This week, 5 September marks exactly one year since the death of Aleksandra Hazhar, a baby born prematurely following a police intervention on a beach in Calais. A few days earlier, Rupak Sharif, the mother of Aleksandra, had been arrested by a police patrol and held for several hours on the beach in the cold early hours of the morning. During this wait, Sharif’s waters broke – and although she signalled her distress to the police officers present, no help was called.
Today, a year later, a committee that has formed to support the family is calling for the truth surrounding the affair to be revealed.
On the morning of 2 September 2020 – at around 4 am, on the coast close to Calais – a patrol of French gendarmes arrested a group of migrants about to board a dinghy across the Channel. The gendarmes destroyed the boat and confiscated the migrants’ lifejackets. Among those arrested were Sharif and her husband Hazhar Ibrahim, a couple from Iraqi Kurdistan, and their two children, aged nine and two. Rupak was 35 weeks pregnant at the time.
According to the family, soon after the police arrived Sharif began to experience severe pain and felt her waters break. The couple asked several times for the gendarmes to help them get to hospital, but they say the police refused on each occasion – forcing the group of migrants to remain on the beach in the cold for several long hours until sunrise. When the police departed, they left the group where they were.
Those present tried to make their way to the closest road in order to find help, but an ambulance wasn’t called until 7am. Sharif was admitted urgently to hospital in Calais, and underwent an emergency caesarean. She gave birth to Aleksandra, who from the outset suffered from numerous neurological and respiratory problems and was immediately placed on life support.
Three days later, despite the efforts of medical staff, Aleksandra’s condition had not improved. With the consent of her parents, a decision was taken to cut her ventilatory support. Aleksandra died on 5 September 2020.
Traumatised by these events, Sharif and Ibrahim decided to file a complaint against the gendarmes for “intentional violence” and “non-assistance to persons in danger”, which they did on 19 February this year.
Anticipating the publicity that would be generated by this tragic incident and by the accusation brought against the gendarmes, on 3 March the Calais Prefet [office for the city of Calais] published a press release absolving the police forces of all responsibility in the events that led up to the death of Aleksandra.
In the statement, the Prefet said that during the police operation on the beach that night, “none of the migrants showed signs of particular difficulties” – and even went so far as to reverse the responsibility by blaming Sharif and Ibrahim, saying that what happened “is testament to the danger of these perilous crossing attempts in dinghies”.
Once again, the authorities had chosen to cover up the violence used by police forces at the UK-France border. For more than 25 years, displaced people passing through Calais – along with the organisations and activists supporting them – have shed light on the police violence perpetrated against migrants across the border zone. Yet nothing has changed.
Despite repeated accusations of abuse and harassment, police officers are rarely, if ever, sanctioned. Physical aggression, teargas, daily evictions, intimidation, humiliation and the confiscation of belongings constitute the daily life of migrants in and around Calais. The authorities have made the region a zone in which migrant rights are perpetually trampled on, and where the only law in force is that of arbitrary, discretionary and discriminatory violence.
In parallel, the British government continues, both politically and financially, to encourage these hostile policies in the name of “the fight against illegal immigration”.
In November 2020, the UK pledged £28m to France to tackle Channel crossings, most notably by reinforcing gendarme and Police Nationale patrols on beaches along the coastline. A new agreement, for £54m, was signed this summer – and is going towards deploying new surveillance technology, as well as doubling the number of police patrols on the beaches. These are the very same patrols implicated in the death of Aleksandra Hazhar.
Aleksandra’s death was not an isolated incident. Since 1999, more than 300 deaths of migrants have been documented at the French border.
These are the result of attempts to cross the border hidden in lorry trailers, electrocutions by overhead wires at the Channel tunnel, drownings in the Channel, a lack of medical care, and deaths following police interventions. Like these others, Aleksandra’s death is the direct consequence of government policies born out of successive bilateral agreements between the UK and France, which have made this border zone into a death trap for those attempting to cross it irregularly.
The endless increase in different forms of border control has forced migrants to adopt new and more dangerous crossing methods, and (as a result) to rely more heavily on the very smuggler networks that governments claim to fight against. The responsibility for these risks does not lie with those such as Sharif and Ibrahim, who must take them. It lies with the government, who leave them with no other choice.
We, the Justice Committee for Aleksandra Hazhar, stand in solidarity with Sharif and Ibrahim. We demand that justice be rendered, for and in memory of their daughter. We call for the full truth to be made public regarding the exact responsibility of the police forces in this affair, as well as of the administrative and political authorities involved both in this family’s case and in the execution of the deadly policies we see implemented every day in the Calais region.
Mael Galisson is a member of the French organisation Le Gisti (the Group for Information and Support to Immigrants), which campaigns for equal access to rights and citizenship regardless of nationality, and for freedom of movement
Frances Timberlake has been working with migrant communities in northern France since 2016. She was a coordinator of the Refugee Women’s Centre, an organisation supporting women and families living in the informal settlements