies were found.
“Everyone was screaming like children. All I could hear were the screams of the people drowning. I saw dead bodies floating past me,” Issa Mohammed, a Somali asylum seeker and one of the survivors, recounted, reliving the nightmare that continues to haunt him.

At daybreak, eight people were still alive, but they died in the long hours until 2pm, when a fishing boat found them and finally issued a Mayday call. Mohammed watched helplessly as his companions disappeared below the surface, including seven-year-old Hasti Ahmed Khidhir, her teenage brother Mubin, their older sister Hadiye and mother Kazhal, 18 year-old Twana Mohamed and Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 24, who was trying to reach her fiancé.

“I still see the faces of those who died…All those people fighting for their life. I still see it all,” Mohammed said, speaking on The Crossing, an ITV documentary that this month retraced the tragic journey of the victims that The New European examined in a special issue – The 27 — earlier this year.

In the year since that tragedy, thousands more have boarded similar boats that ply the same route, knowing the dangers. So far in 2022, more than 41,700 asylum seekers have arrived in the UK from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Albania, Syria and Eritrea, risking their own lives in the same way in the same inadequate vessels. The Missing Migrants Project has recorded 11 deaths in the Channel since November 24, bringing to 205 the total of recorded dead and missing since 2014. There has not been a repetition of the mass deaths, but surely it’s only a matter of time.

On the Kent beaches the victims were trying to reach, and the French beeches they left, vigils are being held on November 24, to mark the first anniversary of their passing. Bridget Chapman, a campaigner for refugee rights, told me that the names those who died crossing the Channel would be read out. A minute’s silence would be held in their memory.

“It’s a miracle that more haven’t died since — the journey is really dangerous,” Chapman told me. “I would have thought that 27 dying would be a turning point, but it’s getting tougher.”

As relatives of those who died last year look frantically for answers, this has been a year of increasing alarm about the crossings, yet numbers rise. Have no lessons been learned from the chain of events that cost the lives of so many desperate souls?

Abdul Saboor, a photographer who met and pictured some of the victims while they were waiting in the “Jungle” camp in Dunkirk, was unequivocal. “No, nothing. And nothing is getting better,” he told me. “Every time (the authorities) do something, it makes things worse.”

“There are always similar numbers of asylum seekers here, but before, around half tried the land route,” he explained. “It’s safer and they can get on a lorry by themselves, they don’t need the smugglers. But the British have put more and more cameras and scanners along the land route so they have to turn to the boats. And more smugglers are making money because of this.”

It’s not that there weren’t any changes, it’s just that they’re either of little use, or make things worse. The then home secretary — the performatively harsh Priti Patel, who threatened to “smash” the business models of people smugglers with quixotic ideas such as wave machines and signed a deal to send refugees to Rwanda — has gone. But Suella “Cruella” Braverman, who dreams of deportation flights and speaks of “invasion”, is in no way an improvement.

Earlier this month, Braverman trumpeted a new deal with France — the latest of several — involving the deployment of 40% more border police on the beaches around Calais over the next few months, at a cost of £63 million to the UK taxpayer. This brings to some £175 million the money paid by Britain to France since 2018 in pursuit of the same unattained goal.
It will not work. None of these plans that favour political messaging over substance do. The French already stop boats and many migrants try again until they find one that gets through — as was the case with several of the November 24 victims. There are photographs of little Hasti taken after she was rescued after one failed crossing.

Those dismissed as “economic migrants” and “asylum shoppers” look at the alternatives of trying to survive in a dangerous or failing state with no future or risk smugglers and brutal journeys to keep some kind of hope alive, and choose the latter.

Saboor, a refugee from Afghanistan living in Paris, said that such measures would not have deterred him from his own journey to freedom from Taliban aggression, even though he was beaten, imprisoned, and sent back home as he walked thousands of miles through numerous countries. He ended up in France because each country he passed was hostile and dangerous to him. “In my experience some borders were more difficult than others,” he said. “I was more scared then, of course, but I would never have said ‘now I have to change my decision because it’s difficult’, since the choice was between going back to my country to be killed, or trying to pass through the difficult borders in order to survive.”

Governments rarely acknowledge the truth that the smugglers thrive when people fleeing violence or extreme want meet arbitrary barriers erected by policing-obsessed politicians. Both sides insist publicly that the Channel boat crossings are simply a problem of law and order, and think only of increasing security in order to — they say — reduce the danger to the migrants.

