As Rupak and Hajar Sharif approached the dinghy, clutching the hands of their two young children with lifejackets under their arms, they prayed that this would be the final time. After walking for seven hours through northern France, along with two other Kurdish families and two young men also aiming to reach Britain, they hoped this would be the last leg of a perilous three-year journey in search of safety.
It was around 2am when they reached the small boat, on the edge of a deserted French beach northeast of Calais. Rupak, no taller than 5ft, tied her lifejacket carefully around her protruding stomach. She was 35 weeks pregnant with her third child. This crossing, she hoped, would mark a new beginning, in time for their baby to enter the world.
Suddenly, torchlight cut through the darkness and a group of figures emerged – police officers. Within moments, they had reached the dinghy and ruptured the rubber hull, rendering it unusable. The asylum seekers were led back up the beach and on to a roadside where two police vans were parked. They were searched and their lifejackets and mobile phones confiscated. This is when the nightmare began.
“My waters broke,” says Rupak. “I was suddenly wet. I was on the ground. I told them I needed help.” The 36-year-old says the officers told her they had contacted their superior and that she must wait. With no phones, Rupak and Hajar could not call an ambulance themselves.
The group – among them a number of young children, including the couple’s son and daughter, Anas, 10, and Elaria, four – remained on the roadside, in the cold, for several hours, under constant surveillance from the officers, according to a complaint issued to the French police by the family’s lawyer. By this point, Rupak was bleeding.
“I’m sure they knew I was going to give birth,” she says. “My clothes were wet and bloodstained and I was showing them that, but they wouldn’t let us leave to go to hospital. The children were crying. My son was very worried. They were cold. They didn’t know what was going on.”
“One of the officers was saying, ‘Why don’t you go back to Iraq?’” Hajar recalls. “He was ignoring what was happening to my wife. This wasn’t the first time French police had arrested us by the sea, but they had never behaved the way they did that night.”
Finally, at around 7am, the police left, taking the two younger men with them. No ambulance was called for Rupak. The three families began walking along the road in search of a bus stop, but she could hardly walk. They sat by the roadside and started a fire to keep warm.
“I was in a lot of pain, it was very cold and I was shivering,” says Rupak. “It felt like they were trying to punish us and make an example of us so nobody would try it again.”
It wasn’t until a police car drove past and saw what was happening that an ambulance was called. On arrival at the hospital in Calais, doctors carried out an emergency caesarean section. From the moment she was born, the baby, whom the couple named Aleksandra, was in the care of medical staff at the hospital who fought to keep her alive. She was suffering from severe respiratory and neurological problems.
Three days later, on 5 September 2020, the doctors decided, with the sombre agreement of Rupak and Hajar, to switch off the ventilator.
“The baby was in my arms when she passed away,” says Rupak, in tears. “The doctor told me if you had arrived here an hour earlier, things would have been different.” Aleksandra was buried in Calais the following day.
The tragedy came after three long years on the road. Rupak, Hajar and Anas, then aged seven, fled their home in Sulaymaniyah, east of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in 2017 after threats were made against Hajar for being a member of the opposition political party. Unwelcome in neighbouring Turkey, they decided to continue towards Europe, and paid an “agent” – or smuggler – to ensure they reached safety. It was decided that they would go to the UK.
After walking from Turkey to Greece, they found themselves in a refugee camp where they remained for two years, during which Elaria was born. Finally they managed to leave, and travelled by foot through Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.
“We would walk through the night and camp and hide from police during the day,” says Hajar. He presents a photograph of his children, his daughter tiny compared to her older brother. “Even now our daughter is very little,” he adds. “Most of her life she’s been on the road. Sometimes we didn’t have milk to feed her.
“At one point, in Croatia, we had no food to eat for four days. We were just eating the leaves off trees. We would eat raw cabbage. Those days were very difficult for us because our kids were hungry. I still can’t forgive myself for putting them through that, but we had no choice.”
The family struggled to cross Croatia due to a heavy police presence at the border. At one point they were forced out of the country, and their agent instructed them instead to go via Romania. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, they were trapped there for nine months.
“We were in a detention camp. If I wanted to go to the market I would be escorted by police,” says Hajar. “It was very difficult. They would beat us.”
By mid-July, the family of four were travelling through Germany and Belgium and eventually arrived in northern France, where they lived for about five weeks in a tent. They were provided with food and warm clothes by charities but constant camp evictions by French police, coupled with the cold weather, made them increasingly desperate to get to Britain, the only place they believed they would be safe.
