PARIS — The wreckage of a small boat which caused 27 deaths in the English Channel is added to the endless list of deaths at the borders of Europe.
Unfortunately, there is nothing fundamentally new in 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 Calais, northern France, trying to cross the border with the United Kingdom, which was “outsourced” to French soil by the 2004 Treaty of Le Touquet. The years 2000 and 2010 were marked by death tolls at the borders, some terrifying such as the two successive shipwrecks of April 12 and 19, 2015 which left thousands dead.
But we know that after the initial shock comes oblivion – fueled by the absence of official tributes, and the impossibility of mourning – which opens the way to a return to routine and then to indifference.
Pointing fingers at smugglers
The brutality of the political speeches – which are no longer held only by the extreme right – against undesirable foreigners from the countries of the South, including the former European colonies, transforms this indifference into tangible political projects which encourage the rejection of others , and the world in general. The withdrawal of countries into themselves becomes a leitmotif.
The death of these 27 people in the English Channel must be linked to what is happening these days on the Polish border with Belarus and its police and military deployment against migrants, but also with the opening of fire by the Greek army and police on refugees stuck at the Greek-Turkish border on March 4, 2020, injuring at least seven and killing one.
The smugglers are sleazy criminals, but not responsible for the deaths
Immediately after the tragedy in the Channel, the French and British authorities hastened to point the finger at the responsibility of the “criminal smugglers”. Spot the error! The smugglers are sordid criminals who profit from 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 for Immigration and Integration (OFII), Didier Leschi, promoted to representative of the State in recent weeks in Calais, it is the smugglers “who try […] maintain seaside camps” in order to recruit potential candidates for the banned trip to the UK.
But it is precisely the responsibility of the state to create safe places to care for exiles instead of letting them wander into the hands of smugglers. This is what was asked of him during his mission to Calais, but in vain.
Create safe spaces
Borders drive people mad: both the migrants who are prevented from circulating and the politicians who see them as the symbol of their national obsession. And now, more than ever, borders are places where people are killed.
There are solutions to prevent the Channel from turning into a cemetery, as French President Emmanuel Macron has just committed. They can be implemented immediately and would be the beginning of a re-humanization, essential for understanding the migration issue and making the right decisions.
The most urgent measure is to shelter exiles from the Calais region, in safe places, sheltered from the winter weather and the dangerous solicitations of smugglers. But these spaces must also be safe from their point of view, that is, not be traps leading to detention and deportation.
Refuge must go hand in hand with support for their requests: to stay in France, to go to the United Kingdom or elsewhere. There are social workers and associative volunteers who know how to do it, from trust to dialogue, seeking to understand rather than to sort out and exclude.
The dignity of our nation is at stake.
In this context, all these people can be offered ways to speed up the process in France of obtaining legal status. We will then see, as we have already witnessed in the past, that this proposal will perhaps have more resonance than we think, and perhaps calm the situation.
Finally, we must impose without further delay on the United Kingdom what has already been promised several times but never carried out: the renegotiation of the Treaty of Le Touquet on the externalization of the British border in France, to get out of this shameful position of making our neighbour’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 depleting the business assets of smugglers.
The dignity of our nation is at stake. And its responsibility too, after the drama that has just unfolded on its shores. More than anything, these solutions imply that the State places its trust in charities in the region, which have been working on the issue of migrants for years, and have in-depth knowledge of it thanks to their collaboration with social science researchers. It is this confidence that is currently lacking in State agents, who do not see the solidarity that exists within French society.
**Michel Agier is an anthropologist and ethnologist, co-author of the book “La Jungle de Calais”
**This article has been translated with the permission of its author
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