“The ‘help’ offered by countries like Britain in these situations always seems to be through the police, and arms, and bombs — as happened in my country,” said Saboor, who had to leave Afghanistan because the Taliban had targeted him for working with the NATO and US military stationed there.

“Why do they think that this is helping? This sort of help always hurts people.”

Chapman is equally derisive about the solutions sought in the last year. “We just continue to throw massive amounts of public money at this in rehashes of the same tired scheme with the French patrolling coastlines — all to avoid admitting that the only way to deal with this is to give people the option of safe routes.”

Safe routes could include widening family reunion — some on the capsized boat had relatives in the UK — and Britain’s limited participation in the UN resettlement scheme. Humanitarian visas, as in countries such as Sweden, would help, as could the option for asylum seekers to apply for protection from a location closer to home, or in France, sparing them the journey.

Currently the only way most of them can apply is following dangerous crossings enabled by people smugglers — reprehensible characters taking thousands of pounds from people forced to sell their houses to pay them, then cramming them on cheap, flimsy boats. But they become pivotal figures when governments ignore international refugee agreements that allow people to travel how they can to any country to ask for asylum. As The Crossing and other reports showed, it’s very easy to find a smuggler around Calais and openly negotiate with them in broad daylight. If they were all rounded up, no doubt more would follow. There have been attempts to ban the sale of some of these inflatables in Calais but that doesn’t stop their arrival by mail order from China.

Rather than more safety, Braverman and prime minister Rishi Sunak chose greater danger, promising to push through Patel’s Rwanda deportations, which entail asylum seekers being sent to a country with a dubious human rights record before their claims are even assessed. In this vision of cynical buck-passing, if the asylum seekers’ claims are accepted — and more than three quarters of applications to the UK are — they are supposed to remain in Rwanda, likely in overcrowded camps with little chance of supporting themselves. So far the courts have thwarted this and the airline contracted for the deportations has pulled out, but the policy remains as a flagship to the government’s unpleasant signalling.

The Rwanda plan — which cost the UK taxpayer upwards of £140 million — denies the reality that these boat crossings are usually undertaken by people who have a reason to be in the UK. They already speak the language, for a start, and often have friends and relatives who can more easily help them adjust to life in the UK. This was the case for several of those who died, including Hasti and her siblings, who had an aunt in the UK, Twana, who was trying to reach her sister in the Midlands, and Maryam, whose fiancé lived in Bournemouth. If sent to Rwanda, they will simply make another dangerous journey to try again.

Another Patel legacy, passed into law since last year’s dinghy disaster, is the Nationality and Borders Act, which brands many kinds of asylum seeker “illegal” depending on their mode of arrival. It was slammed by Oxfam GB chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah earlier this month because it “makes a mockery of internationally recognised rights for people fleeing war and persecution and, amid current moves to impose conditions on arrivals, puts the UK at risk of breaking international law.”

For those who do make it to Kent, it’s no picnic. An asylum seeker has just died in Manston detention centre — one that has for weeks been the focus of a scandal about overcrowding in a facility meant for overnight stays where arrivals remain for weeks. Many had already succumbed to diphtheria, scabies and norovirus. Freedom from Torture, which supports asylum seekers, reacted angrily: “We’ve said it before: this Government’s cruelty to refugees isn’t accidental – it’s the whole point. We need a compassionate asylum system that works. NOW.”

Even some Conservative politicians such as Kent MP Roger Gale say this was the result of a deliberate, warped effort at “deterrence” and a blatant attempt to court the anti-immigrant right.

In her short time at the home office, Braverman has done the impossible and made everything even worse. Whether deliberate or not, hundreds of asylum seekers have been waiting for more than five years in limbo in the UK, in temporary accommodation that’s expensive for taxpayers and unsuitable due to the government’s refusal to engage in any realistic contingency planning on housing. The home office backlog for those awaiting their initial decision on asylum was 122,206 in June this year — ten times what it was a decade ago.

They’re unable to work and live independently — even though the Refugee Action charity determined that allowing asylum seekers to work could contribute £300 million to the Treasury each year. They’re unable to integrate, or move on elsewhere, since rejections also come late. Children are wrongly treated as adults, creating further trauma. Chapman has described working with child refugees who self harmed or attempt suicide.
Compared to other countries, the UK has a tiny number of refugees — around 140,000, compared to more than 1.2 million in Germany and over 3.7 million in Turkey, the world’s largest host.

