UK

Desperate migrants try to swim to Britain from France

Mouaz al-Balkhi in Calais
Image caption Mouaz al-Balkhi bought a wetsuit in Calais and was never seen alive again

Migrants desperate to get to England from the French port of Calais are now trying to swim across the English Channel - with disastrous consequences, reports the BBC's Paddy O'Connell.

Last summer, sitting outside his pub near Dover, landlord Nigel Wyndmus saw a small dinghy. A cutter from the coastguard drew up alongside.

At first he mistook what was happening for a training exercise.

"The boat was just a few hundred yards out," Mr Wyndmus said, "and we realised that it was illegal immigrants trying to get to England."

He added: "People coming across on boats was not really considered an option" - he believed it was all done by stowaways boarding lorries and trying to break into the Channel Tunnel.

Never heard from again

But now it seems that an unknown number of migrants have made the desperate decision to swim towards England from the French coast.

Image copyright Tomm W Christiansen/Dagbladet
Image caption Shadi Omar Kataf bought his wetsuit on the same day as Mouaz al-Balkhi
Image copyright Tomm W Christiansen/Dagbladet
Image caption A wetsuit with Shadi Omar Kataf's remains was found on exposed coastline at Lista in the south of Norway in January

While some may try to stagger their journey by taking advantage of small dinghies or yachts, we now know that others try to swim the whole way - across one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

After months of research by Norway's Dagbladet newspaper, the identities of two men who tried to do this was revealed.

They bought a wetsuit on the same day last October and were never heard from again.

They may have tried to board a boat of the kind seen by locals in the Coastguard pub, or they may have decided to swim the whole way.

Wetsuits traced

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Media captionMouaz al-Balkhi's body was found on the Dutch island of Texel last October

Journalist Anders Fjellberg was alarmed when he first read that a body had been found in a wetsuit in southern Norway.

"My initial reaction was: I hope it's not somebody I know, because I surf and the surf community in Norway is quite small - and if someone is found in a wetsuit they could have been a surfer," he recalls.

Image caption As a university student in Damascus Mouaz al-Balkhi looked after displaced Syrians who had fled fighting in Homs
Image copyright AP
Image caption The White Cliffs of Dover can look much closer from Calais than they actually are
Image copyright Press Association
Image caption Migrants in Calais are desperate to get to the UK

But after checks with the police, the case was linked to another discovery of human remains - also in a wetsuit - but this time in the Netherlands.

"The Dutch police managed to trace both of the wetsuits by the serial number to a sports shop in Calais. So I went there with photographer Tomm W Christiansen to learn how anyone could be that desperate," says Mr Fjellberg. "What is it about this place and these people that drives them to this kind of desperation?"

At first the trail went cold, as the shop staff said the men who bought the suits looked like Afghans.

But as reports trickled out online, the men heard from a man who had been looking for a missing Syrian migrant named Mouaz al-Balkhi.

Tracing first the man's uncle in the northern English town of Bradford, then his parents in Amman in Jordan, the journalists arranged for a DNA test.

The test was inconclusive for the body found in Norway, but it was a match for the remains washed up in the Netherlands.

Never seen again

"Mouaz was a very kind brother and a great cook," says his sister Rahaf al-Balkhi speaking to us from Amman in Jordan.

"We left Syria and he stayed behind to finish his studies in Damascus."

Image copyright Tomm W Christiansen/Dagbladet
Image caption The wetsuit with Shadi Omar Kataf's remains was found among rocks near the sea at Lista
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Migrants in Calais are becoming increasingly imaginative when it comes to finding ways of getting to Britain

He joined the family in Jordan but left for Libya looking for a job. His family heard from him regularly, but never saw him again.

He said he wanted to go to England to continue his studies. "The last time I heard from him was on 7 October in Calais," says Rahaf.

That is the date the two wetsuits were bought, and along with the DNA tests it proves to Rahaf that her brother is dead.

"The last thing he said to me was 'I miss you Rahaf.' At first I couldn't believe it, but it's better to know what happened to him."

Later the family and the journalists were contacted by friends of another Syrian man who had gone missing on the same day - 7 October.

His name was Shadi Omar Kataf, and after DNA tests he was identified as the body that had washed up in Norway.

It emerged that he and his sister had fled a refugee camp in Syria controlled by Islamic State militants and later went missing, assumed kidnapped.

"We don't know how the two men met, but we heard they'd crossed to Italy from Libya just two days apart," says Mr Fjellberg.

Back in Dover, landlord Nigel Wyndmus is shocked and saddened by the news of the men's fate.

"But unless you actually go to Calais and look back, the view across does make it look a lot closer than it actually is, and I'm sure if you've travelled halfway around Europe, you're going to look at it and think I could swim that," he said.

As we speak, we're sitting beneath the White Cliffs, famous for marking England's coast to sailors for hundreds of years, and famous too in song in the hearts of British people.

"The sun hits the cliffs and because they're taller, they look closer from France," Mr Wyndmus says.

"The white cliffs of Dover have always come over as an emblem of freedom and maybe that's what they are latching onto, that things are better there. I think when you get to that final step it looks within reach."

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