'I would rather die than stay here': The desperation pushing people to make Channel crossing

ITV News Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith reports on the worsening conditions facing those attempting to cross the Channel into the UK from the north cost of France

The desperate conditions in Calais push desperate people into risking their lives to reach the UK.

Thousands around the north coast of France sleep in makeshift tents, under bridges or on railway lines. They burn twigs and rubbish to keep warm on the increasingly cold nights in these camps.

“This is no life,” Ali, a 27-year-old from Sudan tells me. “I would rather die than stay here”.

Last week at least 27 people that we know of did die when their makeshift dinghy capsized as they attempted to cross the Channel.

There were only two survivors.

One of the survivors of the fatal Channel crossing spoke to Kurdish media about what happened on the boat

One - calling himself ‘Mohammed’ - has now spoken for the first time in an interview. He told Zinar Sheno from Kurdish media that he was on board that ill-fated boat.

“The water was so cold,” he said. “I was with my friend from home. I was holding his hand. Then he said he wanted me to let go. I told him I wouldn’t. Then he said again, let go of my hand. I didn’t see him again. He drowned”.

Mohammed claims that while the 27 people were drowning they tried to get help.

“Two of us were calling,” he said. “One was calling France and one calling the UK. The British didn’t help us and the French told us ‘you’re in British waters so we can’t come’. Then as we were slowly drowning, the people lost hope and let go of the boat. The waves carried us back to France”.

In response, the UK home office said the boat was not in British waters, and the French say they responded within 15 minutes.

But this has become a diplomatic dispute that focuses less and less on the human crisis that is now well established in one of the richest parts of the world.

It now seems the UK and France are in a race to show who is toughest on migrants rather than who is doing most to help.

In France on Monday, the country’s interior minister accused the UK of making itself too attractive.

“We’ve sent 20,000 back when there are 600,000 illegal immigrants in France,” Gérald Darmanin said.

“The UK has sent back just 6,000 but they have more than one million illegal immigrants. Therefore, when you arrive in the UK you are pretty much guaranteed to be able to stay”.

A view of sleeping conditions for migrants living at a makeshift camp in Calais, France. Credit: PA

Hearing the harrowing account from Mohammed who survived the boat capsizing has not deterred any of the migrants, and so tough talk from politicians isn’t stopping them either.

I have spent time in Calais with those who are completely unfazed by the political grandstanding and will still, without a shred of doubt, try to cross the Channel at the next opportunity.

“27 have just died - are you not scared?” I asked one 17-year-old from Chad.

“No,” he told me. “I’ve seen much worse than that where I come from”.

Families burn twigs and rubbish to keep warm on the increasingly cold nights in these camps

I met a Kurdish family from Iraq. There are five of them in total staying at a camp in Dunkirk along with their four-year-old boy, and an older son who has learning disabilities.

They just arrived here two days ago having travelled from Iraq to Turkey, then Italy by boat, before a lorry drove them here.

I ask why they would pass through so many safe places to risk their lives - and the lives of such a young child - in a boat.

They told me they were fleeing people who wanted to kill them and they’ve come too far to turn back now. They’ve spent a lot of money on the journey and they believe working in the UK is the only way to pay that back.

“It’s a better life over there,” the father tells me.

I suggest it’s not that different to a life they could have in France.

“If that’s the case so many people wouldn’t be here risking their life trying to get to the UK,” he replies. “And yes some people die but many more make it successfully”.

The small rubber dinghies used by migrant smugglers are flimsy and poorly constructed

On the beaches on the north coast of France I saw the reality of what that journey across the Channel looks like.

One of the makeshift boats used by smugglers has been abandoned and on closer inspection it’s easy to see just how flimsy and poorly constructed the rubber dinghies are.

It wouldn’t be safe to put just a few people in for a Channel crossing, yet the smuggling gangs force more than 30 in. Backing out isn’t an option when the smugglers are known to be armed and dangerous.

It’s a journey nobody should want to willingly make. And yet thousands more in Calais - adults, and children - are still waiting in the cold, depressing encampments. And they are all here because they are utterly convinced a better life is just a short way across the Channel.