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Migrant Lives

English Channel To The Mediterranean: Borders That Kill

The deaths of 27 migrants off the French coast of Calais is one more tragedy on a long list in the European Union. After the initial shock, however, we tend to forget, get used to it and in the end, become indifferent.

Migrants on a dinghy on the English Channel

Migrants on a dinghy on the English Channel

Michel Agier*


PARIS — The wreckage of a small boat that led to 27 people to die in the English Channel is added to the list of endless death along Europe’s borders.

Unfortunately, there is nothing fundamentally new about this tragedy. Since 1993, at least 50,000 people have died trying to cross the external borders of the European Union, mainly in the Mediterranean Sea. Since 1999, more than 300 people have died off the northern French coast of Calais while trying to cross the border into the UK, which has been "externalized" on French soil by the 2004 Le Touquet Treaty. The years 2000 and 2010 were marked by reports of casualties at the borders, some horrifying like the two successive shipwrecks on April 12 and 19, 2015 that left thousands dead.

But we know that after the initial shock comes oblivion — fed by the absence of official tributes, and the impossibility to grieve — which opens the way to a return to routine and then indifference.

Pointing fingers at the smugglers

The brutality of political speeches — no longer only delivered by the far right — aimed at unwanted foreigners from southern countries that include former European colonies, transforms this indifference into tangible political projects that promote the rejection of others, and of the world at large. Countries turning in on themselves becomes a leitmotif.

The deaths of these 27 people in the English Channel must be considered in relation to what is happening these days at the Polish border with Belarus and its police and army deployment against migrants, but also to the Greek army and police opening fire on refugees stuck on the Greek-Turkish border on March 4, 2020, wounding at least seven and killing one.

Smugglers are sordid criminals, but are not responsible for the deaths

Immediately after the tragedy in the English Channel, French and British authorities both rushed to point fingers at the responsibility of “criminal smugglers.” Spot the error! Smugglers are sordid criminals who take advantage of the European public policies that turn borders into walls, camps or cemeteries, but they are not responsible for the deaths there.

For the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII), Didier Leschi, who was promoted representative of the State in recent weeks in Calais, smugglers are the ones “who are trying [...] to maintain camps by the sea” in order to recruit potential candidates for the forbidden trip to the UK.

But it is precisely the responsibility of the state to create safe places to take care of exiles instead of leaving them wandering into the hands of smugglers. This is what was asked of him during his mission to Calais, but to no avail.

A young boy is helped by a Border Force officer, Kent

A young boy is helped by a Border Force officer, Kent

Gareth Fuller/PA/ZUMA

Creating safe spaces

Borders drive people mad: equally migrants who are prevented from circulating and political leaders who see them as a symbol of their national obsession. And now, more than ever, borders are places where people are killed.

There are solutions to prevent the English Channel from turning into a cemetery, as French President Emmanuel Macron has just pledged to avoid. They can be implemented immediately and would be the beginning of a re-humanization, which is essential for understanding the migration issue and for making the right decisions.

The most urgent measure is giving shelter to the exiles of the Calais area, in safe places that are protected from the winter weather and from the smugglers’ dangerous solicitations. But these spaces also need to be safe from their point of view, that is, not being traps leading towards detention and deportation.

The shelter must go hand in hand with support for their requests: to stay in France, to go to the UK or elsewhere. There are social workers and community volunteers who know how to do this, from gaining their trust to establishing dialogue, seeking to understand rather than to sort out and exclude.

Our nation's dignity is at stake.

In this context, all these people can be offered ways to fast track the process in France of obtaining legal status. We will then see, as we have already witnessed in the past, that this proposal may have more resonance than we think, and may calm the situation.

Finally, we must impose on the UK without further delay what has been promised several times already without ever being enforced: the renegotiation of the Le Touquet Treaty on the externalization of the British border in France, to get out of this shameful position of doing our neighbor’s dirty work in exchange for compensation — exactly what Libya, Turkey and Morocco are doing for the European Union.

These measures will have the indirect but immediate effect of draining the smugglers' business assets.

Our nation’s dignity is at stake. And its responsibility too, after the tragedy that has just unfolded on its shores. More than anything, these solutions imply the state to place its trust in the region’s charitable organizations which, for years now, have been working on the migrant issue, and have a deep knowledge thanks to their collaboration with researchers in social science. It is this trust that is currently lacking among state officials, who fail to see the solidarity that exists within French society.

**Michel Agier is an anthropologist and ethnologist, who co-wrote the book "La Jungle de Calais"

**This article was translated with permission from its author

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Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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