Ministers warned more deaths in Channel inevitable after family dies trying to reach UK

May Bulman
·6-min read
Members of a Kurdish-Iranian family – including two children, aged nine and six – who drowned on Tuesday morning when a boat they were travelling in sank off the coast of Dunkirk. The 15-month-old son remains missing. (Hengaw Human Rights Organisation)
Members of a Kurdish-Iranian family – including two children, aged nine and six – who drowned on Tuesday morning when a boat they were travelling in sank off the coast of Dunkirk. The 15-month-old son remains missing. (Hengaw Human Rights Organisation)

Ministers have been warned that more deaths in the Channel are inevitable unless safe and legal routes are introduced, after a family died while trying to reach British shores in a small boat.

Charities said the “hostile” approach taken by the UK and French governments to address the rise in people attempting to cross from northern France was only pushing migrants to undertake more perilous and potentially fatal journeys.

Migrants in Calais told The Independent they were shocked by the incident but that they would continue trying to cross the Channel because they have “no other option” of finding a place of safety.

Four members of a Kurdish-Iranian family – including two children, aged nine and six – drowned on Tuesday morning when the boat in which they were travelling sank off the coast of Dunkirk. The 15-month-old son remains missing.

Fifteen other migrants were taken to hospital and an investigation into the incident has been opened in Dunkirk by the French public prosecutor.

Tory MPs showed signs of unease over the government’s tough stance on the crossings. 

Lord Dubs, a former child refugee who is now a peer, urged Conservatives to vote with their conscience when the home secretary, Priti Patel, tells them to strike out his plan for family reunion from her immigration bill next week.

One former minister told The Independent the government was “too focused on tactical rather than strategic solutions”.

“This problem won’t go away until we confront the source," he said. 

He also expressed doubt that plans to press the French to do more on their side of the Channel would prove fruitful. 

Meanwhile, in a possible display of nervousness over the response, the Home Office emphasised its plans to open up safe routes for future refugees – even though it has suspended a previous scheme to help those fleeing Syria’s civil war.

The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, described the incident as “an absolute tragedy”, while Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, called on ministers to introduce safe legal routes, saying: “We have feared that we would see a tragedy like this for a long time.”

Frances Timberlake, coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Centre, which supports families who are hoping to reach the UK from northern France, said she was “saddened but not shocked” by the incident, and warned that there were likely to be more deaths this winter without urgent action.

“We predict it getting worse over the winter, not only because of the weather conditions but also because of the increasingly hostile environment that people are being forced to live in. The tragedy that we’ve seen is likely to be one that is repeated, sadly,” she said.

Ms Timberlake said she feared that the tragedy was already being used as a “pretext by the UK government for a crackdown on smugglers”, when smuggler operations were “a symptom not a cause”.  

“This has been ongoing for many years now, and it hasn’t done anything. It only increases reliance on dangerous crossing routes and, in turn, reliance on smugglers,” she added.

“People are not in northern France by choice; they’re seeking safety and are desperate to join their communities and family in UK. Deaths won’t deter people, and we fear this sort of tragedy is likely to happen again unless people are given safe and legal ways to access safety.”

David Wilson, of charity Care4Calais, said the poor conditions in northern France were “tipping the balance” for some people who feel that they would rather risk a dangerous journey than remain sleeping outside in the region.

“They don’t feel like they have a choice. If they want to claim asylum in the UK, their only option is to get on a boat or maybe a lorry. It’s being made worse by the actions of the French authorities, which are more hostile and aggressive towards refugees in northern France than ever,” he said.

“We’re seeing evictions like we always see, people being moved on a daily basis, and also bans on food distribution where refugees camp. It’s making it really hard for us to support and get the basics of life to them, like food.”

Mr Wilson said that, in order to prevent more tragedies, the UK and French governments should establish a safe and legal procedure in northern France where individuals can claim asylum.

“It would break the market for the people smugglers, and treat refugees with dignity and respect rather than as a threat and a problem. It would also give the UK more control of its borders,” he said.

“Refugees here are incredibly devastated by what’s happened, but it doesn’t change the basic equation that they feel they have no other option of finding safety. We are worried that we’re going to see a lot of crossings this winter and that more people might lose their lives.”

People sleeping rough in Calais told The Independent that they had “no option” but to keep trying to make the same journey because they believe their asylum claims would be refused in France, and Britain is their last hope of finding safety.

Emad, a Syrian national who has been in Calais for several months and has unsuccessfully tried to cross to Britain a number of times, said the deaths were “shocking” but that he would continue to attempt the crossing.

“It is a very, very dangerous route. The waves are high. I know people who have gone to hospital after trying to cross,” the 32-year-old said. “But I’m still trying to cross to the UK. I know it’s dangerous, but what else can I do? I have no other option.”

Aziz, a 23-year-old asylum seeker who reached the UK by boat from Calais in September, said: “When I heard the news, it shocked me. I was in the same place, the same situation. I could have died. And it’s more shocking because it’s a family, children.

“But there is no other way. Before, people would get here with big cars on the road, but now there are strong controls in there, no more people can cross. There’s only one way – by boat. Even for families with children.”  

The Syrian national said that the reason he didn’t claim asylum in France was because he believed he would be refused, and because he had experienced racism and Islamophobia from people and authorities in the country.

“I’m not saying it’s all French people, but you can’t stay in a place where you don’t feel safe. I needed to find a solution for my situation, and I found this only in the UK. People have no option.”

A Home Office source said: “The saddening details of this family’s journey, from Iran and through Europe, just show that increasing the opportunities to claim asylum from within Europe will not stop dangerous crossings. 

“Instead it would just incentivise more people into making treacherous journeys into Europe knowing they can [claim] asylum when they arrive. We have to help more people directly from the effected regions and that is exactly what the government are planning with the new, firm and fair asylum system which will welcome people through safe and legal routes.”

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