Representing Channel Deaths: how the State displaces its responsibility through strategic narratives

By Victoria Tecca

On Thursday of last week, M, a 27-year old man from Eritrea, was travelling in a dinghy alongside 35 other passengers, across the Channel hoping to reach the United Kingdom. It had been sinking, and he reportedly jumped out of the dinghy to reduce its weight. While in the open water he suffered cardio-respiratory arrest. Despite his subsequent hospitalisation in Calais, M passed away. M is one of at least 290 individuals who have died attempting to cross the border from France into the UK, since 1999.

The exact figure is unknown, and reports such as these, which attempt to collate disparate news articles and press releases about deaths at the border, are known to be incomplete because they rely on the mediatisation of clandestine crossings. Those deaths unreported in the media therefore remain unrecorded in official reports. Like all others living in informal migrant settlements along the French coast, M had been attempting to cross the border in this way because of the lack of alternative routes for asylum seekers to the UK.

The UK-France border has not always been deadly. It has become such as a result of a series of policy decisions surrounding trade, immigration, and securitisation beginning with the introduction of juxtaposed controls between France, the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Due to this set-up, which has been developed over the years since its original inception as the Sangatte Protocol in 1991, the British border has effectively been externalised whereby border controls take place before embarking on a journey to the UK, rather than upon arrival as is customary.

People seeking asylum therefore cannot travel via the regular routes to the UK and claim asylum at a port of entry, and must instead reach the UK through irregular means. As a result of juxtaposed controls, would-be asylum seekers hide in lorries and board dinghies unfit for purpose.

The particularities of clandestine crossings have been shaped by a slew of deterrent border enforcement mechanisms and policies such as hyper-securitised border infrastructure and surveillance technology, increased police patrols of French beaches funded by the UK, the criminalisation of solidarity and aid, repeated harassment, arrest, and detention of those residing in border settlements, forced fingerprinting at the border, police violence, and the upcoming Nationality and Borders Bill which closes virtually all ‘regular’ routes to asylum in the UK.

Together, these policies and practices have pushed displaced people into the Channel. While small boat crossings to the UK have reportedly been attempted for decades, until late 2018 most people crossed to the UK by hiding in lorries and vans as they crossed the border via the ferry or Eurotunnel. Yet from November 2018 until today, more and more people have been crossing by small boat rather than what has, disturbingly, come to be perceived as the more traditional lorry route.

Despite the Home Office’s admission that these deterrence mechanisms and restrictive immigration policies have contributed significantly to the shift towards small boat crossings, their reaction to ensuing deaths at the border strategically obscures the role of British policy in exposing displaced people to the threat of injury and death. In response to M’s death, Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O’Mahoney stated the following:

“This loss of life underlines the terrible dangers of small boat crossings and why we must work together with the French to prevent callous criminals exploiting vulnerable people.”[1]

 This statement is one of many espoused by state officials in the wake of a death at the border. The wording and message rarely vary, with most characterising Channel crossings as “dangerous”[2] and a “huge risk,”[3] and border deaths as “particularly sad event[s].”[4] Deaths are blamed on “ruthless criminals”[5] who “make money from exploiting migrants who are desperate to come”[6] to the UK.

The UK has repeatedly responded to border deaths by continuously securitising the border through direct funding of French border enforcement activities and technologies – the latest funding package totalling £55 million as agreed on 20 July of this year – and by introducing increasingly restrictive immigration policy. In reference to the latter, O’Mahoney states that, “The government’s New Plan for Immigration is the only long-term solution to fix the broken system, tackle the criminal gangs and prevent more tragedies.”[7]

The narrative of preventing tragedy or ‘saving lives’ is also a common trope in Home Office messaging. In presenting to the House of Commons the New Plan for Immigration, Home Secretary Priti Patel argued, “That is what this plan is about: tackling illegal migration, protecting lives, and, of course, alongside that creating new routes.”[8] Unsettlingly, in claiming to ‘protect lives’ and ‘create new routes’, the Home Office has adopted the language so often used by those advocating for migrants’ rights as they criticise state policy and practice.

This discourse both constructs the state as a benevolent saviour and conceals the predictably harmful effects of the Nationality and Borders Bill (which is itself derived from the New Plan for Immigration). By withdrawing almost all non-resettlement routes to asylum and criminalising those arriving by irregular means, the Bill only exacerbates the risk of precarity and exploitation along the border. The narrative that has been established through this repetition identifies the source of danger as the Channel itself and constructs smugglers as the root cause of crossing attempts.

What this framing of border deaths conceals, however, are the political processes that have led displaced people to make crossing attempts in the first place. While smugglers may buy dinghies, organise meeting points, and reap great financial benefit, the services they offer have not created the demand for crossings. Rather, they have responded to an already-existing demand. Social scientific research has consistently shown in similar borderlands across time and space that as borders are increasingly securitised, demand for professional smuggling services soars in parallel[9].

By characterising border deaths as either the fault of smugglers or of the rough Channel waters, responsibility for their occurrence is deflected away from border enforcement practices and immigration policy. It answers the question of death neatly and succinctly, precluding an honest assessment of the circumstances that lead individuals into making these ‘dangerous journeys,’ whether by boat or lorry. What is occurring at the France-UK border has been operationalised along borders in other regions for decades.

For instance, it is well-documented how the Sonoran Desert’s harsh environment – including the suffocating heat, lack of water sources, and rugged terrain – contributes to the widespread disappearance and death of a staggering number of those who attempt to clandestinely cross the southern border into the United States. Yet the desert itself is not at fault; decades of targeted immigration policy passed under the umbrella officially dubbed ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ have squeezed displaced people into narrow corridors that force them to pass through this region in what is called the ‘funnel effect.’

The effect of deterrence policy on shifting migration routes is shrouded through the portrayal of migrant deaths as unexplained or tragic accidents. Indeed, the most common causes of death are listed as exposure, undetermined, or simply ‘skeletal remains.’[10] Along the UK’s southern border, would-be asylum seekers’ causes of death are more often listed as drowning in the Channel, asphyxiation in lorries, car accidents, or, in M’s case, cardiac arrest[11]. Here, too, there is a ‘funnel effect’ in the form of a bottleneck corridor through which would-be asylum seekers must travel if they wish to apply for protection in the UK.

The policies referenced above – which aim also to prevent migration through deterrence – have effectively empowered the British government to indirectly determine who may live and who may die. At the same time, the state has produced a narrative about ‘protecting lives’ and ‘preventing tragedy’ in order to frame these same policies as humanitarian measures. These policies push people into lorries without oxygen and onto overcrowded dinghies, exposing them to death while displacing responsibility onto smuggling groups.

Ensuing deaths are, in turn, characterised as ‘tragedies’ and evidence of the danger of the Channel or of lorries themselves. Death is misidentified as a risk inevitably taken by those who choose to cross irregularly. In reality, however, there are no other routes from which to choose. Through this repeated portrayal, border deaths are used to justify the policies that produce them in the first place.











[9] Kyle, D. and Koslowski, R. (2011) Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.





The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.


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