Asylum-seekers preparing to make the treacherous journey across the Channel from France have warned they will attempt to drown themselves if the Navy attempts to intercept their boats.
More than 4,600 people have crossed the Dover Strait on small boats so far this year, with increased surveillance and coronavirus travel restrictions having effectively closed the previously more popular method of stowing away in vehicles.
With concern rising and inflamed rhetoric in the UK, immigration minister Chris Philp and and newly appointed clandestine channel threat commander Dan O’Mahoney travelled to Paris to hash out a “new, comprehensive action plan” to stem the crossings.
Meanwhile, Priti Patel has stepped up plans to use warships to intercept migrant vessels, which one Ministry of Defence official described as “completely potty”, “inappropriate and disproportionate”.
“It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multimillion-pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat on rubber dinghies in the Channel,” they told the Press Association. “It could potentially put people’s lives at even greater risk.
Amid increasing desperation, and with the preservation of life deemed paramount under maritime law, some of those living in refugee camps in northern France have now threatened to jump overboard if their passage is blocked – which would require UK ships to withdraw.
“The boat is our only chance for a new life in a safe country,” Kamal Sadeghi, 39, a Christian convert from Iran, told The Times, who has been in Calais for 10 days with his 33-year-old wife, Niki Karimi, 33, and their daughter, Sava, whose first birthday is on Sunday.
“I am too tired to carry on. If they try to stop us I will drown myself.”
“We have lost everything since we left Iran three years ago,” he said, telling the paper that his family had been incarcerated along with 300 single men after seeking refuge in Slovenia, where their savings were lost to the “mafia”.
Ms Karimi, a lawyer who is now suffering with depression, added: “We need just a normal life. We need to get on a boat. If they try to stop us I will kill myself. I would jump in the water”.
For months now, security officials and their representatives have voiced fears that asylum-seekers may resort to jumping from their boats if intercepted by UK or French authorities attempting to stop their passage to Britain.
Yusshka Mir, 36, an Iranian clothes designer described an attempt two nights previously in a dinghy alongside 17 other men, who were rescued by French police after 12 hours at sea with a failed GPS system, bailing water from their boat with their hands.
“I have no money, no food, no home, no reason to carry on living if they try to stop me getting to England,” he told The Times. “What Boris Johnson does not understand is that for us it is better to die if we cannot reach England. I would drown myself. We will all die.”
While some in the UK have accused those seeking to cross to Britain of being “economic migrants”, asylum-seekers’ weekly allowance is less than £38 per week, with most forbidden from seeking employment.
The main reasons asylum-seekers come to the UK are that they speak English or have a family connection there, and because Britain’s family reunification programme is faster than other countries, Baraa Halabieh, a Syrian actor, campaigner and refugee living in the UK told the BBC on Tuesday.
Aziz Shojaei, a 27-year-old from Afghanistan wishes to join his three brothers in the UK and had paid €3,000 for passage in a small boat, which was intercepted by the French authorities within 10 minutes.
“I would have drowned myself but the water was not deep enough,” he told The Times. “We were too close to France; if we had got to the English line [in the middle of the Channel] we would have been taken to England.”
“I must try again. I cannot remain here, if the police catch you they do violence, they will set dogs on you,” he added. “If I make asylum here they will not give us a house or money. No one cares here.”
The UK offered asylum, resettlement or protection to 19,480 people in the year to September 2019 – the highest number since 2003, according to Home Office statistics. It received significantly less applications than Germany, France, Spain and Greece.
On Tuesday, The Independent revealed that the government was warned nine months ago that its own policies were “pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes” across the English Channel in an official report by MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee, among them Ms Patel.
The report called for the government to increase legal routes to seek asylum, improve “dire” conditions in French camps, and address the root causes of migration.
Responding to Ms Patel’s plan to employ the Navy, former home secretary Jack Straw said last week: “I don’t think that just trying to push these people back is going to work.”
“It will only take one of these dinghies to capsize and everybody to drown – which is perfectly feasible – for there to be a hullabaloo, including in the Conservative party, and for the policy to have to be reversed.”
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