Since 1999, an estimated 170 migrants desperately seeking a clandestine passage across the Channel to Britain have died in road accidents in and around the port of Calais in northern France, 37 of them since 2015. One former police officer said the situation became so grim “it was humanly impossible to pick up more bodies from the road”. One of the most recent victims was a 22-year-old Eritrean whose mutilated body was found on a motorway last month after he was run over by a truck whose driver fled the scene. Elisa Perrigueur reports from Calais, where she met with Biniam’s relatives as they prepared the return of his body home to north-east Africa.
The temperature was below freezing point on a bleak dawn last month when Biniam’s remains were found near the port of Calais, lying on the smooth tarmac of the A16 motorway that runs parallel to the Channel coast. According to statements given to the police afterwards by those who knew him, Biniam L. (full last name withheld here), a 22-year-old Eritrean, had probably spent all night looking for a truck he could climb onto in the hope of smuggling his way to England.
He was successful, at first. He had managed to mount one of them, hiding in its cargo hold, most certainly hoping, like so many others who attempt the same, that once it passed through the fortified perimeter of the port, which is surrounded by 39 kilometres of fencing, it would be one of the vehicles that occasionally escapes the heat scanners and sniffer-dog searches, first in Calais and then, after the brief sea passage, through the British port of Dover. With no ID documents and no baggage, just the clothes he would hope could adequately keep out the biting cold.
But on that early morning of January 9th this year, his plan went horribly wrong. The truck he had hidden in did not turn off the motorway into Calais, but instead continued its route eastwards. The young man must have panicked when he realised the fact, for he tried to jump from the truck onto the motorway despite the speeding traffic. According to members of the local French migrant aid association, l’Auberge des migrants, who spoke to police afterwards, Biniam landed on his head and was run over by another truck following behind. But neither vehicle stopped, and there remains doubt over the exact circumstances of his final moments.
Between December 2017 and January this year two other migrants, 15-year-old Abdullah Dilsouz and Hussein Abdoullah, 32, both Afghan nationals, lost their lives in accidents on the roads around Calais. “Since 2015, there have been 37 migrants who have died in [and around] Calais,” said a spokesperson for the local prefecture. “The highest number date back to 2015 and 2016, the great majority are road accidents.” In 2015, the death toll reached 18, followed by 14 in 2016.
Maël Galisson, a coordinator for the network of associations in the region providing aid for migrants, the Plate-forme de services aux migrants, has carried out research to establish the number of victims over the past almost 20 years and, where possible, to record their identities. “Since 1999, we estimate that at least 170 people have died while trying to cross this frontier area,” he said. The majority of road accidents occur on the stretches of the A16 and A26 motorways close to Calais, and the ring road into the port centre.
The day after his death, Biniam’s brother Bereket, 26, arrived in Calais from Germany, accompanied by a cousin and uncle who had travelled from Norway. “He had no ‘dream’ as people put it, he just wanted a country where he was accepted,” said Bereket, who said he had difficulty believing the news that his brother, who he said was “so young to die”, had been killed in a road accident, which he received in a phone call from a friend.
Bereket said he was not aware of the daily reality of the migrants in Calais, the road blocks migrants mount to try and slow traffic and the clandestine crossings in trucks. In his case, he had crossed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. Biniam, he explained, had left the family village in Eritrea, north-east Africa, one-and-a-half years ago, to escape conscription into the army. At one point, he joined up with his brother Bereket in Germany, where the latter had been granted residence. “I obtained [official residency] papers close to Stuttgart and today I work in Germany, I had begun to have a stable life,” recounted Bereket. “His asylum demand was rejected, I don’t understand why.” Biniam had re-applied a second time for right of asylum, but was again turned down. It was after that, in November, that he set off for Calais, where between 550 and 800 migrants – according to figures respectively from the prefecture and the migrant aid associations – live rough, mostly in surrounding woodland.
