Published: 16:44, 23 June 2021
| Updated: 15:43, 21 July 2021
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.
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 Commission for Refugees) and would close down the people smugglers."
He added: "It is important to remember that France already accepts over four times the number of asylum applications than does the UK."
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.
"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 £20,000 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 air quickly ran out and the bodies were found at Dover by Customs officers, hidden behind boxes of tomatoes.
Only two of the 60 people in the trailer survived.
Wacker, who was 32 at the time of the tragedy, was in 2001 convicted of manslaughter at Maidstone 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.
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.
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.
A Home Office spokesman said: “People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in rather than risk their life making dangerous journeys to the UK.
“Encouraging 'asylum shopping' and allowing people to travel through multiple safe countries in Europe will not solve anything. It will just drive more people into the hands of the criminal gangs facilitating illegal migration.
“We are reforming the asylum system so it is fair but firm and we will continue to welcome refugees through safe and legal routes.”
The Home Office also insists that the UK has a generous asylum system offering protection to the most vulnerable through government-backed legal routes.
It says that since 2015, over 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge from cruel circumstances across the world have been resettled in the UK – more than any other European country.
The spokesman added: "We are working with France to stop the criminal gangs behind these dangerous crossings and so far this year more than 5,100 people have been stopped from making these unnecessary journeys.
"On average, the French have arrested over 100 facilitators each month since the beginning of the year.
We have secured more than 65 small boat-related criminal prosecutions since the start of 2020 totalling more than 53 years in custodial sentences."