It was after midnight on Christmas Day 2018. Zainab Sadat Hossaini, who was then just 17 years old, stood on a freezing cold beach, likely near the village of Wissant in Calais, in complete darkness and looked at the boat that would take her to England. It was, as she recalls, tiny: a blue and black inflatable 12ft dinghy powered by an outboard motor which was fixed to it and less powerful than an inboard motor.
“It looked just like a balloon and I was scared. It didn’t look safe,” says Zainab, who is now 20. “I really didn’t want to get in it and I had a terrible feeling. We had to walk in the water for a bit and I was wet and cold.”
But she’d come this far. For two weeks prior to crossing the English Channel, Zainab had been living in Calais. She was there as an unaccompanied minor, totally alone. Her father had died, her mother and brother were in Greece. The family had left Tehran in Iran months before because they feared being deported back to Afghanistan, which they had fled for political reasons.
“In Iran my parents lived in constant fear of being returned to Afghanistan,” she says. “So they decided to head for somewhere safer because they didn’t want to go back to an unstable country.”
From Iran they walked to Turkey, not knowing what was ahead. It was a treacherous journey; the mountainous 540km border between the two countries is protected by a concrete wall and barbed wire but every year thousands of people decide to risk it as they flee poverty, violence and conflict. From Turkey they crossed the sea to the Greek island Lesbos. From Lesbos they journeyed to Athens, where they lived for a while in a detention centre. From Athens, Zainab was sent ahead by her mother, who wanted to get her to safety first, to France where people-smuggling “agents” had been paid “thousands” of pounds upfront to get her onto a boat to England.
It looked just like a balloon and I was scared. It didn’t look safe. I really didn’t want to get in it and I had a terrible feeling. We had to walk in the water for a bit and I was wet and cold.
Migrants and asylum seekers have previously disclosed that they paid as much as £6,000 for a seat on a dinghy making the perilous journey across the Channel.
Once in the boat with seven others, Zainab felt terrified. “I felt sick and was throwing up the whole way,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe. I was so scared and I was the only woman on the boat so there was nobody I felt comfortable asking for support.”
It was still dark.
The journey from France took between “two and three hours”. The English Channel is not a safe stretch of water to cross. It is the world’s busiest shipping lane and the Dover Strait is its narrowest part. Crossing in the early hours of the morning on Christmas Day meant that there was less shipping traffic than usual.
Given that it was winter, the sea was heaving less than at other times of year. Still, the swell made for an uncomfortable crossing for Zainab and her fellow journeymen, both in terms of nausea and being soaked by waves.
This was not the first time Zainab had crossed the sea while attempting to start a new life in a secure place. She recalls that when she and her family made the journey to Lesbos they were escorted by Turkish authorities who kept an eye on their boat.
No such safety measures were in place when Zainab crossed the Channel. When the group set off the smuggling agents had told them to “head for the lights on the other side”. They didn’t know where they would land but thought, perhaps, it would be Dover. Christmas morning had not yet broken when the dinghy hit the shore at 2.40am.
“We didn’t know where we were,” Zainab says. “It wasn’t Dover. I was still feeling sick but I spoke the best English of the group so they asked me to call the police. I called them and I remember them just asking ‘Where are you?’ over the phone. I had to keep telling them I didn’t know.”
They were in Folkestone, as it turned out. Officers eventually arrived and Zainab was taken away. She has not seen anyone else from the boat again.
Christmas Day 2018 was a busy day for smugglers. Forty people were picked up on different UK beaches in five separate incidents. Journalists at the time focused on the fact that a child and a young Afghan girl were among that number. Zainab was that girl. Several days later, then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a “major incident” and cut his Christmas break short.
As Christmas 2021 approaches, there is a renewed focus on the dangers of crossing the English Channel. On 24th November at least 31 people drowned when their vessel capsized off the coast of Calais while they were attempting to make the same journey as Zainab. The group included 17 men, seven women, two teenage boys and one girl.
