This photograph taken on August 12, 2023, shows tents of migrants installed at a makeshift camp in Loon-Plage, northern France. Six people have been killed as a boat carrying migrants heading to Britain sank in the Channel. Five French ships and a helicopter, as well as two British vessels, were involved in a rescue operation while some passengers were still missing, and about 50 migrants were rescued, some of them by the British vessels, the authorities said. Image Credit: AFP

LOON-PLAGE, France: “Crossing the Channel, it’s playing with our lives,” Hajji Mahmud acknowledged.

But despite the dangers, the Afghan migrant remained determined to attempt the crossing, even after the deaths of at least six of his countrymen early Saturday when their vessel sank.

In the makeshift camp at Loon-Plage on the north coast of France, some 15 tents were scattered behind an embankment near a pile of burning rubbish.

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Mahmud lives there with a group of other Afghans, some of them very young, and hoping for a better life in Britain.

“If we had a good life in Afghanistan, a good government, a good education system...,” he said.

He entered the European Union through Croatia. What he would like, he says, is for the French and English police to help him cross the Channel without having to risk his life.

But he knows he won’t get that.

“We’ll suffer until we manage to cross,” he said.

The French and English coastguard said two people were still missing late Saturday after this latest disaster, when the boat carrying more than 60 people capsized.

Many of those on board - most of the around 60 people rescued - were Afghans, like him, plus a few Sudanese people with them. A few of those on board were minors.

‘We will try again’

For France’s State Secretary for the Sea Herve Berville, it was “a terrible human tragedy”, adding to what is already a grim toll.

Five migrants died at sea and four went missing while trying to cross to Britain from France last year.

In November 2021, 27 migrants died when a boat capsized in the Channel.

Paramedics wait to tend to assist migrants picked up at sea while attempting to cross the English Channel, after disembarking from a UK Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeboat at the Marina in Dover, southeast England, on August 12, 2023 Image Credit: AFP

But many migrants are still willing to risk the crossing. According to the authorities on the north coast of France, there are currently around a thousand people waiting to take their chance.

Bilal and Basir are two of them, camped out on an old canape installed under a tarpaulin sheet.

If their families knew about the latest sinking, they would never let them attempt the crossing, they said.

Threatening letter

They had in fact meant to try to get across the previous night but they had missed the boat, they said. Nevertheless, they insisted they will try again.

“My sister, my uncle, are in England,” said Basir, aged 22.

“My dream is to learn because we know English and we (would) like to learn in their universities, or college,” said 20-year-old Bilal.

In Hastings, England, Mussadiq was at his hotel in this seaside town when he received the letter threatening to deport him to Rwanda.

The three-page missive said Britain’s Home Office wouldn’t even consider the substance of his asylum claim before exhausting whether he could be sent to another country, including the central African nation with which it has a new deal.

“I risked my life to come here,” said Mussadiq, 27, who fled Afghanistan after he was forced to fight for the Taliban. He crossed the English Channel in a small boat, overcrowded with migrants, which sprung a leak along the way and required a coast guard rescue. Like other migrants interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld, in the interest of protecting his asylum chances.

Migration act

But his hopes for a less precarious life have run up against Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” and a new asylum policy that places Britain on the extreme end of the spectrum in Europe - and aspires to something like Australia’s mandatory detention and offshoring.

The United Kingdom’s Illegal Migration Act 2023 - passed by Parliament and granted royal assent last month - effectively bans those who enter Britain via unofficial means from applying for asylum here. The law places a legal duty on officials to detain and deport people back to their birth country, if that’s possible, or to a “safe third country,” including Rwanda, where their asylum claims can be processed. Once relocated, asylum seekers would be barred from ever entering Britain again.

In its essence, what Britain is trying to do is an outgrowth of Brexit, driven by a desire to “take back control” of the borders. But beyond the British particulars, the effort has captured the interest of other nations that would similarly like to outsource the issue of migration.

Migrants picked up at sea while attempting to cross the English Channel, are brought by a UK Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeboat into the Marina in Dover, southeast England, on August 12, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

“A lot of other countries are watching the UK experiment closely, and they are hoping it succeeds,” said Jeff Crisp, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

The United Nations was alarmed enough to issue an unusual statement, saying that Britain was at odds with international law and was setting “a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations that other countries, including in Europe, may be tempted to follow.”

Within Britain, the tough line on migration goes over well with the pro-Brexit base and other key voting target groups of the ruling Conservative Party. Nearly 60 per cent of Conservative voters say immigration is one of the most important issues facing the country, according to YouGov surveys. So Sunak’s government is trying to show it can make headway on the issue before the next election, expected next year.

Voters are also focused on a cost-of-living crisis - which economists say has been driven by Brexit. So the government has framed the migration issue as an economic issue, too, regularly noting that the public is paying nearly $7.6 million a day to put asylum seekers up in hotels.

In a highly symbolic move billed as a cost-saving measure, the government retrofitted a giant, hulking barge called the Bibby Stockholm to house 500 migrants. But the effort to rehouse migrants on the barge has been beset with problems. After a series of delays, on Monday, a small group moved onboard. Amid criticism of the arrangement, Lee Anderson, the deputy chair of the Conservative Party, said Tuesday that migrants who don’t want to live on a barge could go “back to France,” using an obscenity. On Friday, the vessel was being evacuated over health concerns.

36-year-old Kurdish Iraqi exile Abu Mohammad admitted he was having second thoughts about risking the journey to Britain. “If I see that it’s very risky, I’m going to try to stay in France,” he told AFP.

‘There will be other tragedies’

Some 30 kilometres away, at the French channel port of Calais, two 16-year-old Sudanese were among the survivors. “In France, it’s complicated for us,” said one of them.

“There’s racism, nobody wants us, we sleep in the street and nobody cares, we can’t work.”

They will keep trying to make the crossing to England, they told AFP, hopeful of reaching there safely and studying computing.