I have lots of friends who reckon they had a rough childhood but after I began working with unaccompanied asylum seeking children I was reminded how it’s all relative. Ibrahim, a seventeen year old veteran of a traumatic life, is fairly typical of the hundreds of children who arrive on our southern shores during the summer months. He was born, sometime in 2003, in Darfur province in the Sudan – the same year that war erupted and ethnic genocide killed between 300,000 and 400,000 people. He lost his father and his mother and his village was burned to the ground. His grandparents raised him and his two brothers.
Much of Sudan is desert, there are frequent famines and droughts compounding the problems of a country that became independent from the UK in 1956 only to see decades of civil war destroy much of its infrastructure. As a result, Sudan is now 171st out of 186 countries in terms of of poverty and living standard. Many of the 40 million Sudanese are now displaced people living in refugee camps both within and outside of the country.
Their short life expectancy of just over 52 years is worsened by AIDS, water related diseases and the absence of sanitation facilities. Almost the entire population ekes out a living on the land although just 6.7% of it is arable. Rural employment includes cotton, peanuts and sugar growing especially along the Nile where pumps bring water to the fields from the river. Lemons, mangoes, grapefruit, paw paws and oranges are also grown. Further afield from the Nile, farmers live something of a nomadic lifestyle concentrating on rearing cattle, camels, sheep and goats.
Between 1989 and 2019, Sudan experienced a 30-year-long military dictatorship led by Omar al-Bashir who is presently accused of widespread human rights abuses including torture and persecution of minorities. Protests erupted in late 2018, demanding Bashir’s resignation, which resulted in a successful coup d’état on April 11, 2019.
Around this time the 16 year old Ibrahim, with his village totally destroyed, and in serious danger of being enrolled as a boy soldier, was handed a bit of money by his grandparents and older brother and put on a truck headed north to Libya. His family became just history.
Ibrahim’s native language is the Ibiri dialect of Mararit spoken by fewer than 20,000 people but he also knows some Arabic which enabled him to hitchhike across the war ravaged deserts of Libya to the coastal town of Misratha. He met other refugees and worked for the next nine months as an electrician’s helper in order to save the 2000 Libyan dinar (US$1,500) he needed to pay for a place on a boat. On January 27th 2020 he was one of 102 petrified refugees who clambered aboard a rubber inflatable, only 24′ long and 6′ wide, launched by Libya-based smugglers. After four days crossing 380 miles of the Mediterranean Sea, with only water to drink and a few biscuits to eat, they were in really poor shape but Allah was with them – they survived, while over 572 drowned in 2020.
The ‘Open Arms’ rescue vessel, already overloaded with 261 refugees from four other distressed boats, picked them up off the Italian coast. Italy’s previous coalition government included the anti-migrant League Party as a partner and there were repeated standoffs at sea when they denied port access to private rescue ships. In some cases, the rescuers and their passengers were left in limbo for days or forced to sail as far as Spain to disembark.
After being refused permission to dock in Malta the ‘Open Arms’ supply of food was quickly running out and the story became world news. Fortunately, a new Italian government started allowing charity ships to disembark rescued migrants on condition that other European Union nations agreed to take some of the asylum-seekers. Several nations have since made good on pledges to share the migrant burden so the boat got clearance to go ashore in Pozzallo, Sicily.
Once safely ashore Ibrahim was processed, given a backpack, a sleeping bag, some biscuits, bread and jam and sent on his way. Using the guidance and resources of the underground railroad, established by NGO’s helping immigrants travel through Europe, he started to jump trains, ticketless. Time after time he was caught and thrown off. He found rough sleeping places on the side of the tracks between rides but eventually he made it all the way through Italy to Ventimiglia near the French border. After attempting three times to cross into France, and being turned back by immigration officials, he walked 16 hours across the Alps until he reached the train tracks again and jumped another train. Once more he was repeatedly thrown off but kept trying, making progress towards Paris. Eventually, he joined other refugees sheltering under the highway bridges and was told he needed to go to Calais, the gateway to the U.K.
