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The Facebook users who reacted with laughing emojis to news of 27 asylum seekers drowning in the Channel


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The deaths of 27 men, women and children willing to risk everything was the worst Channel tragedy yet, but not everyone saw it that way.

Ed McConnell waded into Facebook's murkiest waters and found a small group pumped full of hate and completely unwilling to engage.

Maryam Nuri and partner Karzan Assad
Maryam Nuri and partner Karzan Assad

On a chilly November afternoon Baran's fiancé waited with cautious excitement.

Within hours the couple would be reunited, bringing to an end a desperate journey which began more than 3,000 miles away in the Kurdish town of Soran, northern Iraq, and marking the start of a new life in Britain.

Baran, whose full name was Maryam Nuri, dreamed of starting a salon in Portsmouth where partner Karzan Assad works as a barber.

As the 24-year-old and around 30 others were crammed into a flimsy dinghy on the French coast Karzan began intently following her progress on Snapchat's maps feature.

But four hours later she phoned to say the boat was taking on water and they were waiting to be rescued. It would be the couple's last conversation.

Some 70 miles away in Chatham, England, Steve was scrolling through Facebook.

News was breaking of a tragedy which many had been dreading for some time.

Six miles off the coast of Calais a crumpled inflatable was sinking to the sea bed. Baran's lifeless body was one of 27 floating in the icy water.

A KentOnline article about the shipwreck popped up on Steve's timeline. He laughed.

But Steve, who calls me a "jumped up little ****" and tells me to "jog on" when I question him, wasn't alone.

He was one of 96 who chose to react to the news with a laughing emoji, one of several ways Facebook allows users to engage with posts.

KentOnline's Facebook post. The number of dead was originally stated to be more than 30
KentOnline's Facebook post. The number of dead was originally stated to be more than 30

While publishers can switch the comments off after an article is published they have no control over the emojis that appear above them.

Steve's not the only one who tells me to "jog on", Chantal does too but only after informing me she laughed "because our country looks after illegals before our own people!!!"

Ashford mechanic Ronni Pickering – who presumably has chosen a fake name inspired by the red-faced viral internet star – engages for longer.

His willingness to talk about his views on migration was somewhat overshadowed by the bile he spouted.

"No problem... it's a total joke mate," he begins, adding: "Thousands of murders (sic) rapists terrorists coming into our country daily. The government are traitors!!"

But when I confess I am struggling to see how the deaths of 27 people are remotely funny things begin to sour.

"It's great news (they drowned)! You support the ***** probably. **** of (sic). I hope every boat ******* sinks."

I question what's got him to this point.

Those coming are "rapists murders (sic) nonces terrorists and they are robbing our country left right and centre cos they come from **** all and got no morals. Don’t like them never will there (sic) scum," he says.

It's an appalling explosion of hate and not backed up by any statistics whatsoever.

I ask him to show me any evidence for his claims. He can't but still tells me to "go away and do my homework".

The body of an asylum seeker is recovered from a beach in France Picture: UKNIP
The body of an asylum seeker is recovered from a beach in France Picture: UKNIP

So I do. For all his talk of murderers and rapists I found not a single news report linking a serious offence to someone who had used the route and very few about any asylum seekers committing offences.

More than 200,000 refugees live in the UK compared to the 3.1 million living in Turkey, which has the most in the world.

Last year, the UK received 36,000 asylum applications, the fifth highest number in Europe. Germany had 122,015 applicants and France 93,475. The UK's intake was 17th in Europe per head of population.

These numbers don't match a vision of a country "under attack" from "invaders" or even economic migrants.

And nor do the numbers – well over 70% of people risking their lives in the Channel are granted asylum, meaning their claims are genuine.

Chatham dad Steve tells me: "The should stay at home and stop ******* coming over here. Or do it through the right procedures the scum bags."

I ask him if the fact 27 people, including women and children, had died had bothered him.

"Not at all mate not my family and not my children," he says, adding another laughing emoji for good measure.

"So would you laugh at anyone dying who you weren't related to?" I ask.

Steve is not happy about this question.

"Nope just them *****," he says.

Asylum seekers at a camp in Frances Picture: UKNIP
Asylum seekers at a camp in Frances Picture: UKNIP

"They are supposed to seek refuge in the first country they get to not travel through them to come to ours. Because of all the ***** my daughter can't get doctors appointments because there is too many of them here now causing a strain on our NHS. There is veteran's on the streets when there being put up in hotels (sic)."

He tells me to "sort myself out".

But Steve is wrong, asylum seekers do not have to seek refuge in the first country they arrive in.

It's a common misconception fed by political rhetoric about passing through "safe countries" but there is no rule requiring asylum seekers to do this.

Somewhat ironically, given how many of the people I message have been vocal supporters of Brexit in the past, Britain did have more tools at its disposal when it was a member of the EU.

The Dublin Regulations required asylum seekers to register a claim in the first EU country they reached and for the decision of that country to be final.

As for his point about using the right processes, it's the most reasonable thing he says, but the fact of the matter is they barely exist.

As Baron Kerr told the House of Lords last week schemes like the Syrian and Dubs are no longer in place.

Some 3,187 Iranians came in the past 18 months, the largest single group, yet only one got in through the official route.

Kurds, like Baran and many of those who drowned, are among the largest groups to make the crossing. They are also the largest ethnic group without a state on the planet and have fled persecution for decades, often settling in Europe.

Unfortunately, it's too late to tell Steve that because he's told me to jog on again.

A man wheels a gurney into a warehouse in the Port of Calais, France. Picture: PA
A man wheels a gurney into a warehouse in the Port of Calais, France. Picture: PA

'Ronni Pickering' has also blocked me by this point. It's a common theme. Everyone I message who at first was willing to engage would only do so on their terms.

I asked for facts to back up their claims and was met with abuse, silence or more misinformation.

I presented facts and was told they were wrong or simply to "**** off".

One man tells me all they do is "take jobs" and says "most of them that come here are in jail for murder or rape."

When I tell him asylum seekers can't work and ask for more information on his paradoxical second claim he ignores me before eventually saying "**** 'em."

Debating the topic of immigration, and in particular the current system, is hugely important but any hope a reasoned conversation could be had with people who found drowned children funny was in hindsight misguided.

Even if their arguments were sound no amount of evidence is going to justify laughing at an atrocity.

But there is hope among the hatred. For the 96 who clicked the laughing emoji more than 400 responded with outrage.

Comments previously used to be immediately closed on articles such as last week's but now they're left open for people to challenge each other's views, something which happens more often than not and outweighs the blind bigotry.

Reasoning with these people was never going to work, maybe one day education will win but until then perhaps the best approach, to redirect one man's insult, is "**** 'em".

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