Most who cross the channel come from a handful of countries, all in turmoil – their regimes are harsh, education and opportunities for the young minuscule, corruption and violence are rife, global warming has harmed their harvests. Afghanistan, ruled by the hardline Taliban since the chaotic US and UK troop withdrawal last year, is suffering unprecedented hardship, including drought and famine. Afghan women also fleeing as they try to give their daughters a future after the Taliban banned education for girls and work for women.

Regardless, the dog-whistle politics continue. There is a new target: Albanians, arriving in increasing numbers via the Channel. Some 2,165 arrived this year to June, compared with 50 two years ago. Amid claims that they are here due to organised crime, or that they are fleeing corruption at home, the background to this rise from an EU candidate is not completely clear, but more than half of their asylum claims are accepted.

As with others making their way to the UK, the demand is that they should come over “regularly” or not at all. This ignores how near-impossible that is. Iraqi Kurds with British citizenship have told me there’s no point in applying for any kind of visa for their spouses as they’re routinely rejected. Maryam had a Schengen visa, which allowed her to travel to Calais. Her family told us she wasn’t given a British visa for the last leg of the trip that killed her.

Albanian writer and academic Lea Ypi, who teaches at the London School of Economics, has spoken out about the denial of a visa for her mother, who was to travel to the UK to help with chores following her grandchild’s birth.
“If you’ve never seen a UK visa rejection letter — the cruelty, the contempt, the humiliation — here’s the one denying entrance to my mum BECAUSE I’d said in my invitation letter that I was pregnant and needed help,” she tweeted in early November. “I’m a privileged academic. Imagine what it’s like for other Albanians.”

In the letter, the home office said it was “not satisfied” that Ypi’s mother was a “genuine visitor”, implying that even if she ever left, she could keep coming back, overstaying her welcome and either working illegally or burdening the state.

Ypi separately outlined possible reasons for Albanian migration, which included prolonged fallout following the switch from a communist dictatorship to capitalism, with the unemployment, corruption and organised crime that came with that. Many Albanians, she said depended on remittances from families abroad, knew of the severe worker shortages in the UK post-Brexit, recognised that the new points-based immigration system prioritises higher earners — leading to a mismatch in many sectors — and were desperate enough to leave their homes to try and fill the labour gaps.

“Nobody enjoys leaving their country just for the sake of annoying people in another,” she wrote in the Guardian. “Albanians have become the latest victims of an ideological project that exposes minorities to negative stereotyping, xenophobia and racism, and all for the sake of concealing its own political failures. They unfortunately continue to look up to the UK as a model of stability, liberal integration and good governance.”

Had there been a working, non-ideological system, most of those who drowned in their leaky boat would not have been there, nor would those currently trying to cross. Evidence is now mounting of further failures, backing up earlier claims that British and French rescue services spent the hours after the first, post-midnight call from the boat arguing over who was responsible for saving them. Documentation collected by lawyers and NGOs show that three hours later there was a further call from Twana’s phone to the British coastguard saying that 40 people were dying and needed help.

“That confirmation that there are people in the water and that people are dying is huge,” Matthew Schanck, a maritime expert who has been assisting the families of the victims, said in The Crossing. “There should have been a large-scale response launched immediately and almost nothing happened.”
At daybreak, Issa Mohammed counted eight survivors, including himself, but nobody came until, at 2 pm, he was found by a fishing boat and all but one of the others had died. There had been 12 vessels just minutes away but they had not been alerted.

The Marine Accident investigation branch is looking at the emergency response, but it took until June for an official public inquiry to be promised in the UK. There is no start date yet. The official explanation is that the boat sank in French waters. Schanck calculated that, while the boat first got into trouble in French waters, most of the tragedy unfolded in British waters. France has arrested more than a dozen people in connection with the smuggling, but the three ringleaders identified by relatives and survivors didn’t appear to be among them. One was later arrested in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The November 24 sinking was a hugely significant incident that was nearly brushed under the carpet. The motives behind the coastguard actions can’t be second guessed, and there were many more boats and rescues on the Channel that night. But the atmosphere in which it happened was clear — an official hostile environment against those preparing to risk their lives to come to the UK.

Governments could have chosen effective policies rather than clickbait dressed up as toughness. They could also have abandoned xenophobic narratives that please a minority in favour of telling the public the truth about immigration, that there is no migrant crisis, that the country is not being invaded, there is no swarm of asylum shoppers, but just a cynical, deliberately slow and discriminatory system that the government could remedy if it wanted. If it gave even a fraction of a damn.

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