The migrants who say the Rwanda bill won’t deter them from crossing the Channel

Refugees tell Holly Bancroft about the dangerous journeys they have taken to get to Northern France – and their hope of reaching the UK

Saturday 27 April 2024 17:29 BST

It has taken James, a 24-year-old refugee from South Sudan, over four years to get to Dunkirk in northern France – where he is hoping to get on a small boat to the UK.

His home country was stricken by a civil war that forced him to give up his place to study engineering at university and flee for his life. As he travelled along one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world, he fixated on his dream of being able to continue his studies in the UK.

This week Rishi Sunak finally passed his flagship Rwanda bill, which he says will deter people like James from coming to Britain. The deaths of five people, including a seven-year-old girl, have brought home yet again how dangerous the Channel crossing can be. But despite this, James is not deterred.

Speaking to The Independent from a makeshift aid distribution site near the Dunkirk encampments, he said: “I will go to the UK if I get my chance. I am hoping to go back to school and I dream of living a good life. If you have a dream of doing something, there is a constant pressure to achieve it. I spent 14 years in school; I went to primary school and secondary school and I want to make the most of my education.

“I had a place to study engineering at university, but I had to give it up because of the war and flee. I am frustrated about the Rwanda plan. Rwanda is a very close country to South Sudan. If I wanted to go there I would have gone there much easier, but I know that it will not be a safe country for me. Life is all about the choices you make, where you want to be, and if I wanted to be in Rwanda, I would be there.

James, 24, hopes of being able to continue his education in the UK
James, 24, hopes of being able to continue his education in the UK (The Independent )

“Thinking about the Rwanda plan puts us under a lot of pressure, but so does the pressure of my dream of achieving something. In this life, you are put on this earth to do good things, to be a good human being, and to leave a legacy behind. I pray that this Rwanda plan does not happen. If I go I know I will not be happy for the rest of my life.”

The risk of the Channel crossing, which has claimed 14 lives already this year, is nothing compared to the risks James has already faced. His worst experience on his journey so far was when a van he was travelling in broke down in the middle of the Libyan desert.

“There were 25 of us including the driver. In the end 20 people died of dehydration. You cannot walk across the desert when that situation happens, you don’t know where to go. You can only stay there and hope that someone will pass on the way. After five days some people arrived and they rescued those of us that were left. I managed to survive,” he said.

Migrants board a smuggler's boat on the beach at Gravelines, near Dunkirk,
Migrants board a smuggler's boat on the beach at Gravelines, near Dunkirk, (Getty)

Migrants in the makeshift camps at Dunkirk are under constant pressure from the French police, both where they sleep and when they get to the beaches to attempt the Channel crossing.

Many say that the police aggression shows them that they cannot build a life in France and that they must get to the UK.

Some who The Independent spoke to at an aid distribution site in northern France had spent some years living in Germany or Belgium before having their asylum claims rejected. They say they were given the choice of leaving or being deported back to their home country, and so they chose to try to come to the UK.

‘I have tried to come to the UK legally but there is no way’

Others are doubtful the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda will really happen, such as 24-year-old Ahmad Nadeem Ebadi, who fled Afghanistan with his wife after the Taliban takeover.

The majority of Nadeem’s family are living in the UK after they were evacuated during Operation Pitting, the UK government’s effort to fly people out of Afghanistan before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021.

His father is a dual British citizen, having lived in England after he fled there as a refugee when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was called forward to Kabul airport during the evacuation and was able to take some of his children with him, but Nadeem and his wife were not able to get into the airport.

Nadeem, 24, is trying to reach his family in the UK who were evacuated by the British
Nadeem, 24, is trying to reach his family in the UK who were evacuated by the British (The Independent )

“I didn’t get a chance to go on the plane. I have tried so many ways to come legally but there is no way,” he said.

He has been living in Dunkirk for a month and is hoping his wife will be able to get a room in a local women’s shelter. Reflecting on the threat of being deported to Rwanda if they managed to get to the UK, he said: “I really don’t know if it is true. I really hope to go to the UK. If it costs my life I don’t care about that. We left everything in Afghanistan. The Taliban are in Panjshir and we left everything there.”

He and his wife have already tried to get on a boat across the Channel three times but he does not have any money to pay a people smuggler to guarantee a place on the dinghy. “We have walked seven to eight hours at night to reach the Channel, but the police stop us each time. There are usually around 50-60 people trying to get on the boat. There are maybe six police in two cars and they had a drone camera.

“My wife was beside me as we walked but it was very hard for her, she fell down many times. The situation is very hard for us, I cannot stay like this.”

‘I can understand why UK wants to deport migrants to Rwanda’

Lamsa Kuku, a 17-year-old from South Sudan, said the UK was his “final destination” on a harrowing journey, which included three months in detention in Libya. He understood why Rishi Sunak might want to deport asylum seekers, saying: “I think migrants are so many in the UK that they want to send them back to Rwanda.

Charities give out blankets, groundsheets and tents to refugees who live in the woods round Dunkirk
Charities give out blankets, groundsheets and tents to refugees who live in the woods round Dunkirk (The Independent )

“The UK is a smaller island and France is very big. That’s maybe why they decided they want to deport back the people. Or maybe it is politics. But I know I don’t want to stay here, I want to go there.”

He had left South Sudan as a child refugee in 2020 and had no possessions with him apart from the clothes he was wearing. “We are living under a tree, always there is rain, and always we try to reach the UK. I don’t have any money to pay anyone to help me. I have stayed here one month but I don’t know what will happen then; I’m not going forward and I’m not going backward. I stay in the middle. I have nothing here. I am moving around place to place, as the police move us. I come here [to the distribution site] to get food and eat and then I’m going to another place.”

A committed Christian, he had been telling people about Jesus at the Dunkirk camp, and he had a strong belief that he had come to northern France by God’s will. “He has guided me these four years,” he said, as he contemplated the risk of dying in the Channel.

‘We are fleeing war. They should not send us to Rwanda’

Mohammad, 27, who is from neighbouring Sudan, was incredulous as he thought about the possibility that the UK government could send him back to a country so close to the one he had fled from.

“If they send me to Rwanda, it will be a big problem”, he said. “Maybe our view of the UK will be changed. For me I can’t imagine it. Maybe the people who have no reason to leave their countries, they could send them to Rwanda, but not us – people who have fled war.

“If they send me to Rwanda, I will imagine that there are no good people in the world. I escaped from war, I have arrived in Europe, and then they send me back again. I could not believe it.”

Rahmeen Mohammad, 22, came to France from Turkey by lorry
Rahmeen Mohammad, 22, came to France from Turkey by lorry (The Independent )

‘I’ll take the chance because Rwanda is better than Iran’

Rahmeen Mohammad, 22, who is from Iran, said he wanted to get to the UK because his life was in danger back home. “I organised a demonstration for freedom and that’s why they know me and why my life is in danger. I came from Turkey to France by lorry and I was given a sleeping tablet, which I took, so I’m not sure how long the journey was.”

When asked if the Rwanda bill would put him off going to the UK, he said: “I have to go because I need a safe place. And I think Rwanda is better than Iran.”

One Afghan refugee, who did not want to give his name, wanted to tell The Independent about the life that had been ripped away from him when the Taliban took over. “I had a good life in my country. I like my country, I did not leave it easily. I have to go to the UK because France is not accepting us.

“I was working for human rights organisations and they became a target for the Taliban. Me and these people around us, we don’t have anywhere else to go. Not everyone here is illiterate. They are good people, who had good lives. We just want to work and have a safe and peaceful life, like anyone would want for themselves.”

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