'They won't send us to Rwanda' - why refugees in Calais believe Priti Patel's plans will never work 2 months ago

'They won't send us to Rwanda' - why refugees in Calais believe Priti Patel's plans will never work

"If they send me to Rwanda as an illegal, I will try again and again"

A group of Sudanese men stand shivering around a campfire. It's a grey, spring day in Calais and they are discussing the British government's plan to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda.

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"The British government is racist," says Mo "but the British people aren't. The British people don't want this."

Mo arrived last week, after a six-week journey from South Sudan. He's left his country, which has been locked in civil war for a decade, because his mum wants him to have a better chance at life. When she calls, he assures her that he’s safe in England - and not that he is sleeping under tarpaulin next to a disused railway track.

Near their makeshift tent is a Kurdish family. "They won't send us to Rwanda,” the teenager daughter, Aferin, tells me. “The English will see my family, they will know we are good people. They will let us stay."

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A tent near Dunkirk where Mo has been staying. Credit: JOE

These refugees find themselves at the centre of a political storm in Britain. Under a new partnership agreement, people arriving in Britain by crossing the Channel in small boats will face the possibility of being flown 4,000 miles to Rwanda for processing.

The Home Office confirmed on Monday night that the first group of illegal migrants had been detained in preparation to be sent to east Africa, with the first flights expected to take place in the coming months.

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"We tried to get a visa," Aferin says, having fled war-torn Kurdistan at the end of February. "We tried everything, this is the only route for us".

"What do they expect me to do?" asks Hassan, a Syrian refugee. "I have tried to be legal. If they send me to Rwanda as an illegal, I will try again and again."

Another says, "Rwanda? I don't believe it. They wouldn't do that to us."

Bad weather last month led to a dip in the number of migrants attempting the Channel crossing. The lull, right after the government announced its plan, led some commentators to suggest the threat of Rwanda was acting as a deterrent.

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But after an 11-day break, from April 20 to 30, when no crossings were recorded, 254 people were detected by the UK Border force just off the port of Dover, in small boats crossing from France.

One of the campsites in Dunkirk. Credit: JOE

"The fact that Priti Patel thinks the Rwanda plan would act as a deterrent is laughable," says Sarah, a volunteer with Care for Calais. "The only way you can stop smugglers, is to make it legal to claim asylum in France."

"Over 78% of people claiming asylum have been proven to have a claim on their first application," she says. "If you approve them in France, then they can go on the ferry and not a small boat. Then we have no more smuggling. It's very simple - the government just don't want you to know how easy it is to fix".

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While there's little evidence the government's Rwanda plan will discourage future crossings, Sarah believes the threat of it is doing irreparable damage to the mental health of asylum seekers.

"Just saying we're going to send you away for daring to seek asylum in our country, even if this never happens, they've won. No one is ever going to believe they'll be safe in Britain."

A young girl arrives with UK Border Force in Dover. Credit: Getty

Her sentiments were echoed by the British Red Cross, who say people’s psychological safety and sense that they are welcome in Britain is being eroded.

"We are hearing directly from people seeking asylum of the distress and anxiety recent announcements have provoked," says Chief Executive Mike Anderson. "People are telling us that they feel less safe and less welcome in the UK."

The result is these people are being driven underground - finding themselves too afraid to seek help from charities or tell their stories to the media for fear of prosecution by the UK authorities.

One outreach group told PoliticsJOE an asylum seeker from Afghanistan - on seeing Border Force - plunged himself into the Channel and swam back to the French coast. "I don't know how he survived it," they said.

Back in the camp, Aferin and her family are drinking tea - boiled from a campfire. A little girl, around six years old, emerges from the tent behind them.

"Will they take my little sister to Rwanda?" she asks. "Or will they save us and just send my dad? That would be just as bad".

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