20 June 2022
Border Forensics, a new organisation conducting investigations into violence at borders, presented its first investigation on 30 May. It examines the death of Blessing Matthew, who was found on 9 May 2018 on the shore of La Durance river in the French Alps, caught in the lock at Prelles in the locality of Saint-Martin-de-Queurièr near Briançon.
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Blessing was a 21-year-old Nigerian woman, last seen on 7 May when a mobile unit of the gendarmerie wanted to stop her with two fellow travellers (Hervé and Roland) at the La Vachette village, 15 kilometres from the Italian border.
Her death was the first documented case of a migrant dying in the Briançon province and gave rise to concerns over the deadly effects of the militarisation of the Alpine border region, but there have been at least two more deaths since.
The investigation by Border Forensics (BF) was conducted in cooperation with Tous Migrants, a migrant support association that reported Blessing’s death to the public prosecutor’s office in Gap on 14 May 2019, along with testimony from one of the people who was with her on the journey.
The report includes video footage, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, spatial-temporal and statistical analyses to contradict the account provided by the gendarmerie.
One of Blessing’s sisters, Christiana Obie filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office on 25 September 2018, which included allegations of “endangering other people’s life” and “manslaughter”. On 10 December 2018, the judicial police officer in charge of inquiries submitted their findings, concluding that there was a lack of evidence of the alleged offences.
A civil lawsuit by Christiana and Tous Migrants followed on 3 May 2019, but was declared inadmissible, a decision that was confirmed by the Grenoble court of appeal on 9 February 2021.
Blessing’s family is still yearning for justice and there have been no responsibilities assigned for the 46 deaths at the French-Italian border since 2015 (the deadliest of the Alpine routes, along which 87 deaths have been recorded, as a database produced by Cristina del Biaggio, and Sara Bachellerie of the Laboratoire Pacte at the Université Grenoble Alpes, shows).
The BF investigation seeks to contribute to efforts to end impunity and the that deliberately endanger people on the move. The BF reconstruction shows how the gendarmes’ account of events on the day in question is “contradictory and incoherent” and hypothesises that the fall into the river was the outcome of agents chasing Blessing in a churchyard – something that was ruled out in the judicial proceedings. Blessing’s body was found over 10 kilometres downstream from the churchyard.
The reconstruction was possible thanks to evidence from an eyewitness, Hervé, who was one of Blessing’s travel companions at the time when they were pursued by the police and was not heard in the judicial proceedings.
Apart from reconstructing events, he noted that the gendarmes did not rush to provide assistance to rescue the young Nigerian woman after the fall, despite the fact that the risk to her life was obvious. The analysis in question has been used as a basis to demand the reopening of judicial proceedings.
As of 2015, the situation at the French-Italian border worsened due to emergency measures adopted in the context of large-scale arrivals of refugees in Italy that resulted in bordering Alpine states (France, Switzerland and Austria) reintroducing border checks for security reasons (including an antiterrorist emergency in France) and to prevent migrants’ “secondary movements”.
At the time, alongside an increased use of the Alpine route, the number of informal pushbacks from France to Italy increased, and police practices that ended up putting people’s lives at risk also proliferated.
In December 2017, an open letter was sent by the Collectif Citoyen de Névache (a local citizens’ collective) to President Emmanuel Macron to inform him that the number of rescue operations in the mountains was growing and that they feared deaths would follow.
Apart from mountain deaths, the report focuses on health issues faced by the people using Alpine routes and the militarisation of the mountain region since the spring of 2018, including chases in the mountains, ethnic profiling and a mission by right-wing Génération Identitaire activists that purportedly sought to assist the fight against ‘illegal migration’, identify and question smugglers and help to restore public order. The BF report stresses that gendarmes are instructed not to put people’s lives in peril unnecessarily.
Image: Border Forensics
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