Body bags on Brighton Beach - don't let them drown

On a bright, sunny spring morning last week, I found myself lying in a black plastic body bag on Brighton beach with the tide coming in.  Not the type of volunteering experience I usually take part in! 

At TimeBank all staff have five days’ leave each year for volunteering and I was using some of this to support Amnesty in its efforts to put pressure on the EU to do more to stop the tragic migrant crisis which is taking place in the Mediterranean. 

Over 1,000 people drowned last week alone (800 on just one capsized boat) as they made the perilous journey in search of a better life.

After a health and safety briefing, the first task of the day was to help lay out 200 body bags, some of which we filled with balloons.  The bags were laid in rows as close to the shoreline as possible.  We were then asked by Amnesty staff if we would be happy to lie in the remaining bags for 20 minutes or so whilst national and local press took photographs and did interviews.  The bags would cover our entire bodies and faces but would only be partially zipped up to waist height for safety. About 30 to 40 of us willingly volunteered.

It was slightly surreal to lie anonymously in the dark, under pungent plastic edged with brightness, with the gentle sea breeze rustling the bags, listening to voices all around us. Some time in, I could hear people talking to “Caroline”, deferentially giving her instructions and asking her to look this way and that.  Her responses sounded very close so I can only assume that local Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas was standing right by my head at one point!  I also heard someone nearby saying, in a low hushed voice, that the problem with the word “migrant” is that is has been used so negatively by so many people that it dehumanises the situation.  The ebb and flow of photographers went on longer than expected and some were very late in arriving!  But Amnesty staff were extremely attentive and concerned, regularly making sure we were all OK and offering us plenty of water to drink.

As I lay there very still in the darkness, I thought about all sorts of things … of the poor people who drowned, especially all the children on that one boat alone; of how invisible I felt at that moment to those around me which is what some migrants must feel all the time; how important it was for the EU to allocate more resources to save as many lives as possible and stop these tragedies from happening time and again.  

Most of all, I thought about how deeply I feel about this issue from my time as a volunteer mentor on TimeBank’s TimeTogether project  way back in 2004 and  my more recent role helping TimeBank to secure funding for our Talking Together project.  Both projects have helped many migrants and refugees to improve their English and settle into a new life in the UK. 

For me, the “dehumanising” comment was the most memorable aspect of the day.  I think of it often days later. If my world was broken by poverty, war, repression or violence, I hope I too would have the courage to risk everything to make that crossing to give me and my family a life free from fear and hunger.

(Finally, if you’re wondering which bag I’m in… it’s middle row, third one in….)