Afghan refugee tried 14 times to cross English Channel before making it to UK

Rafi saw friends die in front of him and slept in forests to escape the Taliban

Refugees attempt to flee to the UK in an inflatable boat from Equihen-Plage, France. Getty Images
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An Afghan refugee has revealed how he tried 14 times to cross the English Channel before eventually making it to the UK, as the small boats crisis dominates the UK's political agenda.

In an interview with The National, he described a journey crossing 12 countries during which he saw a friend die in front of him and another who drowned while crossing the Channel on a boat he was meant to take.

The 20-year-old, who we are calling Rafi to protect his identity, has been repeatedly detained trying to cross borders in a bid to reach Europe and escape the Taliban.

He made the same decision as 100,000 other refugees to cross the Channel, creating a situation which successive prime ministers have been unable to resolve. Rishi Sunak has made stopping the small boats one of his five pledges.

Rafi fled Afghanistan when his father, a senior Afghan army officer who had worked alongside the Americans, was killed by the Taliban along with his mother and brother.

“One day I was at school and mum, brother and my dad went to a village for a wedding ceremony in the morning,” he said.

“They were all in a car but on the way back someone gave the Taliban information and they were killed. It was the hardest day of my life. After a week, I left. My uncle told me to go.”

And so began a journey that took him through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, all the while being passed through the hands of people smugglers, which his uncle had arranged.

He jokes that his dream job would be working for National Geographic because “I've seen so many countries”.

While sleeping on the streets of Istanbul, a chance encounter with a local man asking after his welfare led to a job in his textile factory, which allowed him to save $2,000 to get into Greece, on his third attempt.

Rafi and five friends then stowed away on freight trains until they reached the border with Serbia, where his already grim journey took a tragic turn.

“We came out one by one but the sixth one tried to pull out his bag and got his hand caught on the electric cable.

“In 10 seconds, his body went black, he was shaking and blood was coming from his mouth. It was horrible.”

Rafi's friend was taken to hospital but died five days later. He was buried in North Macedonia.

“The night before, he had called his mum and left a message saying ‘mum, we’re on our way and I think we’re going to make it’.”

Rafi's determination shows the problem the UK has in trying to stop small boats and at the weekend six died in the latest fatal attempt to cross the Channel.

Rishi Sunak declared last week as “small boats week” in a bid to show his determination to tackle the problem but during that time the number of people crossing surpassed 100,000.

To add to his problems, dozens of asylum seekers housed on a barge off the English coast have been removed and placed in alternative accommodation after the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease was found in the water supply.

Rafi entered the EU through Croatia walking in stifling heat, constantly searching for water, even from puddles, carrying bread, onions, ketchup, dried fruit and chocolate to eat.

He says he tried many times but often had to turn back from exhaustion or after being picked up by police, whom he said beat refugees they came across.

Travelling in a group of around 60 to make it harder for the police to catch them, eventually, about 30 made it to Italy and a refugee camp, from which he absconded after three days.

More travelling ensued, dodging fares and walking to get to Paris, where he met a group of friends he knew from back home.

At that point, he wasn't sure where he wanted to go on but being a keen cricketer and English speaker, he decided to try to make it to the UK.

“I like to play cricket and someone suggested I go to the UK. At first, I thought I was tired of travelling. I had crossed 12 countries without a passport but eventually, I thought 'why not?'

“At first I went to Cherbourg [northern France] to try to hide in a lorry but had no luck. Then I went to Calais to try again but couldn't. I was in custody several times.”

He asked his friends for help and they were able to get the money together to pay people smugglers to take him across in a boat.

Rafi says he narrowly avoided being on a boat that sank in the Channel, a tragedy in which his friend was one of 27 who drowned.

“My friend died in the English Channel. I was meant to be on the boat that night. He asked me to join him but I was sick. In the morning I found that he had died," he said.

“Some people make it across but I was a bit unlucky. Sometimes the engine stopped working at sea. I tried 14 times." During one attempted journey, he got on a boat that was taking on water through a leak in the bottom.

He’s now studying at a college and works as a community volunteer.

Speaking to friends has helped improve his English and he has ambitions to go to university where he hopes to study languages and develop the six he currently speaks.

“I can play cricket, volunteer in the community. I joined a cricket club and they’re very friendly. I’m pleased to settle here. I’m looking for a career.”

Updated: August 15, 2023, 10:19 AM