The few friends of Biniam who Bereket met with in Calais were little forthcoming about his time there. Loan Torondel of the Auberge des migrants association, which had offered Biniam shelter, said he was never seen at the daily distribution of meals. “A month here is not very long for finding a truck,” he said. “Often, migrants spend months before succeeding, for those who manage to.”
During his visit to Calais on February 2nd, French interior minister Gérard Collomb, hoping to dissuade migrants from gathering there, described the frontier point as “a wall” and “a mirage”. But from the beach, the migrants can see the English coast, where some have family and friends they hope to join, in a country with lower unemployment than in France and where finding work, undeclared, is easier. Others say they would stay in France but fear that, if they engaged in the official procedures, because their fingerprints are registered in the first European Union (EU) country they reached before travelling to France they would be sent back there, in accordance with the regulations of the EU’s so-called Dublin Agreement.
The victims are often young men’
For the migrants hoping to cross to Britain from Calais there are few options in how to do so. The British government has handed France about 140 million euros over the past three years to part fund the increased security measures at the port, which is the frontier point before departure for the English coast. On January 18th, at a summit meeting between British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, London announced that it was to provide a further 50.5 million euros, for a further beefing up of security and for establishing a centre for migrants at a site distanced from the town.
For the migrants who can afford their fees, one option is to use the services of people smugglers. They charge between 1,500 euros and 10,000 euros per person for a clandestine passage in a truck, operating out of vehicle parks which they reign over as their own territory. Clashes which broke out in Calais on February 1st between Afghan and Eritrean migrants, which left 22 needing medical treatment, including four teenagers wounded by gunfire, appear to have been linked to turf wars between people smugglers.
Others try blocking trucks on the approach roads to the port, operating in small groups to lay down obstacles to slow or even halt the vehicles in order to jump on. The method is a dangerous one, for both the migrants and the drivers. In June 2017, the polish driver of a truck died after his vehicle crashed into another truck that was blocked by migrants on the A16 motorway, burned alive in his cabin.
Then there are those, and who probably included Biniam, who try to mount the vehicles on their own. Eupui is a 19-year-old migrant from Cameroun, in West Africa, and has lived since 2016 on the ‘Dunes’ industrial zone of the port, the site of the notorious and now razed migrant camp known as “the Jungle”. His solitary sorties to find a truck that would take him across the Channel somehow allow him “to keep going”, he told Mediapart. “I sleep three hours and then I try,” he said. “As soon as I see a truck that isn’t going too fast, even a car, I see if I can get into the boot.” He said he hides “near the bends of the motorways” because vehicles reduce speed there. “I’m not afraid, I’ve lived much worse,” he added. “I crossed the Sahara in horrible conditions to come here. I have nothing left to lose. I’ve injured my knee, but never mind.”
Biniam’s brother Bereket said his brother did not realise the danger in the risks he was taking. “I spoke to him three weeks before he died,” said Bereket. “He told me that everything was fine for him in France. But he lied to me, he didn’t tell me he was at Calais. If I had known, I would have told him to get out of this dangerous place.”
Bereket said he was “disappointed” by what he saw on this, his first trip to France. He has been supported by local charitable associations, including the Réveil voyageur and the Secours catholique, who usually look after relatives of those who have died. “You don’t see many officials, politicians, as if Biniam’s death had no importance,” he said bitterly.
“The associations have been managing this for years,” said Sabriya Guivy from the Auberge des migrants group. “When relatives arrive in Calais they are disappointed at not seeing many officials. They have the impression that they are not taken into account. Mr Macron referred to the death of the Polish driver, but not that of migrants,” she added, referring to a speech by the French president during his visit to Calais on January 16th.
