Behind the scenes of the English Channel crossings: Migrant stories of Life or Death in tiny inflatable boats

Attempts by two refugees to reach Dover reflect persecution in Sudan and rising tensions against migrants in Europe.

On the night he attempted to cross the Channel, Abdulfatah Hamdallah left his blanket and bicycle behind at the camp in Calais.

They were the only possessions he would leave behind: his backpack was lost at sea when he drowned attempting to make the perilous crossing over the Dover Strait to England in a dinghy, with shovels for oars.

His body was found at Sangatte beach in France. He was not the first asylum seeker to make the journey and he will not be the last. But he died as tensions mount over the increasing numbers of small-boat crossings in the Channel and amid a war of words between Britain and France.

So far this year more than 4,900 people have arrived to enter the UK via small boats, dwarfing the total for 2019.

Hamdallah’s death underlines the risks migrants are willing to take to find a better life. He is understood to have left his village in West Kordofan, Sudan, near the Darfur border, in 2015.

His brother, Al-Fatih Hamdallah, told the Guardian that life was so “tough” in Sudan they had had no choice but to leave. He first travelled from his home near En Nahud across the Sahara with the help of smugglers to Tripoli, Libya, to join his brothers. While in Libya they worked at a car wash. They were in Tripoli for two years when Abdulfatah left without telling his brother where he was going.

His cousin, Al-Noor Mohammed, 16, who is in Calais, said Abdulfatah made the journey from Libya three years ago from the coastal city of Zuwara with the aid of people smugglers. He got to Italy but did not stay for long, and set off for France on foot.

Mohammed regularly saw his cousin in the Calais camp. “We are all staying and sleeping together in the same area, he was a sociable person and had a lot of friends,” he said.

His brother, who remains in Libya, said that Abdulfatah was ambitious and wanted to have a better life. “He wanted to build his future, so he couldn’t stay in Sudan,” he said.

After Abdulfatah had his request for asylum in France turned down he decided to cross the Channel to the UK. He acquired a dinghy, similar to a pool inflatable in size and quality, and two shovels for oars. He and a friend failed in their attempt, and were thrown into the water. The friend survived and was taken to hospital but Abdulfatah, who could not swim, drowned.

Thousands of Sudanese nationals have applied for asylum in the UK in the last five years, with as many as 2,900 in 2015 alone.

The conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, erupted in 2003 when the government armed Arab militias to suppress an insurgency by non-Arab rebel groups complaining about political and economic marginalisation.

The government responded by carrying out genocide of the region’s non-Arab population, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The country’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted by the international criminal court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

There has been a deepening economic crisis in recent years, and humanitarian groups say excessive use of force and unlawful killings by Sudanese security forces against peaceful protesters continue.

Bashir was removed as president in April 2019 and a civilian-led transitional government is now in place. Sudan is in a period of transition towards elections in 2022.

The security situation in Darfur, however, remains volatile and unstable. Banditry and lawlessness are widespread, and there are frequent violent attacks against civilians by militias, which have led to the killing of many and displacement of thousands. Another Sudanese asylum seeker is understood to have died in the Mediterranean on Thursday.

One migrant, a 33-year-old Sudanese man, told of making a similar journey to Abdulfatah’s but of surviving the dangerous Channel crossing to reach the UK. He, along with two other asylum seekers from Chad, aged 35 and 39, bought a cheap, very small, inflatable dinghy costing €300 from a shop in Calais, thought to be similar to the one used by Abdulfatah and his friend.

The 33-year-old said he had only been in Calais for 10 days and had fled persecution in Darfur, spending time in Libya, trying to hide in the countryside there and working on a farm.

He said: “I tried to stay away from the cities in Libya as the militias catch people from Sudan and traffic them. It is not an easy life in Darfur. Too many of my family members were killed by the Janjaweed [militia]. And it is not an easy life in Libya.”

He said that conditions in Calais were bad and that he and others were constantly running from the police. “I know how lucky the three of us were to survive and not drown like Abdulfatah. We didn’t understand anything about how to cross the sea but we just looked for the lights of Dover to guide us.”

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