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LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A leading Catholic refugee agency is calling on the UK to change its asylum policy after the drowning death of another person trying to cross the English Channel.
A man – believed to be a Sudanese national in his 20s – was found unconscious by French authorities near Calais on Thursday after falling overboard from a boat bringing migrants to the UK. He later died. Another 32 people were rescued from the freezing water, with several of them suffering from hypothermia.
The incident came just months after 27 people – including seven women and three children – drowned trying to get from France to the United Kingdom.
“We are deeply saddened to hear that another human being has drowned trying to cross the Channel. We can only imagine the pain of those who knew and loved him on hearing of his death,” said Sophie Cartwright, senior policy officer at Jesuit Refugee Service UK.
“As we lament, we also call for change. It is horrifying that people are forced to take treacherous journeys in order to seek safe haven in the UK. We must build bridges for those seeking sanctuary. Policies and laws that focus on stopping boats and penalizing refugees and those who reach out a hand to help them will not prevent desperate people trying to move, but increase the danger of their journeys,” she said in a statement.
The incident happened as the Nationality and Borders Bill is making its way through parliament.
The bill would put asylum seekers at risk of criminal prosecution if they tried to enter the UK via unapproved channels, and could also criminalize people helping asylum seekers, such as rescuing them at sea and returning to a UK port. The proposed legislation is also under fire because it makes it easier for the government to remove someone’s British citizenship.
JRS UK noted that a 2019 report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned that “a policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.”
The Refugee Council noted that between January 2020 and May 2021, over 91 percent of people arriving in the UK on small boats came from just 10 countries of origin, including Afghanistan, Sudan, and Syria, which are producing large numbers of legitimate refugees.
A JRS UK representative told Crux last year that asylum seekers have to do what they can to reach security.
“Many of those who are forced to flee their homes from persecution, war and violence do so in order to seek permanent sanctuary and rebuild a new life elsewhere. There are very few routes deemed ‘legal’ by the government that are available to people who are desperately seeking safety in the UK, as somewhere where they can rebuild their life, or reunite with family members,” the spokesperson said.
“Of these routes, many are limited and restrictive. For example, last year MPs voted against continuing to resettle unaccompanied refugee children who wish to reunite with family members in the UK. Those who arrive in the UK seeking sanctuary often spend months, or even years on long and perilous journeys, during which time they often experience torture, trafficking and modern slavery,” she added.
The JRS representative told Crux asylum seekers who seek safety in the UK by crossing the English Channel on small boats are extremely vulnerable and may be experiencing ongoing trauma.
“They have been left no other choice but to risk their lives, and those of their family on their journey. There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ person, as the right to claim asylum upon entry in the UK is protected by the refugee convention. Furthermore, those seeking sanctuary often have to leave in haste and without documentation. Even if expanded, managed routes alone cannot guarantee that everyone who needs sanctuary can access it,” she said.
Mike Adamson, chief executive at British Red Cross, said the latest Channel death was “devastating” news.
“Every death in the Channel is a tragedy. It should be unacceptable to us that people are having to make dangerous crossings in freezing conditions in search of safety. Nobody puts their life at risk like this unless they feel they have no other option and are utterly desperate,” he told The Guardian.
“There are no simple answers, but we urge the government to rethink its plans for making the UK’s asylum system harder to access,” he said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome