The forgotten victims of Britain’s border regime 

LOUAM BEYENE HRDU was just 19 when she died trying to cross the Channel on July 7 2007. An Eritrean refugee from a small village near Asmara, Louam fled to France in the hope of seeking asylum in Britain. On the night of her death, officers found her hiding in a truck departing to Dover on a ferry and chased her.

Terrified of being caught, she ran out onto the dark A16 motorway in Calais and was hit by oncoming traffic. The force of the impact flung her body three metres through the air.  Friends described her as a smiley, funny and beautiful young woman, full of life. 

Last month, 27 people with the same dream stepped into a flimsy dinghy on the black waters of the Channel, and like Louam and hundreds of others, they never came back.  The disaster — the deadliest at Britain’s border with mainland Europe since the bodies of 39 Vietnamese people were found in the back of a lorry in 2019 — has drawn international attention to the deadly consequences of fortress Britain. But the deadly situation at Britain’s frontiers dates much further back than the so-called “boat crisis.” 

It’s estimated that 336 people have now perished attempting to cross the Channel to Britain since 1999. This is not an official figure; there are no official records kept of deaths at Britain’s borders over this period. Instead the death toll has been determined through the work of local activists, who, in the absence of efforts by the authorities, have taken on the responsibility of counting and naming the dead. 

This has left a hidden death toll, one that activists believe authorities on both sides of the Channel are happy to ignore in order to continue ramping up security at the border, regardless of the human cost.  Giving a name to the dead The details of where, when and how Louam died are recorded in a timeline alongside the 336 people who’ve perished at Britain’s borders since 1999.

The database is the work of French activist Mael Gallison, who’s spent the past six years counting the dead at Britain’s gates. While all the deaths are horrific, he tells me, the case of the Eritrean asylum-seeker is one that particularly stands out for him owing to a letter written by Louam’s friend a year after she died. It reads: “Not once did the journalists come to see us.

Not once did they ask us what happened, what we knew, how we felt.”  These words speak to the silence that has often followed deaths at the border, and encapsulates the reason why Gallison began the morbid task of counting and naming the dead — because nobody else was.  “I decided to do this work of documenting deaths at the border because there are no official numbers,” he tells me. “If you talk to the mayor of Calais: ‘OK, do you have a number of people dead at the border’?” The answer would be: ‘I don’t know’,” he says. 

Unlike the Mediterranean, the situation at the Franco-British border has been largely overlooked and underreported, he says, unless mass tragedies occur like the deaths in the Channel last month, the Essex 39 or the Dover 58. The International Organisation of Migration also keeps count of migrants who go missing in the Channel, but its records only date back to 2014.   Refusing to allow the memories of those who’ve died trying to seek sanctuary in Britain to slip into obscurity, Gallison decided in 2015 to stop working on the frontline of the crisis — as a co-ordinator of French associations supporting refugees in Pas-de-Calais — and start recording it.

He began by sifting through thousands of articles in the local newspaper archives for reports on border deaths, and combining them with the work of other activists and  local journalists to create a timeline of deaths spanning more than two decades.  The entries — translated into English for the Institute of Race Relations’s 2020 report Deadly Crossings and the Militarisation of Britain’s Borders — show most of the victims were young adults and teenagers from war-torn countries.  The aim of the timeline was not only to account for the dead, as Gallison explains, but to humanise the nameless bodies washed up on French beaches or found lifeless on the side of roads and back of lorries.

“When I read the newspaper … they would write: ‘A migrant is dead, a woman is dead in the sea’,” he says. “It was completely dehumanising, and without name, without story. You turn the page in the newspaper and you forget this event, so I wanted to keep the memory and I wanted to give a name and if I can an image.”  However, despite Gallison’s efforts, many of the people who met their end at Britain’s gates remain nameless, their identities forever lost, and families never knowing their fate.

As the first entry reads from January 11 1999: “An Iraqi man was found dead, crushed under a truck under which he was hiding, at Dover.” Border militarisation  This year, 36 people have died trying to cross to Britain, the vast majority of them from drowning in the Channel, according to Gallison’s database.

In the past three years, he has observed an increase in refugees attempting the crossing, something which was rare before 2018. Gallison believes the switch to the sea crossing from attempts to hide in the back of lorries is a direct consequence of increasing levels of security at the border.  For the past 20 years, successive British government’s have spent millions of pounds on ramping up security at the port, railways and motorways to keep out refugees and migrants.

People have been hit by cars, electrocuted in the Eurotunnel, suffocated in the back of lorries, crushed inside trucks and poisoned from carbon monoxide while trying to keep warm. Like Louam, several have also died trying to escape border police, including a man who drowned after jumping from a ferry into the Channel. Others have tragically died after reaching Britain, such as the case of a woman who fell off a truck in Hastings in 2000, or from being denied medical care. 

