Sunset over the channel from Calais' beach. Credit: Freya Corcoran

Another Death in the Channel

After the death of an Eritrean woman in the Channel on Monday night, the call for safe, legal routes to asylum is reiterated, and more prevalent than ever.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the body of a 24 year old Eritrean woman was found on the beach at Sangatte, only walking distance from Calais’ main shorefront – which would soon be full of French tourists with 99c ice creams and kids making sandcastles.

It is believed she died of cardiac arrest, after a situation unfolded on board a dinghy trying to cross the channel and she was thrown overboard. Her death is the 378th that has occurred on the British-French border since 1999. 

She was not here with ill intent, not an invader, not to steal our jobs. She was a woman, not of a dissimilar age to me, who had been left with no other choice than to flee her home country, and seek refuge elsewhere. The crossing would’ve been the final leg of her journey to what she hoped would be a safe and happy life. One where she could laugh with her friends, wear clothes that she chose herself and felt good in, earn her own money and spend it how she chose, and love and be loved freely. She, like all 24 year olds, had her own dreams, hopes, passions, fears, likes, dislikes, music taste, dress sense, interests, favourite food, least favourite food, sense of humour, annoyances, memories, friends, family.  

A number of the refugees in Calais are from Eritrea. The small east african country has one of the worst human rights records in the world, with over 37,000 refugees believed to have fled in 2022 alone. And whilst over 70% of refugees end up taking refuge in a country bordering their own, for the tiny proportion who do reach Calais, the final leg of their journey can be the most dangerous. 

The United Kingdom was her final destination. Tied to it perhaps by her favourite football team, by language, by family who’d made the crossing before her, by a dream of studying at Oxford. Or, drawn by people who she thought would be welcoming, caring, friendly, and by the dream of somewhere she could find a safe and stable life, free from persecution, abuse, violence or war. 

Two boats were successful in their crossing on Monday night. One carrying 50 passengers, and the other 40. It is believed that one of these was the boat she had been a passenger on. 

August broke records for the amount of successful crossings into the UK by small boat, with the Home Office recording over 5,300 arrivals on the beaches of the south east coast of England. 

From the shore at Sangatte, the landscape of Dover’s famed white cliffs is easily distinguishable on a clear day (if not obscured by one of the hundreds of ferries arriving or leaving Calais’ port). But with no papers, no passport, no legal identification and no way of getting a visa, refugees in Calais can’t just hop on board for the 90 minute crossing, and are left with few options for getting to those white cliffs that are – just – out of reach. 

With Tory policy becoming more and more hostile towards refugees, the opportunity to seek asylum in the UK is nearing impossible, with Braverman claiming on Tuesday that those who arrive on small boats should not even be considered refugees. But unsurprisingly, their relentless legislation and performative speeches have had no impact on the numbers of refugees risking their lives in the channel for the chance of safety and security.

The hope of a safe and happy life on the other side of the channel is powerful enough that on nights where the sky is clear and the sea is calm, sometimes over a thousand people climb into flimsy dinghies and try the treacherous journey. And even on those nights that the sea isn’t so calm, and the chance of a successful crossing is that much smaller, the boats still leave from the beaches. 

It is painfully clear that a simple solution to the “small boats problem” would be to open safe and legal routes to asylum in the United Kingdom. It would eliminate the need for crossings in dinghies to happen, it would remove the role of smugglers, and – crucially – it would prevent events like Monday night’s from happening. 

It is hope and desperation that drives people to climb onto small inflatable boats and motor themselves into the wake of a 50,000 ton ferry, but the crossings are completely avoidable. It’s well within Suella Braverman’s power to prevent deaths happening on the British border. As articulated by Care4Calais, “Let us not forget, this awful death of a young woman on a French beach in the early hours of an autumn morning was entirely preventable. A modern, sensible system of safe passage would have meant she didn’t have to get in the boat in the first place.”

So, as yet another vigil takes place in Calais, for yet another life lost on the Franco-Britannic border, the call for safe, legal routes is reiterated, and it is louder and clearer than ever. 

Today she remains unidentified, on a list that will only get longer, but she had a life, and loved ones by whom she will not be forgotten. And her death, in search only of safety, will remain a stain on the British government’s past. 

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