As It Happens

Advocate calls on U.K. to help refugees after young man dies trying to reach Britain

Razia Shariff, CEO of the Kent Refugee Action Network, says migrants are risking their lives in the treacherous crossing across the English Channel from France because they have no other safe, legal means to seek asylum in the U.K.

‘Young, resilient people have no other legal, safe, alternative route to seek asylum,' says Razia Shariff

U.K. Border Force officials arrive in Dover, England, on Saturday with people who were picked up at sea while crossing the English Channel. A young Sudanese man was found dead on the shores of Calais, France, on Wednesday after trying to cross the sea to the U.K. in a dinghy. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

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An advocate for refugees wants the U.K. government to do more to help people taking dangerous measures to reach Britain after a Sudanese man died trying to cross the English Channel this week.

His body washed up on the shores near Calais on Wednesday. British media has identified him as Abdulfatah Hamdallah.

He was travelling with a young Sudanese boy who was found on shore and alerted authorities that his friend had gone missing after their boat capsized. The pair was reportedly travelling the waters in an inflatable dinghy, using shovels as makeshift oars.

The death comes amid tensions between Britain and France over a rise in people trying to cross the English Channel in recent weeks. At least 650 people have crossed one of the world's busiest waterways in small boats so far this month. 

Britain's Royal Air Force has been patrolling the area, and British officials have hardened their rhetoric against asylum-seekers. 

Razia Shariff, CEO of the Kent Refugee Action Network, spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the young man's death and the refugee crisis. Here is part of their conversation.

[Editor's Note: When this interview was recorded, various media had reported Hamdallah was 16 years old. However, the BBC and the Independent have since reported he was in his 20s.]

What does it say to you that [a young man] would end up dying trying to get to Britain?

At Kent Refugee Action Network, we work with young, unaccompanied, separated refugee and asylum seekers. So we have other boys who are Sudanese who've made that journey, and when we have talked to them, it's from sheer desperation to find somewhere where they feel they can have a future, fleeing persecution from back home in Sudan, or Kurdistan, or wherever they are. 

They have, potentially, friends or other people that they know, support networks in the U.K., sometimes family as well. And that's why they're so desperate to reach the U.K., so they can move forward with their lives.

What kind of stories do they tell you about life in Sudan and what's forced them to leave?

There are lots of different reasons, from child soldiers through to just the conflicts and the pressures on them as young males to be targeted by different groups as part of the civil disobedience and disturbances that are there. 

What really angers me is that these young, resilient people have no other legal, safe, alternative route to seek asylum in the U.K., which is their right.

[Secretary of State for the Home Department] Priti Patel called this a tragic loss of a young life. But she went on to blame criminal gangs and people smugglers who exploit young asylum seekers like this [young man]. What do you make of that reaction?

My problem is that if anybody — anybody — had a safe, alternative, legal route to enter the United Kingdom and seek asylum, they would take it. Why would they risk spending so much money for smugglers and risk their lives to go across the English Channel if there was a viable, positive, safe and legal alternative for them? That's what's missing.

What kind of alternative do you envision?

The government's own foreign affairs select committee in November 2016, the Joint Council for [the] Welfare of Immigrants, and a host of other ... charities, as well as the UNHCR, have all said that a legal alternative needs to be offered. 

In the past, in the Calais camps, they actually set up centres in order to process initial processing of asylum claims, so that if there was a legitimate claim to be made, they could be brought over to the U.K. for that process to start. At the moment, there is nothing.

People sit outside their tents in a makeshift camp in the vicinity of the former Calais 'jungle' camp, near the northern French port city, on Feb. 18, 2019. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

When and why did that stop?

Because the Calais jungle was dismantled.

Given that there is no mechanism for these asylum seekers and we're seeing … more and more people take this dangerous trip, is the government perhaps not right to try to take measures to stop them, to dissuade them from this danger?

The measures that they are suggesting, actually, the UNHCR ... [has] said will actually not stop them from coming. It will just push them into using alternative, even more risky, longer routes to arrive in the U.K.

An aerial view of a port authority yard in Dover, England, shows dinghies believed to have been used by people picked up at sea while crossing the English Channel. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

As you mentioned, this has been going on for some time, but the numbers are increasing from about 2,000 people who tried to cross the Channel last year. This year, so far, about 4,000. Why do you think that there are more people attempting this this year?

There are lots of different factors that we've heard about. One is the fear of Brexit and what will happen and what the clampdown might be like post-Brexit.

Second, with the [coronavirus] crisis in the camps, a lot of the young people want to leave the camps because they are in fear that they might become infected and become ill because of [coronavirus].

And then also, apparently, the smugglers are starting to do deals where they want … payments and they will give them lots of chances to get across until they succeed. 

It's becoming a really difficult and challenging conundrum.

What is France doing to support the migrants and to stop this exploitation?

If there is a refugee or asylum seeker who wants to claim asylum in France, you know, in other parts of France, they are going through due process with them.

But, you know, they can't grant refugee and asylum seekers asylum in the U.K. They can't process that. That has to be done by the U.K. government.

Do you have any indication that the U.K. government is looking at any kind of mechanism to allow this to happen?

I'm really, really hoping that they are listening to the advice of the foreign affairs select committee, they're listening to those who are experts in the field in the charity and voluntary sector, they're listening to UNHCR and they are actually having negotiations with their French counterparts to resolve this in a positive way to ensure safe passage for these vulnerable young people.

How concerned are you that others might die trying to make this passage to England?

Since the boats started coming in large numbers about a year and a half ago, we have always said we're just waiting for this to happen. And there may already be bodies at the bottom of the sea that we know nothing about, of people who have perished and died on the journey, but haven't actually washed up on the shores.

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Katie Geleff

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