He arrived at the infamous ‘jungle’ camp having traveled over 3,500 miles through foreign countries without any money or any knowledge of the languages. It took many months and his journey was still not over but once again he found NGO’s, mostly from the UK, who gave him food, asylum advice and even helped him learn a few words of English.
The French government have never made life easy for ‘Jungle residents’. Several times over the last decade they’ve destroyed the whole camp but when people are as desperate as these refugees they just pick up the pieces and start rebuilding over and over again. Refugees come and go but the flow will never stop until the devastation and instability caused by the Middle East conflicts and U.S. backed dictatorships has been reversed.
While stowing away on lorries has, until recently, been the typical route for a young person crossing the English Channel the drop in road transport, due to coronavirus, has caused a huge rise in children arriving in dinghies. Ibrahim waited patiently, day after day, living in squalor in the ‘jungle’. His main activity was playing video games on a friends phone and waiting – waiting for a miracle.
Eventually, a group of four Sudanese men found enough money to buy a small rubber dinghy. They couldn’t afford an engine so they made six crude paddles and recruited Ibrahim and a few other willing and able crewmen to help paddle them to England. They set off at dusk on the night of August 16th in calm seas with a little drinking water and a lot of praying. Taking turns paddling, they kept the boat moving forward constantly with eyes focused on the approaching white cliffs of Dover and the constant passage of massive cargo vessels. Fortunately after a frightfully scary twenty hours on the open water they made it to the shore near Folkstone, Kent. Ibrahim jumped ashore into the care and protection of the U.K. immigration services. Three days later he arrived at our home.
So far, in 2020, more than 4,000 migrants have made it to the UK after completing the voyage across the English Channel but once here they face some fierce opposition. The director of Refugee Action claims, “aggressive hostility” to people seeking asylum was “making a difficult situation much worse” with “knee-jerk attacks on the basic principles of asylum”. A spokesperson for Detention Action, describes how the British Government is “playing politics with people’s lives”. “What we are now seeing, with lockdowns across Europe and a significant reduction in freight transport, is that the boats are becoming the common route for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.” Not everyone makes it across. The Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world. In addition to the risk of getting hit by a tanker or container ship many of the refugee boats are totally unseaworthy. No-one knows how many lives have been lost attempting to make the journey. Each life matters!
Three days after Ibrahim arrived safely a 16-year-old Sudanese boy drowned after his makeshift boat capsized while he was trying to reach the UK. French authorities announced the death on August 19th after his body was washed up on a beach. The U.K. blamed the boy’s death on “criminal gangs”, but humanitarian groups said the government should offer safer routes for asylum seekers and they were “lacking in compassion and competence”.
Ibrahim risked his life over and over to get to the U.K. and the story above clearly explains why he chose to leave Sudan. Some people still ask why did he not go somewhere else? If you read your history you’ll see that Sudan was a part of the British Empire and it is still perceived by many as the motherland. Some naively suggest that he could have slipped over the border into Chad and lived in the nearby U.N. refugee camp. What? Life in those places is horrendous and children are targets for kidnappers and abduction into groups such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Many youth have been lured by the promise of education in southern Sudan after the end of the conflict, whilst others willingly join up, seeing no future in the bleak refugee camps, only abject poverty and starvation. Ibrahim made the difficult decision to come to the U.K. but it came at a price – no-one from his family knows that he made it alive and we currently have no way of reaching them.
I hope and pray that others will find the courage to leave the devastation of their homelands and be renegades like Ibrahim and seek asylum. While many in Whitehall and throughout the U.K. decry the influx of refugees I believe everyone deserves a life and we should open our borders to them. Working with young asylum seekers has been my most rewarding job in the residential child care sector. Without exception they are respectful, appreciative, amazingly resilient and cheerful. They work hard to learn English and to integrate into our society………….. and enthusiastically support our national and local football teams. What more could we desire from a looked after child?