Undertaker Brahim Fares, based in nearby Grande-Synthe, says he charges a “lower than average” price to migrant families out of solidarity. “The dead are repatriated to Afghanistan for between about 3,400-3,500 euros, depending on the weight and the size,” he detailed. “For Eritrea, it begins at around 3,200 euros. Burials in Calais are about 1,600 euros, as opposed to a usual 2,400 euros.” Since 2015, Fares says he has organised the return home of about 15 bodies of migrants, and also the burials of about the same number in the north Calais cemetery managed by the Town Hall. The burial spots are simple ones, covered in earth and marked by crosses made of oak. “The victims are often young men, almost all of them identified,” he added. “I once had an Ethiopian woman. Not all the families can come all the way here. Those who manage to are very shocked, because the bodies are sometimes very damaged, as those in road accidents are.”
Fares was given charge of Biniam’s body, which he recalled had “the hands cut off, the arms smashed up”. The corpse will be returned to Eritrea, where his parents live. Bereket, with his uncle and cousin, made up a large wreath of plastic flowers. “It’s really not so good but we had only that,” he said. But at the hospital in Lille where the body was placed in the coffin, they were told that they could not place the wreath on top of it, nor the white drape they had wanted to cover it with, according to their custom. “The airport authorities will end up throwing the wreath away, it’s not allowed in the hold,” Fares explained to them. After a poignant moment of silence, they asked him why it would be so complicated to do so.
Biniam’s relatives spent two weeks attempting to find out the exact circumstances of what happened to him. At the police station in Calais, they were shown a photo of his injured face. Members of the motorway patrol police gave them the few details they had, which were the approximate time of the accident, a statement from a witness who had not seen very much, and the fact that the driver of the truck that ran over Biniam had fled the scene. “France is a developed country […] so why can’t the driver who did that be found?” asked Bereket. “Even in Eritrea we’d have found the killer of my brother.”
Loan Torondel of the association l’Auberge des migrants said he had seen similar outrage by relatives before. “Many don’t understand why their close family member died under a lorry and that the driver did not act voluntarily,” he said. “Biniam’s family thought that there would be the launch of an investigation, like in American films. They think that the police is not [bothered into] carrying out an investigation, but in reality there are few witnesses.”
Meanwhile, Bereket has lodged an official complaint over his brother’s death “against persons unknown”, explaining: “I won’t be able to sleep as long as I don’t know how he died, and while the person responsible is free.”
’It’s incredible that nobody saw anything’
While the police systematically open investigations into the road deaths of migrants, they are often complex, beginning with the identification of the victim. Patrick Visser-Bourdon, a former Calais-based police detective, recalled the death of a Sudanese migrant whose body was found one morning in 2016 close to the port’s ring road, with “the head opened, abandoned, wearing a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt”.
During his enquiries, Visser-Bourdon approached the head of the Sudanese community of migrants living in the camp known as “the Jungle”, but nobody recognised the body. “We also put out his photo in the police stations,” he said. “In the majority of such cases, we mostly called on the NGOs for help.” As in the case of Biniam, the driver of what was apparently a truck that had hit the Sudanese man had not stopped. “There was blood on the road, there was necessarily some on the bumpers of the truck,” said Visser-Bourdon. “The driver therefore must have stopped his vehicle at some point to clean it, between the Jungle and the port. It’s incredible that nobody saw anything.”
Sabriya Guivy from the Auberge des migrants group added that because some local sections of the motorways are unlit, “It is entirely possible to not realise that one has hit someone and to carry on”.
A section of the numerous investigations into such events end up being closed, unsolved. Someone who is charged with involuntary homicide in France faces a sentence of three years in prison, and up to five years in jail in the case of aggravating circumstances such as fleeing the scene. “Sometimes, some of them don’t remain at the scene of the accident, notably in the case of dangerous [migrant] road blocks, but they go directly to present themselves to the police,” said Pascal Marconville, public prosecutor of the nearby port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, whose services have jurisdiction for events in Calais. “In that case, it’s regarded more as a hit-and-run offence which is exonerated by the circumstances.”
Patrick Visser-Bourdon said he had welcomed the building of a wall surrounding the ring road in 2016 aimed at deterring migrants from the traffic. “It was humanly impossible to pick up more bodies from the road,” he said.