Three displaced persons died at the France-UK border last week, all falling victim to border politics that violate human and fundamental rights. Since the 2016 demolition of the French migrant camp often referred to as “the Jungle”, displaced persons from around the world have lived in unofficial settlements in Calais and Dunkirk while attempting to enter the UK via the English Channel to claim asylum there.
An Eritrean woman died of a suspected heart attack during an attempt to cross the English Channel in a small boat. Care4Calais reported that the woman was trampled on board, and after falling unconscious, was dropped into the sea. Her husband jumped in after her and swam her back to shore, but emergency services were unable to save her life.
With the Illegal Immigration Bill soon coming into force—read more here about why it violates international human rights laws—and winter approaching, displaced persons in northern France will become more desperate to cross the English Channel. So far this year, 24,293 persons crossing the Channel in small boats have been detected by British coastguard personnel and brought to UK soil. Without safe passage to claim asylum in the UK from France, migrant crossings in these small boats will continue and ultimately claim more lives.
Another displaced person died this past weekend while walking along train tracks on the outskirts of Calais, close to the city’s unofficial settlements. The policy of avoiding so-called “fixation points”, paired with police raids every 48 hours, pushes displaced persons to live in dangerous conditions. The displaced have been forced to settle near the train tracks, putting them in danger of being struck by passing trains with speeds of up to 112 km/h. In the past two years, five displaced persons have been tragically hit by trains in this same area.
A Human Rights Observers report detailed the consequences of the “no fixation point” policy and the state violence enforced by the French National Police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS) through weekly evictions from living sites and daily harassment of displaced persons. According to the monthly report from June 2023, 54 evictions had been performed. The evictions require the displaced to move their tents distances ranging from two to 500 metres, pushing people into more and more precarious residential spaces. The policy further disallows for the adequate standard of living protected by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These articles recognise the right of everyone to enjoy an adequate standard of living, including shelter and food, plus water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).
A third displaced person drowned in the Canal du Bourbourg, near the largest settlement in Dunkirk. This is the second fatality in the canal, which is frequently used to for washing; another displaced person drowned in August 2022 when he was washing. The “zero fixation point” policy and lack of state provision of WASH facilities—which are ultimately left in the hands of NGOs such as Roots and Calais Food Collective—violate the human rights to life, health, dignity, and protection from degrading treatment, which are all covered by international human rights laws such as UDHR, ICESCR, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, to which France is legally obligated to respect.
The right to water is recognised as one of the most fundamental rights, as General Comment No. 15 states: “Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights … State parties have to adopt effective measures to realise, without discrimination, the right to water”.
Further, the General Comment states that special attention should be paid to “individuals and groups who have traditionally faced difficulties in exercising this right, including women, … refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons”. The French state’s policy of “no fixation points” and its refusal to provide adequate WASH has claimed the lives of the two men who drowned in the Canal du Bourbourg, and deprived all displaced persons in Calais and Dunkirk of their human and fundamental rights on a daily basis.
The lack of state-provided WASH services is not the only human rights violation committed by France. In the summer of 2022, I personally volunteered with Care4Calais and Calais Food Collective, and during the June heatwave, multiple incidents of the CRS destroying or emptying Calais Food Collective’s IBCs were reported to me by displaced persons. Rather than the State fulfilling its obligation to respect human rights and protect any individual and group against violations of such, it is the main perpetrator and is not held accountable by the international community.
The number of deaths documented this year at the France-UK border has now reached 14, as of this writing in October 2023. Since 1999, 379 displaced persons have died due to the border politics of France and Britain. All lives lost on the border are the responsibility of the French and British governments, which should be held accountable for border policies and practices that violate human and fundamental rights.