This hasn’t stopped refugee crossings — instead it’s forced them to take alternative, and often more deadly routes, increasing the reliance on smugglers, Gallison explains. Examples of where this can be seen go further back than the boats. In 2014, PM Theresa May pledged GBP12 million for France to build a two-mile double-layered fence along the motorway towards the port, in a bid to stop refugees clambering into lorries.

In response, Gallison observed more people trying to cross the Channel via the Eurotunnel. While none of the 21 deaths recorded in 2014 occurred in the Eurotunnel, 12 of the 28 recorded in 2015 took place on the site. Then, as journeys through the Eurotunnel became more difficult due to yet more security agreements — including 18 miles of new barriers and CCTV — refugees turned more and more towards the sea crossing. 

“It was easier for them to cross hidden in the truck or train but because of the militarisation of the border it was really difficult … so they were forced to find a new way. For me this is a direct result of these policies.”  The switch to sea crossings may not only prove more deadly for refugees, but could also make the process of counting and identifying the dead more difficult, Gallison fears. 

The timeline notes that since October 21, six people have gone missing at sea, including three who tried to make the crossing by kayak on November 12. Their bodies have yet to be found. “Sometimes the bodies stay in the sea.

What can we do for these bodies?”  Governments don’t think these lives count  Last week the French prosecutor confirmed the identities of 26 of the 27 bodies recovered after a dinghy believed to be carrying 33 people sank in the Channel last month.

Among them were 17 young men, seven women and three children. The majority of people who drowned on that dark night were from Iraqi Kurdistan, while four were from Afghanistan. There were also three Ethiopians, a Somalian woman and an Egyptian man.

Other families are still desperately waiting for answers about their missing loved ones, one month on.  The identification process has been handled by the French authorities, which set up a commission in the wake of the disaster to identify the bodies, drafting in a specialist team of forensic experts to help the effort. Sixteen bodies were also due to be repatriated to Kurdistan last week, while France has agreed to pay for funerals. 

But Gallison says this is the first time such steps have been taken by the French authorities to identify those who’ve perished at the border. Before this, the responsibility of identifying the dead, contacting families and paying for funerals fell predominantly on the shoulders of volunteers, aid workers and activists.  “In France there is no official procedure to identify victims and help families or relatives identify victims,” he explains. “For us we consider this is not our work.

We did this because the French authorities did not want to do that.”  In 2017, a special group was set up by several Calais-based charities to manage this process. “We called it the group of the deceased,” Maya Konforti, the secretary of refugee charity L’Auberge des Migrantes, tells me. 

Explaining how it works, Konforti says: “Each person has a specific job … one who takes the job of informing the family and staying in touch with the family, one who has a job of trying to get all the information to identify the person, then there’s somebody who deals with the funerary home and organises all the contact with the funeral home.” Following a death, volunteers visit the refugee camps, sometimes with descriptions of clothes the deceased was wearing or photos of their faces given to them by police, to see whether anyone recognises them. The committee has also raised thousands of pounds for funerals, and when possible, to repatriate bodies back to their families.

Many of Britain’s border dead are buried in the Muslim section of Calais cemetery. “It’s always a moving ceremony,” says Konforti, who has attended several funerals in the seven years she’s worked with refugees in Pas-de-Calais. This process, especially informing the families, is “heartbreaking,” Konforti says. 

“Calling the family is extremely stressful. You can imagine that people, especially the family back home, they don’t realise that their relative, who already arrived in Europe, is in any physical danger. They are in Europe, they are safe.”

Konforti says this work has often fallen to volunteers partly because they have more contact and trust with refugees than the police to help identify the deceased. However she also believes there’s another reason why authorities have previously made “minimal efforts” to identify the dead. “Simply, they do not care.

For them refugees are just nameless people, basically. One person here, one person there, so that doesn’t make any noise, no-one cares except us. It’s horrendous but nobody cares.”

For Gallison, the authorities’ failures to help name or remember the dead is a continuation of the violence they face at Britain’s frontiers, and speaks to the total disregard for the lives of refugees. It also hides the true human cost of the border regime.  “Not only do French authorities and British authorities kill these people — they created deadly border policies — and at the same time they refuse to keep the memory of these victims who died at the border.

You have a double violence.”  The activist says this is reflected by the Calais municipality’s refusal to allow volunteers’ requests for a memorial in the town dedicated to those who have died at the border. “They want to keep all these people hidden, not only [do] they want to hide [them] in their daily life, but also when they are dead.

They don’t want to count the number of victims. They don’t want to count their memories.” “I tried to be optimistic but sometimes I’m forced to see the truth.

