Bodies of 16 people drowned in Channel repatriated to Iraq

Mourners gather in Erbil to receive the victims of November 24 boat disaster in waters between the UK and France.

Besides the 16 Iraqi Kurds, the 26 victims identified included an Iranian Kurd, four Afghan men, three Ethiopians, a Somali and an Egyptian [Ako Rasheed/Reuters]

The bodies of 16 Iraqi Kurdish migrants and refugees, who drowned when their dinghy deflated while they tried to cross the English Channel last month, have been repatriated to Iraq.

On Sunday, an aeroplane carrying the bodies landed at the international airport in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Ambulances then took the coffins to the hometowns of those who died.

Video broadcast by Rudaw showed relatives grieving as the coffins were being moved from the airport.

“The last time I heard my son’s voice was when he got on the boat. He said ‘Don’t worry Mum, I will reach England shortly’. Now he’s back to me in a coffin,” said Shukriya Bakir.

The November 24 disaster, in which 27 people died, was the deadliest on record involving migrants and refugees trying to cross the channel to the United Kingdom from France. The victims included seven women, a 16-year-old and a seven-year-old child.

Besides the 16 Iraqi Kurds, the 26 victims identified included an Iranian Kurd, four Afghan men, three Ethiopians, a Somali and an Egyptian.

In the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Western Europe with the help of smugglers – fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty – on epic journeys from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan and elsewhere. Few are welcomed.

Iraq is no longer at war since the defeat of ISIL (ISIS) in 2017 but growing unemployment and a lack of basic services, as well as a political system most Iraqis say is corrupt and nepotistic, mean many people see little chance of a decent life at home.

The UK, meanwhile, has in recent months witnessed increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty trying to reach its shores, hoping to win asylum or find better opportunities.

Many risk perilous journeys in small, unseaworthy craft from France, with such crossings having tripled this year compared with 2020.

The UK and France have promised to step up measures to stem the number of people attempting channel crossings, but diplomatic tensions between the allies spiked following November’s incident.

French President Emmanuel Macron accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the time of being “not serious” in his approach to stopping the crossings in the world’s busiest shipping lane. Paris was irked by Johnson’s initial reaction to the disaster, which was seen as deflecting blame onto France.

Domestic critics of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party government including rights groups and opposition politicians have meanwhile accused it of failing to open safe and legal application routes for asylum seekers, effectively forcing those set on reaching the UK to pursue dangerous crossing attempts in their bid to do so.

In almost all cases, the UK expects people to be physically within its borders before they can apply for asylum.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies