Solidarity vigils as deaths in the Channel turn the focus on the UK’s border policy

The deaths of twenty seven people in the Channel this week have provoked grief and rage amongst migrants and migrant solidarity activists across the UK and Europe. There were vigils in Folkestone, Hastings and Brighton. Hundreds turned out at the Home Office in London, with more planned in the coming days. Migrants in Calais staged a candlelit march in memory of those who lost their lives.

Freedom spoke to Simon Blunt of Channel Rescue, a volunteer organisation dedicated to practical solidarity and campaigning for safe passage.

“We have been warning that a tragedy like this was all but inevitable. Finally it has happened and the brutality of the UK’s approach to refugees making this dangerous crossing has been exposed. The authorities are pointing the finger at “criminal gangs” and talking about “economic migrants” and pushing for ever more militarisation of the border when they know full well that it is UK’s military adventurism and the deliberate creation of the hostile environment here that pushed these people to their deaths.”

Below Freedom reproduces a speech made at the Brighton vigil yesterday evening.

Hi my name is [retraced], I volunteer with Care4Calais here in Brighton, but today I’m here representing Channel Rescue. We’re a grass-roots organisation that monitors the human rights of people crossing the English Channel, advocates for safe passage and provide immediate aid for people who have just arrived.

We’re all here today because, yesterday, we witnessed the biggest loss of life in the Channel since monitoring began in 2014. In this horrific tragedy, 27 people died, including children and a woman who was pregnant.

The deaths of these innocent people could, and should have been avoided. Our government must acknowledge they are complicit. They must admit that what happened is a direct result of the flawed asylum process and the increasingly hostile environment for refugees that has been created in the UK and France.

Many people who make this dangerous and terrifying journey across the Channel come from camps in Calais, France. I’ve seen for myself how, in Calais, people are sleeping rough and are systematically de-humanised and abused by the French riot police, with the financial support of OUR government.

I want to share with you some words from a friend of mine who’s seeking asylum in the UK about his experience.

“My name is Nawaf and I am a 24 year old Asylum Seeker from Yemen. I left Yemen 4 years ago and arrived in the UK in January this year, crossing the Channel on a small boat.

I spent six months in Calais, it was a completely unlivable place. I did not feel safe there. I tried to cross by trucks more than twenty times for five months which was a horrible experience. Sometimes the truck ended up going in a different direction so we’d have to escape, sometimes we were unsuccessful in getting into the truck and other times we were caught by dogs at the border. When we got caught the French police treated us with cruelty, spraying us in the face with tear gas and locking us up in a prison cell before releasing us back out to sleep on the streets.

Crossing by truck wasn’t working so I  began to try to cross by boat. I attempted to cross by boat eight times in total. Five times I was not even able to leave the beach and the other three times I was brought back from the middle of the sea. Sometimes the height of the waves causes the engine to flood with water and completely malfunction. When this happens it is really scary.

On my first first crossing attempt there were twelve of us on the boat including a family from Iran. The boat was small and the sea was scary. The waves were like mountains and we thought we would die when the boat began to flood with water. The sea was freezing! Then all of a sudden the engine broke down. We stayed in the water for four hours, it was so cold and we had a five year old with us who couldn’t stop screaming. Her clothes were all very wet and her mother could not do anything. Her father was also screaming, afraid for his daughter. In fact we were all screaming, hoping someone would hear and come and rescue us. I just wanted to put my feet back on land, I didn’t care where.

We were eventually rescued from the sea by the French border force. When we arrived back in Calais the French police escorted the family to the hospital. The little girl was sleeping and not speaking. I never found out what happened to her.

The third and final attempt was successful. The waves were very big and I was terrified that we would relive the previous two experiences but luckily we made it. I was so happy.”

As one of our volunteers reported on their recent return from Calais, that the abuse has reached a new level of aggression, with any areas people could camp on being dug up so the ground is uneven and with any trees people are sheltering beneath cut down.

In the last 12 months, the fresh water supply to the camps has been removed by the local authority and NGOs have been providing water tanks for essential hydration and hygiene. Police are now damaging these so they drain out. The local authority have also been making it illegal to distribute aid in Calais. As the weather gets colder and wetter, life will only become more hellish for the people in Calais.

This has led to an increased desperation to reach the UK by any means. People are now trying to cross on dinghies in almost any weather conditions, we have heard accounts of boats sinking, people in freezing water for hours without rescue and people having to be airlifted out after their boat began to sink in the channel. Despite this people are attempting to cross again the very next day –  a clear demonstration that life in Calais is no longer sustainable for them.

Our Government’s response to this is to push the responsibility and blame onto French authorities and ‘crack down on people smuggling’. They aim to do this by increasing funding for France to step up its abusive environment, increasing the militarisation of the Channel and continuing to train our border force for illegal push backs. This will not work. As we have seen in the Mediterranean, this does not stop people from risking their lives, it just makes it more dangerous, forces people to take greater risks and will result in many more deaths from drowning and hypothermia.

We won’t stand by and let the Channel become a mass graveyard like the Mediterranean.

So, we’re taking Priti Patel to court to ensure push backs are NEVER used against people seeking asylum in the UK.
Channel rescue volunteers have already witnessed in person the border force training for these operations in the channel. Push backs morally wrong, inhumane and totally illegal. Both International and English maritime law stipulates that ships are not permitted to put other vessels in danger of collision.

Our flawed asylum system dictates that people must be in the UK to claim asylum, however with no legal routes to the UK available to asylum seekers, they are forced to gamble with their lives by making dangerous crossings in the busiest shipping lane in the world. No one wants to make a dangerous journey such as this, but our government forces them into it.

This must never happen again. We are calling for the creation of safe routes into the UK for those forced to flee war, the end of the hostile environment and to prevent further loss of life in the Channel. We have a CrowdJustice fund and a Petition on our website.

No human is illegal, and no human should ever have to risks their life in order to reach safe haven. Tonight we remember the adults and children who lost their lives yesterday, and all others who have passed away on their journey.


Image by Guy Smallman.