On an overcast Wednesday morning in Calais volunteers from Care4Calais were out in force as usual distributing food and other necessities to refugees hoping to cross the Channel to seek sanctuary in the UK.
But the mood was much more sombre than usual as the news spread about the death of a young refugee. Volunteers held a short silence to reflect on the bravery and dignity of the young person from Sudan who had lost his life trying to reach safety.
Clare Moseley, of Care4Calais, condemned the failure of the government to provide safe and legal routes for refugees to reach the UK from northern France.
“Things need to change. We need a way for people’s asylum claims to be fairly heard without them having to risk their lives,” she said.
Simon Jones, of Maria Skobtsova House, a place of shelter for refugee families in Calais, said in the past five years he and others had supported families in France to collect the bodies of asylum seekers who had died trying to reach the UK, often losing their lives crushed under the wheels of trains or hit by lorries.
“Most of the young people have already been on the road for 12-18 months,” he said. “Most have already had risk-laden journeys through Libya or from Turkey to Greece. We are spending more money on security in northern France so the smugglers’ prices go up to deal with this security. But demand has not gone down.”
Jonny Willis, CEO of Refugee Youth Service, said they work in Calais and in Greece with young refugees, providing information about safe options. He said: “When young people get into a dinghy in Calais they know the risks. Very few of them will have made it here without having already crossed a very dangerous stretch of water previously. Smugglers try to play down the risks. The children know the risks but they want to cross regardless. We have worked with children who have seen their friends drown but who still want to cross.”
Ishmael Hamoud, 21, the first child to reach the UK safely thanks to the Dubs scheme to bring child refugees to safety, a scheme that has now ended, called on the government to set up more safe routes for child refugees to reach the UK and reunite with family members.
Hamoud has just completed an undergraduate degree and hopes to start a masters in international public policy before applying for a job at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
He spent 13 months in Calais between 2015 and 2016 making around 50 failed attempts to cross the Channel to the UK by train or lorry. Eventually he was brought to safety under the Dubs scheme. He had previously survived a precarious sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.
“It’s horrific what’s happening now in Calais,” he said. “More people are putting themselves in danger and more people will die. We need to have a new scheme like Dubs to bring child refugees to safety.”
Ali, a teenage asylum seeker from the Middle East who recently reached safety in the UK said: “Nobody who is living in a safe place would risk their life making the kind of journey many refugees are making. Some refugees are kidnapped and others sell their bodies on their journeys. Some are as young as 12 or 13 or 14. Some have lost their parents. They just want to live.”
He said while it was tragic the way the young Sudanese refugee had lost his life, he was luckier than some who had drowned at sea and whose bodies were never found.
“People are not coming to the UK for benefits. They are coming here so they can live and not die.”
Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage, which works with young people who are unaccompanied in Europe, fleeing persecution and seeking sanctuary, said: “This morning’s tragic news is the direct consequence of a lack of safe alternatives for those seeking sanctuary. The French and UK governments have been quick to blame people smugglers but fail to recognise that the best way to destroy their business model is to provide safe and legal routes for refugees and a clear pathway to asylum. Ministers in the UK and France need to get a grip and make it their personal priority to prevent any more needless loss of life.”