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Who were the 27 migrants who died in Channel tragedy off French coast?

Exactly who were the 27 people who drowned trying to reach Britain this week in the deadliest migrant accident in the Channel? Groups and volunteers have begun a search for answers.

A migrant carries her children after being helped ashore from a RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England, on November 24, 2021, after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. - The past three years have seen a significant rise in attempted Channel crossings by migrants, despite warnings of the dangers in the busy shipping lane between northern France and southern England, which is subject to strong currents and low temperatures. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)
A migrant carries her children after being helped ashore from a RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England, on November 24, 2021, after being rescued while crossing the English Channel. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

Activists dedicated to providing a decent burial have launched a painstaking operation in northern France to establish their names and nationalities and help distant families cope.

Jan Kakar, head of a Paris-based Afghan group, enters the morgue in Lille on Friday afternoon, mobile phone in hand.

It’s already two days since the tragedy off Calais and the bodies await autopsies in the city.

Kakar runs through numerous photographs and messages received on his smartphone. Eight Afghan families suggest a son, brother, cousin were on the inflatable boat that went down in circumstances that remain unclear.

READ ALSO Macron vows not to let Channel ‘become a cemetery’ after at least 27 people die

Kakar scrutinises a photo of one and is trying to figure out if the beaming young man with raven black hair sporting an orange T-shirt really died aboard the vessel.

Those sending the messages still cling to hopes of a mistake, that it was not their loved one. But if it was, they will have to decide whether to repatriate the body to Afghanistan or bury it in France.

Kakar has few illusions. “They have brothers or relatives who are in the Calais camps and who have already confirmed they were on it,” he tells AFP.

‘Everyone deserves to be buried with dignity’

However, access to the bodies is not granted.

“It will take at least a week, perhaps two,” says Samad Akrach, who runs Tahara, an association which pays and takes care of the burial of migrants.

Members of associations for the defence of migrants gather next to a placard reading “30 years of announcements, of inhuman and degrading treatment” on November 24th, 2021 in Calais, northern France, following the sinking of a migrant boat crossing the Channel to England. (Photo by FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP)

Any unidentified body is kept in a temporary vault. If no family member makes a claim within five years, the remains are placed in an ossuary or incinerated.

“We don’t want that to happen,” says Akrach. “We think everyone deserves to be buried with dignity.”

READ ALSO: ‘So many dead next to us’: French fisherman recalls Channel horror

“We carry out a real investigation.”

Neither the nationalities nor names of the 27 bodies have yet been officially confirmed.

The Paris prosecutor’s office was unable to respond to AFP’s requests for an update, after it took charge Thursday night of the investigation into the tragedy.

Giving back the migrants’ identity

Asylum-seekers along the coast who told AFP they had spent time recently with the dead said they were Iraqi Kurds, Iranians and Afghans.

Every time after someone dies trying to reach English shores in hope of a better life, members of local associations, activists and volunteers visit the migrant camps to sift through whatever evidence they can find of the lost lives.

They have called themselves the “death group” since 2017 when they formed “to give back an identity” to migrants who were being buried under an X for unknown.

The small group is used to dealing with one or two cases at a time. On Wednesday, they buried a migrant who died at sea on November 4th.

France-UK migrant crisis: UK must control borders post-Brexit, says EU commissioner

They are not equipped for such a major task.

“Twenty-seven? How can we handle that?” asks volunteer Mariam Guerey, who helped set up the group that monitors social media where news from relatives is often posted.

“We hope for once that the state will take action … it’s an enormous task ahead,” said Juliette Delaplace of French charity Secours Catholique, which often works with asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, Jan Kakar and Samad Akrach have been reduced to waiting around for the authorities in the nearby town of Coquelles to grant access to the bodies, in what they consider a “race against time”.

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POLITICS

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

France braced on Monday for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension reform, with the government of President Emmanuel Macron and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruption.

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on January 19, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

A police source told AFP that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds on Tuesday, with 1.2 million seen as the upper limit at 240 demonstrations around the country.

With unions warning more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The president’s ministers and their opponents are desperately seeking to sway public opinion ahead of what is expected to be a bitter and costly standoff over the next month.

READ MORE: LATEST: What to expect for Tuesday’s French pension strikes

Senior hard-left MP Mathilde Panot from the France Unbowed (LFI) party accused Macron and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are expected to cripple public transport and other services again.

“They’re the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country,” she told BFM TV while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a “provocation.”

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said Saturday that left-wing political parties were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism.”

Macron’s reputation

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron made the change part of this re-election manifesto in April last year and he insists it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced and that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained.”

For pro-business Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more”, failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law on Monday.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, as well as for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children and for people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said Sunday, calling it “non-negotiable.”

Despite the policy being a flagship of his second mandate following his 2022 re-election, Macron has so far sought to stay above the fray and commented only occasionally on the growing tensions.

Darmanin’s intervention has not helped reduce strains, with the tough-talking minister telling the Le Parisien daily Saturday the left were defending an idea of a “society without work and effort”.

Parliamentary battle

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get their pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published on Monday in Les Echos newspaper, showed that 61 percent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of 3.0 percentage points from January 12.

A majority of French people — 56 percent — think reforming the pension system is necessary, the data showed.

But the proportion convinced of the need for change is falling, down five points since January 12, the survey group said.

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