Losing a child is a great pain that you can never forget. I’m hoping to find justice so this does not happen to another family
“All I was hoping for was to get out of that life of living in a tent, under the rain, not having anything,” says Hajar. “My son is 10 years old, but instead of being in school, he’s been on this journey.
“When I was in my country I was in danger. I was being threatened with death. I left my country to be somewhere safe, to be away from those death threats. We didn’t get that on our journey through Europe. We definitely didn’t get that in France.”
“Getting through those rainy days was so hard,” adds Rupak. “Every night they would take us to the sea and say we’re going to cross. I was pregnant, I was sick. Often I felt like I was going to die.
“But I was a strong person. I was just hoping that my child would be born in the UK – but unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
With the help of a lawyer, the couple have filed a complaint to France’s police department over the incident. The country’s police watchdog is also investigating what happened and whether the delay in getting medical care played a role in the death of Rupak and Hajar’s child.
“I fled my country because of injustice, it was a dictatorship – I had to leave,” Hajar says. “But what happened to us in France was another injustice. Losing a child is a great pain that you can never forget. I’m hoping to find justice so this does not happen to another family.”
It comes as the British home secretary, Priti Patel, pledges to further ramp up security on the French border in a bid to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the UK in small boats. Numbers of arrivals have begun to increase in recent weeks, prompting fears among ministers of another spike in crossings on the levels seen last year, when a record 8,417 people arrived via this route.
The Home Office announced last November that it was spending £28m to double the number of officers patrolling French beaches, and it has provided funding for military-grade drones, thermal-imaging gear and advanced binoculars for use by police at the border in northern France.
But Rupak and Hajar’s story points to a dark reality behind the increase in patrols and ramped up efforts to block Channel crossings, and brings into question whether criminalising asylum seekers with heavy-handed policing is having the desired effect – or just causing further suffering.
Frances Timberlake, of the Refugee Women’s Centre, which supported the family while in France, says the “disturbing” push by the French and British governments to boost security at the border was only pushing people to take greater risks.
“The trend we’ve seen in recent years is ramping up police violence and harassment and condoning state violence against people crossing only disincentives them from seeking safety from that state, because they are no longer deemed the safe ones. It’s absolutely not working. It just leads to greater risk-taking and greater trauma,” she says.
“We’ve seen a total failure on a policy level in terms of the fact that the crossings have continued and the loss of life at sea has continued. Both governments are trying to seem like they’re taking a hard stance, making strong, almost dictatorial statements and policy promises to appease certain parts of the population. It seems like that’s the only goal, and they aren’t even interested in policy success in any concrete way.”
The French national police, the local council in Calais and the Home Office were approached for comment, but none responded.
I was determined to stay in the boat and cross the sea that night. I did not want to return. After going through what I went through, I didn’t care how cruel the police were going to be
Josie Naughton, co-founder of Choose Love, which supports displaced people in northern France, echoes her concerns, saying the incident reflects the “increasingly hostile approach” from the French police towards refugees the charity witnesses “day in, day out”.
"The UK and French governments should use this case as a moment to reflect and rethink their asylum and migration strategy, and move toward an approach that prioritises respect for human rights, dignity and adequate protection,” she adds.
Indeed, the loss of their baby did not deter Rupak and Hajar from crossing the Channel; by contrast, it spurred them on. A week after the death, they were on the beach once more. As they were boarding a dinghy late at night, the police appeared again. Rupak screamed at Hajar and Anas to get into the boat with her, Elaria and a number of others. They left the shore, and after a turbulent crossing, arrived on the Kent coast the following morning.
“That tragedy pushed me more to get to the UK,” says Rupak. “I was determined to stay in the boat and cross the sea that night. I did not want to return. After going through what I went through, I didn’t care how cruel the police were going to be. Even if they took my life I would still try to get out of that country.”
The family were held in a hotel on the south coast for 15 days on arrival, and then moved to a hotel in London, where they remain. They have submitted an asylum claim and, although they are currently sharing a small room between them, they feel safe and hopeful.
Sparked by death threats, Rupak and Hajar’s journey has taken them across thousands of arduous miles with countless dangers along the way. But it is this that will haunt them forever, their newborn daughter's death so close to the end of their search for a new life.