What happens to those who die on Britain’s borders?

What happens to those who die on Britain’s borders?

Written by: Arun Kundnani

The body of an Iraqi would-be asylum seeker who died trying to enter Britain in 2001 has been left in a mortuary for almost three years because there are no funds to pay for its return.

Omid Jamil Ali was born to a poor family in rural Kurdistan in 1980. Like many others, his family pinned its hopes on his starting a new life abroad, away from the violence and deprivation of northern Iraq in the late 1990s. The family sold its land to pay for Omid to travel (without permission) to the UK, hoping that the investment would be repaid when he found work in England and was able to send home remittances.

But Omid never saw Britain. Hoping to enter the UK through the Channel Tunnel, he leapt onto a moving train from a bridge at the French end. In the fall he injured himself severely. But, the train reportedly did not stop till it arrived in England. Only then was Omid retrieved and taken to hospital. There he was pronounced dead.

Omid joined the long list of those who have died attempting, in the present restrictive climate, to enter the UK. An inquest verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded. But since then, Omid’s body has remained frozen in a Kent mortuary. Having invested all its possessions and savings in paying for his journey to Britain, Omid’s family in Iraq have no money to pay for his body to be returned for burial. And attempts to raise the necessary £3,100 through the community in Britain have come to nothing – most Iraqi Kurds in Britain are themselves impoverished.

Public funds?

Ironically, if Omid were still alive, the Home Office would be all too eager to arrange for his repatriation. But, in death, the state is unwilling to pay the costs of return. Officially, there is no provision for public funds to be used to send a body back in accordance with the family’s wishes. The result is that Omid’s family have not been able to put their grief behind them; the body has now been in a Kent mortuary since the death in October 2001.

The issue of what happens in these situations is becoming increasingly pertinent as more people die trying to enter Britain. In the case of the 58 Chinese who were found suffocated inside a lorry at Dover in 2000, the British government agreed to pay for the bodies to be returned to China – but only after protracted negotiations.

‘Let us bury our dead’

In other cases, recent immigrants to Britain have died soon after arriving. Usually, local communities have assisted in these situations. Last week, in Leicester, Hamid Saeed Ibrahim, a 22-year-old Iraqi man whose claim for asylum had been refused, died of leukaemia. In that case, the local Kurdish community raised money to pay for his body to be returned to Iraq to be buried. But, in another case, the body of a Zimbabwean woman, who was killed by her husband, has been left in a morgue for six months because her family have no money to pay for the body to be sent home. In other cases, local social services departments have contributed towards paying for repatriation. But there are no fixed guidelines.

The Federation of Iraqi Refugees is now supporting the family of Omid Jamil Ali and hope that an official policy on the issue can be arrived at so that, in future, families who lose their loved ones on Britain’s borders do not have their suffering prolonged. As Dashty Jamal, of the Federation, told IRR News: ‘There are families in several countries who have faced the double blow of first losing their loved ones to Britain’s immigration controls, and then being unable to bury them. Their demand is simple: “Let us bury our dead”.’

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International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, PO Box 1575, Ilford IG1 3BZ.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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