From diplomat to dinghy: why people are risking the Channel in small boats

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Dr Yahya al-Rewi 60, from Yemen, has gone from diplomat to dinghy: he was president of his government’s national information centre, part of the interior ministry.

“Before all the problems started I travelled from country to country by plane using my diplomatic passport. When I arrived at airports I didn’t have to queue as I was taken through the special gate for diplomats. At that time all the doors were open for me. Now they are closed. I had no choice but to cross the Channel to the UK in a dinghy to try to reach safety.”

He wept as he told how he was forced to flee Yemen because of the conflict there, arriving in Switzerland in April 2019 on his diplomatic passport, and claiming asylum.

While there he was attacked and blinded in one eye, he believes by political opponents because he had previously spoken out against corruption in Yemen. “After that attack my life was in constant danger in Switzerland. I travelled by train to France on 10 July 2020 and spent four days in Calais before crossing to the UK in a dinghy,” he said.

He is listed as a governor at the UN body the Economic and Social Commission for western Asia Technology Center, and is an expert in informatics.

“I don’t care about money. All I want is to live in peace,” he said. “It is because there is no fair system for refugees in Europe that we are forced to move from country to country.”

Many of those who travel in small boats are male and the stories of women who embark on the perilous journey – and who are particularly vulnerable to rape and trafficking – are rarely heard.

One woman, who is in her early 20s, escaped Eritrea with her father and siblings. She arrived in the UK earlier this month on a small boat from Calais, separated from other members of her family, and pregnant as a result of being raped in Libya five months ago by five police officers.

“I have suffered a lot in my life,” she said. “My baby conceived through these rapes has five fathers.”

After fleeing Eritrea, at the age of five, she and her family lived in Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, before she made the hazardous Mediterranean crossing to Italy, travelling from there to France.

She is being accommodated in a budget hotel by the Home Office. A scan has shown that her baby has stopped growing, and doctors said the pregnancy would have to be terminated because the foetus was not viable.

“All my family know what happened to me,” she said. “My dad is still stuck in Libya.” She said her father was so devastated by the attack on her that when they speak on the phone, he can barely talk.

She said Tripoli was “like hell” but in Calais, which she travelled to with one of her sisters, she experienced kindness from charities and French people. “There was one French lady who sometimes let my sister and I sleep in her home so that we didn’t need to sleep in the Jungle,” she said. “I do not know what will happen to me in England but one thing is certain: a lot of shit has happened to me in my life.”

A male asylum seeker in his early 20s from Yemen, who fled persecution by Houthis in his home country in 2017, was twice deported back there before reaching Libya. However, in Libya he was kidnapped by an organ trafficking gang, who took him to an “underground surgery” where organs were removed for sale, and where one of his kidneys was cut out.

Despite his surgery, he travelled via Morocco, Spain and France to the UK, arriving on a small boat in June. He has received hospital treatment and says: “I am very traumatised. I am suffering a lot of mental stress. If I say too much about the traffickers who stole my kidney I am frightened they will track me down and punish me again.”

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