Current Home Secretary Priti Patel has said she wants to start turning back boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers. However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has warned that this would “do the opposite of what is required to save lives” as well as breach the UK’s international obligations. According to the UN Convention on the Law at Sea, countries are required to “render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost” so it is unclear whether Patel’s approach would be legal.
The Home Office does not publish yearly data as to how many people cross the Channel; journalists must obtain it via Freedom of Information request. However, new figures published by the BBC, which are reportedly from the Home Office, show that the number of people who have crossed the Channel so far in 2021 exceeds 25,000, compared to less than 10,000 in 2020. It’s important to put this figure in context: in 2018 the number is thought to have been as small as 299. In 2019 the number was closer to 1,900.
The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford notes that a “large majority” of people who cross the Channel in small boats claim asylum once they reach the UK: “Of the roughly 5,000 people who had crossed the English Channel in small boats from January to September 2020, 98% claimed asylum.”
According to the BBC, most people who arrive in the UK in small boats can be expected to be granted refugee status. In the 17 months to May this year, 70% of the 12,000 people arriving in small boats came from five countries – Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam – according to data obtained by the Refugee Council under Freedom of Information legislation. Official figures show that most asylum seekers from all those countries (except Iraq) are granted refugee status at their first hearing. Some of those initially refused asylum will go on to get refugee status on appeal. For example, 59% of appeals by Iranians are successful, 69% by Sudanese asylum seekers and 73% by Syrians. That means only about a third of those arriving are not deemed to be refugees.
In 2020, the UK received 29,456 applications. However, in the same year other European countries receive more asylum applications with Germany exceeding 1,000 while both France and Spain exceeded 75,000.
Tensions are running high, both between Britain and France as to who is responsible for those in the Channel, and at a local level. In Hastings, which is on England’s south coast, fishermen have reportedly blocked volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) as they attempted to go out in lifeboats to aid those trying to reach England in small boats, saying things like “we’re full up”. Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart told local paper The Argus that it is “unacceptable under any circumstances” to block an RNLI boat from carrying out its duties, no matter the reason for the trip.
“I would not want anyone to make that journey,” Zainab says. “It is not safe. But I was also not safe in Iran or Turkey or Greece or France. In France women and children sleep in the streets.”
“It’s a myth that people come here for benefits,” she adds. “They are not enough to live on when you’re waiting and making an asylum claim. That’s not the reason that I came, or that others came. You don’t come to England and live like a rich person. You come because you want to study, to live somewhere safe, to have a future.”
“Nobody is putting their life in danger for the small amount of support you can get while waiting to claim asylum.”
On 24th November 2021, 31 people drowned while attempting to make the same journey as Zainab. The group included 17 men, seven women, two teenage boys and one girl.
Zainab lived in Canterbury after her arrival. Since March 2019, with the support of the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), Zainab has been building a future for herself. KRAN runs life skills classes at its centre in Folkestone through which Zainab has decided that she wants to become a pilot. It’s a job in which she would be able to travel the world, unrestricted by the national borders which have so far shaped her and her family’s fortunes.
“Some of the boys laughed when I told them that I wanted to be a pilot,” Zainab says today over Zoom. “But I just said ‘watch me’.” She has since had her first flying lesson at Lydd Airport, paid for by a donor who heard about her story through KRAN.
“I am just so happy to be here,” Zainab reflects. “I am happy to be studying and have opportunities. My focus is getting my dream job – I study hard so I can go to university so I can be a pilot. It’s what I have wanted to do since I was a child.”
Zainab’s brother remains in Germany but her mother has now joined her in England. She made the same treacherous journey across the Channel as her daughter and didn’t tell her in advance that she was doing it.
“I just received a call from my mum once she was here,” Zainab says. “If she had told me what she was going to do, I would have tried to stop her. I kept telling her not to do it. I kept telling her how dangerous it was. I wouldn’t want anyone to do it but I know they just want a safe life.”
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