Almost 300 asylum seekers including 36 children have died trying to cross the Channel to the UK in the past 20 years, according to the first analysis to collate deaths.
The Institute of Race Relations research, due to be published next month and seen by the Guardian, details the cases of 292 people who have died trying to cross by vehicle, tunnel and over the water since 1999.
It includes Tuesday’s four deaths, when an Iranian Kurdish couple and two of their children died when their boat sank.
Maël Galisson from Gisti, a legal service for asylum seekers in France, has worked on the report, published in partnership with the Permanent People’s Tribunal London steering group, and has been documenting these deaths for two decades.
There is no official record of all the deaths of people trying to cross the Channel in the UK and, by documenting the hundreds of deaths from media reports and other public records, Galisson hopes to give each person who has died an identity and a history.
There were a few years where the death toll was particularly high when a large group perished together in a lorry. This includes 2000, when 54 Chinese men died in a truck travelling to Dover, 2001 when eight people died in a lorry travelling to Dover and 2019 when 39 Vietnamese migrants suffocated in a lorry and were discovered in Grays, Essex.
Apart from those years, the annual number of deaths was mainly in single figures until 2013 when numbers began to steadily increase.
While there were some drownings before 2018, the majority of deaths before that time involved asylum seekers hit by cars, trains and lorries, those electrocuted in the Channel tunnel or those who died inside lorries. There were four drownings of asylum seekers trying to cross the Channel last year and seven so far this year, with one child unaccounted for from Tuesday’s tragedy.
As the tight security around the port of Calais and the entrance to Eurotunnel has been further increased there have been fewer deaths involving lorries and trains. But more people have been embarking on dangerous sea crossings. Along with the heightened security, the reduction in lorry traffic due to Covid-19 has also played a part.
The report, Deadly Crossings and the Militarisation of Britain’s Borders, documents each case in as much detail as is publicly available. Some deaths involve people who are unnamed and unidentified. Some are buried in cemeteries in the Calais area while the bodies of others were repatriated to their home countries.
Some of the heartbreaking details include the case of a man who drowned after trying to use a rucksack filled with empty plastic bottles as a makeshift lifejacket. One baby died after being born prematurely to an Iraqi Kurdish woman, another died after a 20-year-old Eritrean woman fell from a lorry trying to reach the UK, triggering a premature birth.
The report states: “Crossing strategies evolve according to the level of securitisation of the border. The more a crossing point is securitised and thus inaccessible the higher the risks and the need for border crossers to have recourse to a third party – a smuggler.”
It documents the types of security to deter migrant crossings that the UK has helped to fund in France, including fencing, video surveillance and infrared detection technology along with hundreds of static and mobile cameras and security patrols.
In January 2018 the then UK prime minister, Theresa May, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, signed the Sandhurst treaty aimed at trying to prevent migrants from crossing the Channel. The home secretary, Priti Patel, has more recently signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with France to tackle the smugglers who are behind the recent increase in small boat crossings.
“Military-style solutions don’t solve humanitarian problems, they simply create more profit for the smugglers and more suffering for the migrants,” the report states.
Frances Webber, vice-chair of IRR, said: “All these deaths are attributable to policies which treat asylum seekers as criminals, separates families and denies those seeking asylum a speedy legal route to safety and security.”