Channel crossings: 16-year-old Sudanese boy washed up on French beach after drowning trying to reach UK

Labour accuses government of ‘lacking in compassion and competence’ after Priti Patel blames death on ‘criminal gangs’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 19 August 2020 12:05 BST
16-year-old Sudanese boy washed up on French beach after drowning trying to reach UK

A 16-year-old Sudanese boy has drowned in the English Channel after a makeshift boat capsized while trying to reach the UK.

French authorities announced the death after his body was washed up on a beach on Wednesday morning.

Priti Patel blamed the boy’s death on “criminal gangs”, but humanitarian groups said the government must offer safe routes to seek asylum.

The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, said the government’s response to rising Channel crossings had been “lacking in compassion and competence”.

“Ministers urgently need to step up work with international partners to find a humanitarian solution to this crisis, which is costing lives,” he added.

Humanitarian group Detention Action called on the home secretary to resign.

“Your failure to create a safe and legal route for this young person has directly led to their death. If you had any shame or any conscience, you would consider your position,” said Bella Sankey, the NGO’s director.

Marlène Schiappa, France’s citizenship minister, said the boy – who was carrying identification papers – had disappeared at sea overnight and was found dead on Sangatte beach.

“This unbearable tragedy moves us even more with [French interior minister] Gérald Darmanin against smugglers who take advantage of the distress of human beings,” she wrote on Twitter.

Local authorities said emergency services were called to reports of a migrant on Sangatte beach shortly after 1am on Wednesday.

He had hypothermia and was taken to hospital, but told rescuers that he had been on a makeshift boat with a friend.

“[He said] that they capsized and his companion must still be in the water,” said a statement from the maritime prefecture for the Channel. “He also warned that his companion could not swim.”

Priti Patel in Dover as Government face criticism over migrant crossing crisis

A sea search was carried out using boats and a Belgian air force helicopter, but was called off at around 4.30am when nothing was found.

Authorities were alerted to the discovery of the boy’s body at 8am and an investigation has been opened by the Boulogne-sur-Mer prosecutor’s office.

The boy is one of several migrants to have died while attempting to reach the UK in recent years.

United Nations figures show that more than 19,500 migrants have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, but the death toll for the English Channel is not formally recorded.

Children were among more than 50 migrants who arrived in Dover on Wednesday morning, bringing the total number for this year to more than 4,700.

Ms Patel called the boy’s death an “upsetting and tragic loss of a young life” as talks continue with France aiming to stop small boats leaving its coastline.

The home secretary added: “This horrendous incident serves as a brutal reminder of the abhorrent criminal gangs and people smugglers who exploit vulnerable people. Working together we are determined to stop them.”

Refugee Action said the comments “fail to recognise the UK has a legal obligation and a moral responsibility to protect people fleeing war and persecution”.

“He had a legal right to claim asylum in the UK it is utterly tragic that he lost his life trying to do this,” said Louise Calvey, the charity’s head of resettlement.

”Tough talk will do nothing to stop desperate people, including children, risking their lives to find safety here.”

It came a day after the Border Force started detaining unaccompanied child asylum seekers in a “processing centre” because Kent council had run out of capacity.

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, wrote to Ms Patel on Wednesday demanding assurances that they would have suitable accommodation and support.

“Our priority must be to prevent children from attempting perilous Channel crossings in the first place,” she added.

“The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need. Instead of turning your back on child refugees, I urge you to continue that important tradition.”

Last week, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for the British and French governments to make saving lives the “first priority”.

A parliamentary report released in November also called for the UK government to increase search and rescue operations and found its own policies were “pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes”.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, which Ms Patel served on at the time, found that government policy was “pushing migrants into the hands of criminal groups” by focusing on closing borders rather than addressing the root causes of migration or bolstering safe and legal routes to seek asylum.

David Simmonds, the Conservative co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, told The Independent there was no formal count of people who had died attempting to reach Britain.

“We have no idea at the moment how many people have been lost in the Channel but historically we know that people have drowned and their bodies have never been discovered,” he said.

“It is in everybody’s interest to come up with a constructive solution to preserve life.”

Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said the government’s response “has been both chaotic and callous”.

She added: “It is utterly against the proud British tradition of offering refuge to those in need. The government needs to step up to its humanitarian responsibility immediately and ensure safe and legal passage so that we avoid any more unnecessary deaths.”

The British Red Cross called the death an “absolutely unnecessary tragedy”.

Chief executive Mike Adamson said: “It’s unacceptable in any circumstances that people feel they have no choice but to make dangerous journeys in their search for protection.”

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said the boy was “not the first person to have lost his life attempting to reach safety in the UK from France”.

He added: “We continue, therefore, to demand that the governments on both sides of these waters share their asylum responsibilities and implore them in doing so to focus on relieving the desperate plight of people in need of support, safety and, in many cases, reunion with their family.”

Both Sudan and South Sudan, which was plunged into a bloody civil war after gaining independence in 2011, are listed as “countries of concern” by the Foreign Office.

An annual report said that in South Sudan, a peace agreement had reduced fighting but that “scorched earth” tactics including the rape of men, women and children were being used against civilians, while civil and political rights were being undermined by state security.

In Sudan, the government said peaceful protesters calling for political change had been met with deadly violence and mass detention, as well as worsening restrictions on freedom of expression and belief.

The boy’s death came days after a suspected vigilante attacked a migrant minutes after a small boat reached a Kent beach on Sunday.

The young man in his 20s was assaulted by someone reportedly watching the small boat arrive at the village of Kingsdown.

Footage of migrants arriving at that location was shared on far-right social media networks on the day.

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