Deaths in the Channel: ’Increasing the number of obstacles for border crossing only increases risks taken by refugees’

Collective opinion piece published in Le Monde on 24 November 2022

One year after the shipwreck that led to the drowning of at least 27 people, as a new Franco-British agreement is signed, a group of 65 French, British and Belgian associations (including Migreurop) raise unacceptable failures by French and British rescue services in a collective opinion piece published in Le Monde on 24 November 2022

On November 24, 2021, around 2pm, a fishing boat spotted dozens of bodies floating in the freezing waters of the Channel. One by one, lifeless bodies were fished out. At least 27 people drowned, four are still missing, and two survived. This accident, one year ago, was the deadliest at the French-UK border since the lifeless bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants were found in a lorry in 2019.

Kazhal, Hadiya, Maryam and the others had left the French coast on a rubber dinghy the night before, around 10pm. Fleeing conflict and poverty, they all hoped to reach the UK safe and sound. Some to join their family, their partners, others to flee the conditions with which they were greeted in Europe, and many hoped to be able to work there to support their families left behind. Faced with the impossibility of safe passage, Mhabad, Rezhwan, Mohammed and the others turned to illegal smuggling rings.

Around 2am, in the pitch black of night, the boat started to take on water. The recordings of calls to French emergency services, published by Le Monde on November 13, 2022, are chilling. They prove that multiple distress calls were received by French emergency services and that they were treated with contempt. Calls were also made to British emergency services. None of these calls led to any rescue efforts, neither from the French, nor from the British. They died from drowning in icy water.

"We held hands until the very end", says Mohammed, who survived.

Violence, thirst, hunger

Pshtiwan, Shakar, Fikiru and others came from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Somalia and Vietnam. They crossed mountains, deserts, seas, travelled through violence, thirst, and hunger, they travelled from 3,000 to 10,000 kilometres for years and months to arrive there, at the French coast, under a tent, with an empty bag on their back, 33 kilometres away from their goal. Twana, Mubin, and others were aged between 6 and 59 years old and had left their parents, siblings and friends to get there.

Reactions from politicians followed: "France will not let the Channel become a cemetery," said Emmanuel Macron the day after the shipwreck. It is too late. On November 28, four European Home Secretaries and Interior Ministers held an emergency meeting in Calais at the request of Gérald Darmanin to discuss, according to him, "the fight against illegal migration and gangs of people smugglers."

Since that day, there have been 1,712 evictions of campsites on the northern coastline, hundreds of tents confiscated, several thousand police officers mobilised, and one Frontex plane deployed to dissuade and disperse. Since that day, trenches have been dug, trees cut, and hundreds of rocks spread out to prevent campsites from being set up and to hinder the work of organisations on the ground.

Since that day, more than 42,000 people have crossed the Channel on small boats according to the UK Ministry of Defence. That represents thousands of people who have set sail on small boats and just as many who had to survive in informal settlements on the French coastline without water, without electricity, without rights. Since then, more than 7,000 people have been rescued at sea, according to the maritime authorities – then, for the vast majority of them, abandoned on the French coast, drenched and traumatised. Eighteen have died at the border, including six people who drowned and one person who may have taken their own life.

"Every morning in Calais, there’s something new to overcome. We live knowing our friends who are with us today might not be with us tomorrow. Death is in our eyes, fear and anxiety never leave our minds," friends of Yasser had shared after he died on September 28 2021, hit by a truck.

In the face of the situation on the ground, the policies are violent and senseless. As a 2021 report by the parliamentary investigation committee on migration states, 85% of the budget of the French government for the French-UK border in 2020 was allocated to the repression of people in a situation of migration. In other words, €100 million used to evict, hinder and harass.

The new France-UK deal, signed on November 14, only endorses this security-focused logic. By allocating even more funds to the police, British and French authorities are furthering their mission to make the border space into a fundamentally hostile environment for refugees. However, contrary to the aspirations of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, this border will never become "unviable." Increasing the amount of obstacles for the border crossing – through barriers, video surveillance or police patrols – only increases risks taken by refugees attempting to cross it. They also contribute to the hold of smuggling rings, which have become essential for border crossings.

Solutions exist

After thousands of articles from across the world, hours of press conferences and TV debates pointing out the consequences of smuggling networks without ever mentioning the causes, the world today has looked away from the shipwreck, leaving the situation to carry on endlessly. For us, French, Belgian, and British organisations, collectives, and researchers – in the name of rights and our values – it is unthinkable to let this situation continue without doing anything.

All necessary means need to be put into place to open safe routes for passage for those who want them and to welcome people on French soil with dignity. The way people fleeing war in Ukraine were received shows us that solutions exist.

In memory of these 31 women, men, and children, and to the 325 others who have died at the border since 1999, the French and British governments must open their eyes and recognise their responsibility. Their determination to ignore and neglect the human rights of refugees at their borders have led to these tragedies and will lead to more. States must put an end to the humanitarian and political crisis that they have caused. The families of the victims and members of civil society demand light and justice for the shipwreck of 24 November 2021.
Let’s honour the dead and build a politics of welcome.