Disasters & Accidents

Candles at Dunkirk for migrants who died crossing English Channel

By Nerea Gonzalez

Dunkirk, France, Nov 24 (EFE).- Twenty-three-year-old Bryar, Mhabad, 32, Deniz, 27, Hasti, 7 … Up to 31 names were mentioned on Thursday in a vigil held in the northwestern French coastal city of Dunkirk, near where a year ago the group of illegal migrants perished as they were trying to cross the English Channel, their radio calls for help ignored on both coasts.

In all, 27 bodies were found floating in the Channel on the morning of Nov. 24, 2021, almost 12 hours after their first call for help was received by French emergency services, according to later investigations. The bodies of another four people were never found and only two migrants were rescued alive.

A year later, in the streets of the French city, more than 300 people marched in the migrants’ memory to recall that two of the world’s biggest democracies were unable to organize themselves to save them.

“French and British authorities have made this border a place of death,” Mael Galisson, a member of the Immigrants’ Information and Support Group (Gisti, as per its French initials), read in the name of multiple humanitarian organizations that gathered on Thursday for the march and vigil.

Carrying candles and torches, the demonstrators – many of them dressed in black and with their faces covered – braved the nighttime cold and moved from the Dunkirk city hall to the town’s beach, following marchers carrying a sign reading “Your borders, our deaths.”

Once on the beach, the marchers observed a minute of silence and read out the names of the dead.

Representatives of the participating organization also read messages from the relatives of some of the victims, letters in which they called for justice for the “undignified” deaths of their loved ones. They were people, the relatives said, who waited in the chilled water for hours hoping for help and rescue that never came.

“It’s terrible, it’s tragic, it’s scandalous. And it’s the most blessed luck that it doesn’t happen more often,” Briton Nicola Davies, the author of a children’s book about the experiences of refugees, told EFE, adding that she had come to France to participate in the Thursday event.

Both Dunkirk and Calais, cities located across the Channel from the English coast, have become the transit points for thousands of migrants who, in inhuman conditions, wait in tents more or less hidden among the local vegetation on the edge of the towns, eating what NGOs can provide to them.

Covered in mud and in often inclement weather, they are waiting for the chance to cross the Channel and get to the United Kingdom to carve out better lives for themselves.

Kurds from different countries, Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans and Vietnamese are just some of the nationalities represented among the migrants at the informal camps.

They want to get to the UK because there they hope to find work more easily despite having no immigration papers. Often, relatives or friends from their home communities and who have already made the journey are there waiting for them.

The majority of the migrants end up crossing the Channel in the most dangerous way: in small overloaded boats like the one that sank on Nov. 24, 2021.

That illegal vessel was just on the point of crossing into British territorial waters when it sank and the lack of organization among the two countries’ rescue services left the migrants at the mercy of the sea for hours despite repeated radio calls they made seeking help.

The incident sparked a serious political disagreement between London and Paris, with mutual accusations of not doing enough to halt illegal Channel crossings, on the one hand, and creating a negative impact with the prevailing legislation, on the other.

French President Emmanuel Macron at the time promised not to allow the Channel to be transformed into a cemetery.

That promise, for the moment, has translated into greater police repression and more stringent controls at the informal migrant camps, but it has not halted the flow of desperate people who take to the Channel waters.

This year alone, there have been at least 45,000 crossing attempts by boat, according to figures compiled by the French Maritime Prefecture, up from about 30,000 during all of 2021.

“The boats picked up at sea are a little bigger than before (about 10-12 meters, or 33-39 feet, in length) but above all they’re more overloaded with about 45 people per boat, on average,” Prefecture officials told EFE.

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