You know many people are dead in the Mediterranean Sea, in the desert, in the Greek islands and Greek sea. European authorities and national government[s] of France, UK, Italy — they continue to do the same. So at the final step I’m obliged to say that in fact these governments don’t think these lives count.”

‘Am I going to find a body next?’ In light of last month’s disaster, volunteers who’ve had to handle this process are hopeful deaths at the border will no longer be ignored and are demanding both governments to ditch their deadly 20-year approach to refugee crossings, or risk more tragedies. However, while the authorities’ efforts to identify the 27 is welcomed, Gallison stresses that the same effort should be made for every person who perishes at the border, not only when deaths make global headlines: “I have some doubts, maybe after, when the media and when the people will forget this 27, we will come back to the same situation.” 

Gallison says another body of a man washed up on Sangatte beach, also found on November 24 but who is believed to have drowned several days before the tragedy, has been left out of the identification process of the 27. His body has yet to be identified.  Meanwhile, instead of considering a humanitarian approach to crossings, PM Boris Johnson  has responded to the tragedy by doubling down on security at the border.

Having spent the last six years counting the victims of these policies, Gallison knows where this will lead. “If British and French governments continue to follow the same ideological way, we can be sure that new deaths will arrive. I’m really upset and I’m really sad to say that.

But I can be sure of that.” Gallison and Konforti also stress that without safe routes to Britain, asylum-seekers will continue to make dangerous journeys, whatever the cost.  The government’s security-focused trajectory fails to acknowledge  this.

As Anna Richel, an aid worker in northern France, explains: “We see that people know it’s absolutely dangerous but they don’t have another solution.” Richel, the Grande-Synth co-ordinator for Utopia 56, a French association set up in 2016 to give legal and practical support to refugees, tells me the organisation regularly receives calls from refugees asking for help as their boats sink.  “Sometimes the engine is broken, sometimes there’s water on the boat, sometimes there’s oil on the boat.

Sometimes there is [a] huge wave and people don’t have life jackets, so it’s absolutely dangerous.” The group helps to connect them with the coastguard, staying on the phone until they are rescued. “A lot of people when they are calling they are like: ‘We are going to die, we are going to die,’ and it’s absolutely difficult, we try to manage, try to stay calm and give us the information for the coastguard, but it’s absolutely distressing.

“We are thinking — they know it’s going to be like this, sometimes they try again, we are just thinking OK if they do that it’s because they don’t have any solution. They say to us: ‘We have nothing to lose. We can’t stay here. We are just in a field, four in a tent, and police come in the morning and take everything we have.’ The distress of the people is huge, and it makes me really angry.”

Yemeni asylum-seeker Ali (not his real name) made the crossing to England in July 2020. In the two years prior to this, Ali had been living on the streets in Spain and Belgium, while waiting to be granted asylum. “I wanted to find a better way forward or a better solution to that,” he tells me.  Ali boarded the rubber dinghy in northern France at 3am after paying a smuggler GBP3,500.

The boat only had space for 10 people but the smugglers were trying to squeeze in 18. “We were scared, we could see we were too heavy for the boat,” he tells me. They ran into problems as soon as they hit the water. “The engine cut about three times.

There was a Yemeni woman on the boat who was crying, and praying and very upset. “I was on the edge of the boat and there was a Syrian teenager who was also on the edge. When the waves were hitting the boat and water coming onto the deck, he was screaming and shouting and saying: ‘I can’t swim, I can’t swim,’ and panicking, and so it was really scary.

“All the way through the journey we had buckets and taking the water and throwing it overboard. If we hadn’t been doing this — maybe it would have sunk or broken the engine completely. “I did think we wouldn’t make it.

The journey felt like days, not hours. When people are in a very difficult situation, time seems to pass so slowly and I was thinking maybe I would be saying goodbye to my life.” After four hours, they were rescued by the coastguard and brought to Britain.

“I wouldn’t wish on anybody a trip in the boat across the Channel,” he tells me, but stresses that people crossing “don’t have any other solution, they’re in a really desperate situation.” For volunteers supporting refugees in northern France, too many lives have already been lost, and fears the tragedy in the Channel could just be the beginning are all too real. A few days ago, Konforti was walking along the beach near her home when she came across three objects: a child’s shoe, a little girl’s glove and an oar. 

“It’s like your heart just goes to pieces,” she tells me, recalling how she felt. “It makes you wonder, am I going to find a body next? I had a vision of the famous boy on the Turkish beach, am I going to find something like this? It just turns your stomach upside down.” 

On the other side of the Channel is a memorial to remember those who’ve perished seeking sanctuary in Britain.

Located on the Dover seafront, under the shadow of the white cliffs, it reads: “Every migrant has a name, a face, and a story.”