‘Let them apply from safety’

Campaigners have used a poignant anniversary to repeat their demand for asylum seekers to be allowed to apply to enter the UK from France. They say this would save lives by stopping people making the dangerous Channel crossings on small boats and help break the people smuggling racket.

Flowers at the memorial placed during Sunday's vigil. Picture from Martin Bradley Flowers at the memorial placed during Sunday’s vigil. Picture from Martin Bradley

The call was made during a commemorative vigil for 58 Chinese asylum seekers who died in the back of a lorry in June 2000. Martin Bradley, founder member of Kent Refugee Action Network said: “The focus has shifted from entry to the UK concealed in road vehicles to the more dangerous means of small boats.

“I believe that a system should be established whereby those in the Nord Pas de Calais area, because they are attempting to get to the UK, should be given the opportunity to apply for asylum in the UK from French soil.

” This could be overseen by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and would close down the people smugglers. ” It is important to remember that France already accepts over four times the number of asylum applications than does the UK. ”

Flowers at the memorial placed during Sunday's vigil. Picture from Martin Bradley Flowers at the memorial placed during Sunday’s vigil. Picture from Martin Bradley

Rebecca Sawbridge, a Dover town councillor and member of Dover Stand Up 2 Racism, said: “Sadly the lessons of 21 years ago have not been learned and similar tragedies have happened much more recently.” The gathering, organised by Seeking Sanctuary, was at a memorial for the 58 at Dover seafront.

It says there are at present around 2,000 asylum seekers stuck in northern France trying to reach the UK.

Ben Bano, from Seeking Sanctuary, said: ” We are currently commemorating a 15 month old Kurdish – Iranian boy, Artin Nezhad found dead on a Norwegian beach on New Year’s Day. “He and his family had been in an overcrowded boat, which had capsized in the English Channel on October 27.

Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary

“The bodies of his parents and siblings had been found shortly afterwards. “The Norwegian authorities successfully identified Artin earlier this month.

A friend of the family who successfully made it to the UK believes that if the family had had more money to pay more expensive people smugglers they would have safely made it to the UK. ” The 58 Chinese people were found asphyxiated in the back of a Dutch-registered refrigerated lorry at Dover Eastern Docks on June 18, 2000. The victims had paid a gang GBP20,000 each to get inside the truck.

But the freight driver, Dutchman Perry Wacker, closed the trailer’s air vent before reaching the Belgian port of Zeebrugge to stop anyone getting suspicious about the nature of the cargo.

The polce investigation after the bodies were found, June 2000 The polce investigation after the bodies were found, June 2000

The air quickly ran out. The bodies were found at Dover by Customs officers, hidden behind boxes of tomatoes. Only two of the 60 people in that railer had survived.

Wacker, who was 32 at the time of the tragedy, was in 2001 convicted of manslaughter at Maidsone Crown Court and jailed for 14 years. His Chinese interpreter and co-defendant Ying Guo, of South Woodford, Essex, got six years for conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants into the UK. Nine members of the gang that organised the plot were also later jailed in the Netherlands.

Perry Wacker was jailed for 14 years for the 2000 tragedy Perry Wacker was jailed for 14 years for the 2000 tragedy

Augusta Pearson of Dover, was the court interpreter at the six-week trial at Maidstone, particularly translating for Wacker, and at the Dutch hearings.

She now says: “Nightmare memories still follow me around. “I often visit the memorial spot while out for a walk. I hope the families of all the victims found some peace.

“People smuggling and illegal immigration can be lethal and should be stopped.” The memorial to the 58 has a twin stone for others who have died trying to reach the UK for asylum.

Wacker's lorry at Dover, June 2000 Wacker’s lorry at Dover, June 2000Tomatos strewn across the trailer (36779272) Tomatos strewn across the trailer (36779272)

Since 2000 more than 150 people have died trying to make the crossing. In October 2019 the bodies of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children were found in the back of a lorry on the Essex side of the Dartford Crossing.

Those responsible were found guilty of charges such as manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentences of up to 27 years were passed on them in January. Migrants continue to try to reach the UK by small boats and are usually rescued at sea by the Border Force and brought to Dover for interview and processing.

Others land on beaches such as at Folkestone, Romney Marsh and the Deal area before they are taken in by British authorities.

Kent Online has contacted the Home Office to comment on the demand to let asylum seekers apply from France.

: All the latest news from Dover