CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) - A Sudanese man who walked through the Channel Tunnel from France in an extreme example of the desperate measures refugees are prepared to take to reach Britain will face trial for obstructing a railway, a court was told on Thursday.
Abdul Haroun, who is from the war-ravaged region of Darfur, walked for close to 12 hours in near total darkness last August, dodging high-speed trains and evading security cameras, before he was arrested by British police close to the English end of the tunnel at Folkestone.
He was charged and sent to prison, where he remained until he was given bail on Jan. 4.
In December he was also granted asylum by British authorities - a decision his supporters hoped would lead to the charge being dropped, but which tunnel operator Eurotunnel and some lawmakers criticized as encouraging other migrants to risk the walk.
Thousands of migrants are camped out in squalor near the northern French ports of Calais and Dunkirk, seeking clandestine ways to enter Britain such as stowing away on trucks or trains.
Haroun was the first person known to have made it through the 31-mile (50-km) tunnel on foot.
Since then, two Iranian men have also walked through the tunnel. They too were arrested and charged with the same offence and are due to stand trial in April.
The Calais and Dunkirk camps are among many flashpoints in a continent-wide crisis that saw over 1 million refugees and migrants enter Europe last year, most to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Almost 3,700 died or went missing in the attempt.
In Britain, Haroun’s case has framed a heated political debate over whether refugees should be welcomed or stopped from coming.
The issue will feature heavily in campaigning for a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, expected to take place later this year.
Since being freed on bail, Haroun has been living with a volunteer from a charity that has supported him through his detention, prosecution and asylum application.
Haroun attended Thursday’s hearing at a court in Canterbury, southeast England, in a dark gray suit and a blue shirt and surrounded by supporters. He spoke only to confirm his name.
About a dozen refugee rights campaigners staged a protest outside the courthouse, holding up banners in support of Haroun.
The offence with which he is charged carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison. Judge Adele Williams provisionally set Haroun’s trial for June 20 and extended his bail.
Editing by Stephen Addison and John Stonestreet