Iraqi family of girl who died in small boat crossing were making fourth attempt

Sara, aged seven, was crushed to death on the overloaded boat heading from France to England

Seven-year-old Sara Al Hashimi was crushed to death in a people smuggler's boat crossing the English Channel. Photo: BBC
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The father of a seven-year-old girl crushed to death in a people smuggler's boat crossing the English Channel has revealed he was desperate to make the journey to the UK after being rejected for asylum in Europe 14 times since fleeing Iraq 15 years ago.

Ahmed Al Hashimi's family were making their fourth attempt to cross the Channel when his daughter, Sara, died under the weight of bodies on the overloaded boat.

Mr Al Hashimi said he had repeatedly applied, unsuccessfully, for asylum in Belgium and Sweden.

“I will never forgive myself. But the sea was the only choice I had. Everything that happened was against my will. I ran out of options,” he told the BBC.

“People blame me and say how could I risk my daughters? But I've spent 14 years in Europe and have been rejected."

Mr Al Hashimi appealed to the British government for support. “If people were in my place, what would they do? Those who [criticise me] haven't suffered what I've suffered. This was my last option,” he said.

The number of migrants arriving in the UK after crossing the Channel has hit a record high for the first four months of a calendar year. A total of 7,567 people made the journey from January to April, provisional Home Office figures show.

That is a 27 per cent increase on the same period in 2023 (5,946) and 13 per cent higher than in the first four months of 2022 (6,691).

On Tuesday, 268 people arrived in the UK in five boats, and crossings continued on Wednesday.

Sara’s death and her family’s attempted crossing showed the extremes that refugees are being pushed to in order to find a safe place to live, said a campaigner.

“It shows how desperate people are,” said Mary Atkinson, campaigns and networks manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a UK charity that gives legal aid to migrants.

“Every death at the border is not just a tragedy but a huge and clear failure on the part of the British government,” she told The National.

The UK's strategy of “deterrence” through deportation was not working, she added, contrary to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's declaration.

Though the British government’s Safety of Rwanda Act only passed last week, the bill had been talked about for more than two years – enough time for any deterrence to start coming into effect, she said.

“If deterrence was going to work it would have worked a long time ago. It just makes it more dangerous to seek asylum,” said Ms Atkinson.

The UK started detaining migrants who face deportation to Rwanda this week, with plans to start flights to Kigali in the next nine to 11 weeks. It follows ratification of the UK Rwanda treaty last week alongside the passage of the Act.

It has caused panic among asylum seekers in the UK, Ms Atkinson said.

“We’re getting calls from people at various stages of the asylum process in a panic about the detentions,” she said.

“People who have risked everything to get to safety, they have communities here – family, friends – and the prospect of that being taken away is terrifying,” she added.

She called for a “a safe and fair way to claim asylum and have that assessed fairly and efficiently”.

The policy's deterrence effect will be tested against the sheer will of people like the Hashimi family to find sanctuary in European countries.

Mr Al Hashimi fled Basra, Iraq, in 2009 after being threatened by militias. His three children were born in Belgium, and Sara, his youngest, had spent more of her life in Sweden.

“If I knew there was a 1 per cent chance that I could keep the kids in Belgium or France or Sweden or Finland I would keep them there. All I wanted was for my kids to go to school. I didn't want any assistance. My wife and I can work. I just wanted to protect them and their childhoods and their dignity,” he said.

Deadly crossing

The smugglers had assured the family only 40 people, mostly Iraqis, would get on the boat. Mr Al Hashimi paid €1,500 ($1,600) per adult and half that for each child to make the crossing.

But a separate group of Sudanese migrants appeared on the beach and insisted on coming aboard, crowding the boat.

French police had attempted to stop the group from boarding, with tear gas canisters exploding, and smugglers used fireworks and sticks to ward them off.

As the boat drifted, Mr Al Hashimi could be heard from the coast shouting for help in the chaos, as he implored those around him to save his daughter.

“I'm a construction worker. I'm strong. But I couldn't pull my leg out. No wonder my little girl couldn't either. She was under our feet,” he said.

Migrants try to cross the English Channel from France – in pictures

Updated: May 02, 2024, 8:38 AM