Speaking for Ourselves

"A year ago I crossed the Channel in a dinghy. Three days later, 32 people died trying to do the same"

"A year ago I crossed the Channel in a dinghy. Three days later, 32 people died trying to do the same"


 Migrant Voice - "A year ago I crossed the Channel in a dinghy. Three days later, 32 people died trying to do the same"


One year ago, on 24 November 2021, 32 people died trying to cross the Channel in an inflatable dinghy. A new ITV documentary shows that British and French authorities, each assuming the other would send help, passed the buck as the migrants repeatedly asked for help and drowned. Nadine*, a Syrian woman who made the same journey only three days before the tragedy and who survived her own boat sinking during a previous attempt, tells her story to Migrant Voice.

When I learnt about the tragedy, I had been in the UK for only three days. I was only a year older than Mariam Nouri, who was the first victim to be named. I, too, had travelled on a dinghy from Calais that sank, only reaching the UK on my third attempt. I survived. But I could have been on the boat in which Mariam Nouri died.

I come from Daraa, the Syrian city where the revolution started in 2011. When it became too dangerous to stay, my parents paid for a smuggler to get me out of the country. There was no other choice if I wanted to survive. Like Mariam and so many others, I arrived in Calais hoping to cross the Channel and reach the UK.

I have family members in the UK who could support me once I arrived: far from home and unable to return, I wouldn’t be all alone. I speak some English, so I can get by. And I thought women’s rights were respected in the UK. This is why I didn’t stop in France.

On the evening of my first attempt at crossing the Channel, in early November, the weather was bad and we ran out of fuel. We had been at sea for four hours when we called the smugglers, then had to wait three more hours until they picked us up. Eventually we were taken back to Calais.

Three days later we tried the second time. We left Calais at 2am. The air was cold. There were 18 of us in a tiny dinghy. We were sitting on top of each other, and I was terrified. We asked the smuggler to reduce the number of people on the dinghy, but he didn’t listen. The boy driving the boat couldn’t have been over 14.

At around 3.30am we saw a red light and the smuggler told us we were in British waters. We called the British coastguard, but were told we were still in international waters and they couldn’t help. They sent a helicopter, which flew over us. I took off my hijab and waved it but the helicopter didn’t stop.

Then the boat started to deflate. Water began coming in, filling the dinghy. We rapidly went below the waterline. I was swallowing seawater and throwing up. I had water in my nose and ears. In quick succession, four large waves crashed onto us.

It was panic. Everyone was screaming and fighting. The temperature was below zero. The water was freezing. The men started arguing with each other. We were cold and so scared. We called the smuggler to alert the French authorities. One of the two other women on the dinghy called her parents to tell them we were drowning. A first, they didn’t believe her because the smuggler had told them she had arrived in the UK. Finally, she convinced her parents to call for help. My own dad called the British authorities.

The smugglers don’t see us as human beings, only as a source of money. Before my first attempted crossing, they lied to me. They told me it would be easy, that I would be at sea for only four hours. It was all lies, to convince desperate people to pay them.

At 2pm we still had received no help. It had been almost 12 hours since we started sinking, and we were losing hope. For hours I was crying, trying to bale out the dinghy. I can’t swim, and I remember thinking, “This is it.” I saw my whole life flash before me. I really thought I was going to die.

As we were sinking, three different boats approached us. They all told us they could not help, but took photos. Finally, at around 3pm, a larger tourist ship arrived, and threw us ropes so we could clamber aboard.

Climbing was difficult, and many of us fell back into the water or the dinghy. I climbed half way, fell, hit my face and lost consciousness.

I was rescued and taken onto the ship, where I was given tea. The people were very nice. We were all taken back to Calais. I don’t even know if we all survived that night.

In Calais, the police were waiting. They wrapped us in blankets and took us back to the camp. I went to stay in a hotel and got ill, because of what I had experienced and the seawater I had drunk. My whole body was swollen and I was vomiting blood. Luckily, a woman found me and took me to the hospital. For five days I was in and out of hospital. I felt so bad.

On 21 November I tried to cross again. I had no choice. I was so terrified I couldn’t even think about it – I just did it.

This time there were 43 of us on a boat built for 30. There were seven other crossings on that day, I heard. We left in the afternoon and it got dark quickly. There were no life vests in the boat: only 10 lifebuoys, “for the children,” the smuggler told us. “You adults can swim and save yourselves if you sink,” he said.

I saw a helicopter and flashed my phone light so it would notice us. At 6pm we called the authorities for help. A small British boat arrived at 7.30pm and ferried three or four of us at a time to a bigger vessel waiting a little further away.

We were all scared and wanted to be first onto the boat. The rescuers became annoyed and rude and one told a woman: “Sit down, you donkey.” 

In the meantime, we were panicking, afraid we would sink and drown while we waited. Eventually we were all rescued, taken to Dover, and then to another site — I don’t know its name — where they put us in tents.

They took all our belongings, even my earrings, and gave us sandals and a tracksuit. They didn’t have a clean veil, so gave me a hat. We had to provide our details – name, date of birth, and fingerprints. It took the whole night and finally, at 11pm the day after, I was placed in a hotel in northern England.

It’s been a year and I’m still waiting for my asylum application to be processed. I’m taking English classes, but I’m not allowed to work. Back home I was a nurse. I’d like to go back to studying and working.

I have received no therapy or counselling to help deal with my trauma. I wake up at night, crying, thinking about what I went through. I haven’t recovered.

When I heard of the boat sinking only three days after I made my journey, I cried for the people on it. I cried for Mariam. I know what they felt in the last moments of their lives, because I felt that, too. I could have been on that boat. I could have been Mariam.

I want my life back. I want to study and work, I want respect and dignity. Right now only the richest can afford visas to the UK. We need safe routes to make people’s journeys easier and safer, so no one has to risk their life and go through what I did.


* not her real name.

Migrant Voice thanks the anonymous photographer who allowed us to use their photo for this article.

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