They Are Us

The people risking their lives to cross the Channel in small boats are not aliens, invaders, migrants or some other lesser category of human to be dismissed. They are us.

I’m posting this in honour of Rasoul Iran-Nejad, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, Anita and Armin, who died out there. Kids and their parents. I didn’t know them, but earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting and listening to a number of young teenagers who have made the same crossing. One of them, Akoy, comes from the same town as the family that died. This is his story.

Akoy is dressed in skinny jeans and a roll-neck sweater, with a shaved neck but a big fat quiff. He’s only 16, but his eyes say otherwise. Last summer, he made the long, perilous journey from his home town in Iran to the shores of northern France. There, he paid a smuggler £3,000 for a place on a small boat leaving for England, with money wired by his big brother, but he was deceived. “The man told me lots of lies. He said: ‘I send you by big boat, like the ferries they have in Dover. You have food, drink, everything you need on board.’”

Instead, Akoy found himself standing on a wet, windy beach in the dark with a group of others, looking in horror at a tiny craft. “We were all really scared when we saw this boat. Three metres.” He identifies it on Google as the kind of inflatable meant for six or eight people. “There were 22 of us. The boat was in a big cardboard box. We had to unpack it and pump it up by hand. It took three hours. The man brought a small motor for the back and gave it diesel.” A boy was chosen as the driver because he had worked as a fisherman back home in Afghanistan. “The man pointed to a red light on the other side and said, ‘Don’t worry. Just aim for that.’”

Akoy panicked. “I said, ‘Why did you lie to me? I’m not going.’ The man said, ‘You must go. I won’t give your money back.’” It was a terrible moment. That was all the money his family had. So he got on the boat, reluctantly, but it turned over in the surf and threw them out, three times. They were soaked. It was 2am.

Out in the Channel, they realised they were in real trouble. “We were all saying the prayer we say as Muslims when we are going to die. The Afghan people texted their families to say goodbye. I would have texted my brother, but I didn’t have my phone.”

The boy driving had thrown some bags into the water during the journey, presumably to keep the boat afloat. There was huge relief when a large Border Force boat spotted them at dawn and sent a rescue launch. The people on board were all young men like Akoy, although the others were from Afghanistan. As they were given lifejackets and taken off the dinghy, Akoy braced himself for trouble. “In France, the police hit you. They come to the camp, put spray in your eyes and beat you up. The English police were not like that. They were so good. I was so cold. They helped me with a blanket, clothes and food. I didn’t think it would be like this.”

The young men were taken to a reception centre in Dover harbour, where specialist immigration officers interviewed Akoy and asked why he was there. His answer is the same now as it was then:

“I come from a dangerous place. I am looking for a quiet place.”

Akoy comes from Sardasht, a majority Kurdish town in Iran near the border with Iraq, where Saddam Hussein once carried out chemical attacks. Lately, there have been violent clashes between the Kurds and Iranian security forces. Home Office figures show that two-thirds of Iranians who apply here are given asylum.

The story Akoy tells is like an old folk tale. His mother died when he was five. His stepmother rejected him. His father got sick and he had to go to work at 13. He dreamed of escape and saved to do so, supported by his brother.

Akoy made it to Turkey then tried to cross to Italy by sea, but the boat was stopped and sent back twice. Unwilling to give up, he paid to be locked with three other boys in the back of a sealed container lorry going to France, only to realise at the last moment how dangerous it was. “I was scared to get in. I thought we were going to suffocate and die. The man hit me three times to make me get on.”

Akoy’s eyes become red and glisten as he remembers the fear. He was 15 then. It was only last summer. “We were inside the lorry for four-and-a-half days. The driver, who was Turkish, would open the door and give bread and some drink then close it quickly.” (Kent Refugee Action Network says Akoy’s story rings true. We have changed his name.)

“We had no toilet for four days,” Akoy continues. “Sometimes there was no oxygen. It was horrible. We were banging on the walls and the door, calling out to the driver, ‘Please help us.’ Three or four times, we called for him. He was not coming.”

They were finally let out in Lille, France. Confused and distressed, Akoy had no idea what to do. “I saw Kurdish people at the train station and one boy said he was going to Dunkirk, where there was a place for Kurds. I needed to see people who spoke my language.” Smugglers in Dunkirk openly offered places on boats. His brother sent the money through Western Union.

On arrival in the UK, Akoy was lucky enough to be found a place with a foster family until he turns 18. “I like my foster mother very much. She is like my mum. I cook for her. I am learning English food. It’s hard. I miss my family.”

Akoy is still waiting for his asylum claim to be processed by the Home Office, having been told there is a backlog. If he is granted refugee status, he will have five years’ leave to remain in Britain, with the ability to work and apply for travel documents. He is determined to make a success of life here, if allowed. He is busy studying. “I need to finish school and college then university. I would be a good chef. I can’t go back, it is too dangerous.” He sighs. “I am glad to talk about this. I want to get all the bad memories out of my head.”

Listening to him, it strikes me that if people like Akoy were perceived as being “us”, we would tell their lives as adventure stories. Mostly, of course, they are not.

Thinking again of the family that died, listening to their relative speak on the news, I am struck again by the truth. If we faced the same, desperate situations that they face – and if we could somehow summon the strength, courage and determination they have – we might risk everything to escape, in the hope of a better life for ourselves and our children. They are not aliens. They are us.

Thank you to Bridget Chapman and Kent Refugee Action Network for the work they do and for enabling me to meet Akoy. Please support them here.

This piece is based on an extract from a longer read I wrote for the Guardian earlier this year, just before lockdown, which you can read here.

I also made a pair of programmes for Radio 4 looking at the relationship between Dover and Calais, featuring other remarkable stories from those who have crossed. Find those here.

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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