They fled hardship and war only to find misery and squalor, but migrants who met a gruesome end in northern France hoping to reach England are finally getting a touch of dignity in death.
More than 30 people have perished since June last year in and around the vast, infamous camp known as the “Jungle” in the northern French port of Calais, near the Channel Tunnel.
The latest was a Pakistani man, only 24, hit by a car on the ring road around Calais on May 9.
Others have been struck by a train, drowned or electrocuted, some in horrific circumstances, dragged along tracks after a desperate, failed bid to stow away on cross-Channel transport.
To spare them a nameless, forgotten fate, rights workers, and medical personnel act as go-betweens to put the police, hospital or funeral home in contact with family or other migrants who came to know the victim.
“Often, police send me photographs, when they’re fit to be seen, which I print out. They help me find people in the ‘Jungle’ who knew the victim to make a positive identification and prepare the rest,” said Lou, a full-time psychologist with the medical charity Medecins du Monde who gave only her first name.
As for regular citizens, “autopsies are systematically performed to dispel any doubt about the cause of death,” said Stephane Chochois, who heads the forensic medicine unit at a Calais hospital.
Identifying people in illegal flight can take months but the bodies are patiently kept in the morgue. The volunteers follow every clue — checking with travel companions, any documents or cell phone chips. Often, Chochois said, victims have several chips, typically hidden in their socks. If none of that works, they take fingerprints and DNA samples.
Sometimes the clue comes from ‘Jungle’ residents themselves, worried about someone who suddenly disappeared. They come, telling us “we lost one of our friends,” said psychologist Lou.
Yet restoring dignity can be a challenge, said Chochois citing one case where a migrant’s body parts were spread “along 20 metres (yards)” last summer “after the person was dragged along by a train”.
Psychological support is lacking, Lou told media, as in a case “in October when a 26-year-old Syrian man died after being struck by a car in front of his nine-year-old son”.
Nearly 5,000 people are massed in the ‘Jungle’, some months on end as they try to reach Britain and, they think, jobs, according to French and British charities. The government says the figure is vastly inflated, but tension remains high as police regularly jostle with migrants desperate to cross the Channel.
“There’s lots that needs to be done,” said Lou. “In the Eurotunnel, for example, the agents have support. But the migrants, they have nothing.”
“To repatriate a body is not always easy when they come from thousands of kilometres away and we don’t speak the language or know the customs,” she said.
And each case is different “depending on the embassy”. Some pay part of the repatriation, which can vary widely — from 3,000 to 6,000 euros ($3,300 to $6,700) – as do the often complex procedures.
If the family has been contacted, and both wants and can pay for the victim’s return, all goes smoothly. Sometimes the person’s community chips in to offer a decent burial.
If not, the migrant is buried in the town where they die — and the town cannot refuse.
A sad testament lies in a cemetery north of Calais where several graves stand out from the others in the Muslim section, small wooden markers bearing only a name and the years of birth and death.
For some migrants, even that was not known, said Lou pointing to a barren area of paupers’ graves farther off.
“Whether it be at the border or in the shanty town, no one dies by chance in Calais,” she said sadly.