Around 150 people have gathered near 10 Downing Street to protest over the deaths of more than two dozen people who drowned while attempting to cross the English Channel this week.
Twenty-seven people died during the crossing on Wednesday, making it one of the deadliest days of the migrant crisis.
The demonstration on Saturday, organised by anti-racism group Stand Up To Racism, heard speeches from the general secretary of the UK’s largest teachers’ union – the National Education Union – and several others including religious groups and volunteer organisations directly involved in helping migrants.
Among those who gave speeches was Khaleel Tah Bash, a man claiming to be seeking asylum in the UK who told of his attempt to cross the Channel in a small boat.
The 30-year-old, from Syria, told protesters he left his home country to avoid being pulled into political conflict and was rescued by authorities in the Channel.
He said: “The moment we saw the boat coming closer, everyone started smiling and shouting. Everyone was happy.
“Unfortunately for those victims who lost their lives on Wednesday, that wasn’t the case.
“There wasn’t anyone there to help them and rescue them, they didn’t smile when they made it to this side. They arrived at this end and they are corpses without soul, all their dreams of a safe and warm home, of living in safety, died and drowned in the Channel with them.”
Women and children were among those on board the boat which capsized after leaving Calais on Wednesday. Just two survived.
One of the victims was 24-year-old Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin – known to her family as Baran – a Kurdish woman from northern Iraq who was said to be travelling to the UK to join her fiance.
Following the tragedy, politicians argued about how to halt the perilous crossings of the Channel.
An invitation to Home Secretary Priti Patel to attend a meeting of ministers from key European allies in Calais on Sunday was withdrawn after France was angered by Mr Johnson releasing a letter he sent to Mr Macron setting out a battery of proposals, including reiterating a call for joint UK-French patrols by border officials along French beaches to stop boats leaving, which Paris has resisted.
In a statement reported in French media, the interior ministry said the meeting on Sunday would go ahead with interior minister Gerald Darmanin and his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and representatives of the European Commission.
Lara Bishop, a volunteer for asylum-seeker charity Care4Calais, was one of those who gave a speech at Saturday’s demonstration.
Speaking afterwards, she said: “No-one should have to die on our border. We are a first-world nation. We are the sixth biggest economy in the world but we only take 1% of refugees and we make it so difficult for people to cross, and it’s not okay for people to be dying in the Channel.
“I think the British and the French governments need to remember humanity. At the moment they’re using them as political pawns – throwing them between themselves – but these are humans. These are people’s mothers, brothers, sisters, and I think they’ve lost all perspective on that, these are just numbers in a political game and I think they need to remember these are humans we’re talking about.”
Kevin Courtney, National Education Union (NEU) general secretary, explained how at a union meeting this week, members – some of whom help Care4Calais – “insisted” on a discussion about the deaths.
Mr Courtney said: “What future do we want for our children? Do we want a dystopian future with armed guards at the borders watching people drown with a growing fear inside those borders of anyone from outside? With a fear that we might become refugees ourselves? Is that the future we want, living behind gated communities?
“That future isn’t the future.
“We are watching 27 people drown this week.”
More than 25,700 people have made the dangerous journey to the UK in small boats this year – three times the total for the whole of 2020, according to data compiled by the PA news agency.
Figures released by the Home Office on Thursday showed that more than 37,500 asylum claims were made in the UK in the year to September, which is the highest level for nearly 20 years.
The backlog in cases also reached its highest point since comparable records began, with more than 67,500 asylum applications awaiting a decision at the end of September.