Tide turns for Channel smugglers but the migrant crossings go on

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The number of people trying to cross to the UK from France has dropped sharply – but many are still attempting the dangerous journey
By Andrew Harding
Paris correspondent, Calais

Border officials in the UK and France have welcomed a “really significant” drop in the number of migrants crossing the English Channel this year in small boats.

Official figures are down by over a third compared with 2022.

The UK has helped to fund a doubling of French police patrolling the border along with other measures like drones.

But tens of thousands of migrants remain ready to attempt the dangerous journey.

On a cold, moonless night in December, a 17-year-old Iraqi girl named Faisa lay hidden in the sand dunes outside the port of Boulogne, clutching her 10-year-old sister’s hand, listening to the steady roar of the sea, and waiting for the order to run.

“I was not scared because everything for us is a risk,” she explained later.

It was a little after two in the morning, and the tide was beginning to turn.

The smugglers organising that night’s crossing for this particular group of about 50 migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Iran had waited for more than a week to get the timing right. A lull in the winter winds. Calmer seas. Favourable currents off the French coast.

And now, if possible, a short dash over the sandy beach before the tide raced out and left them with hundreds of metres to cross to reach the sea.

The wind was picking up. In a small village further up the beach, Christmas lights glimmered in the dark.

Out in the Channel, the bright lights of a few anchored cargo ships sparkled, and behind them, to the north-west, a faint glow seemed to indicate the floodlights at Dover’s busy port, reflecting off its famous white cliffs.

“Go, go, go.”

As Faisa, her parents and three siblings reacted to the whispered order and slipped down the steep dunes, similar sprints were taking place, at intervals, along 150km (93 miles) of French coastline.

Despite the bitter cold and the occasional gust of drizzle, this was perhaps the last decent chance, of the year and maybe even of the entire winter, to attempt an illegal crossing.

Hundreds of young men and a handful of women and children began dragging inflatable boats and outboard motors down past big, silhouetted rocks and the dark outlines of ruined World War Two German gun emplacements and on across the tide-rippled sands towards the sea.

“Did you see that light?”

In their sector on a long beach near Boulogne, four French gendarmes, masked and wearing green camouflage uniforms, stopped their foot patrol.

The UK has pledged hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of support to help France stop people from crossing the Channel

They were a new team, recently brought into the region as part of a UK-funded move to double the number of French police involved in blocking the migrants. A young officer tucked his rifle under one arm and scanned the dunes to the south with a pair of thermal-imaging binoculars.

The binoculars and a range of other equipment including drones, motorbikes, and small four-wheeled vehicles had recently been provided by the UK, as part of a three-year support package worth £480m ($607m; €555m).

Suddenly, the gendarmes began running. They’d spotted something French border patrols have begun dubbing “larvae”.

It’s a reference to the shape that has appeared in their heatseeking binoculars and drones. A long, white blob indicating a solid mass of bodies shuffling fast in one direction. It looks like the larva of a butterfly.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” the gendarmes shouted.

In past weeks there have been increasingly violent clashes between the police and smugglers, and between the criminal gangs themselves. Shots fired. Knives wielded. Some 30 policemen severely injured.

But this time the encounter ended almost before it had begun. By the time the gendarmes had sprinted to the boat, which now lay on the beach some 10m or so from the fast-retreating waves, the migrants and their minders had scrambled back into the dunes.

“They’re still up there now. I think they’re trying to decide how to get away without us seeing them. But there could be other groups up there still waiting for their chance,” said a French officer, named Robert.

The gendarmes set to work. By four in the morning, they had broken the outboard motor, smashed two foot pumps, and cut long gashes into the sides of the inflatable boat. A stain of petrol slid down the beach towards the waves.

Debris of previous attempts to cross the Channel litter France’s north-eastern coast

And inside the boat they’d found and ripped apart something they hadn’t seen used in this context before – dozens of motorbike innertubes provided by the smugglers in place of more familiar, and significantly more expensive, bright orange lifejackets.

Then came a message from a police patrol further north, closer to Calais.

A boat overloaded with more than 60 people had passed through the coastal security gauntlet and out to sea but had then started to sink. One man had already drowned, another was unconscious, and two more people were reported missing. A 25-year-old Sudanese man was found on another beach and later died of a suspected heart attack.

“This is what keeps us motivated and active. You can’t brush off scenes like this, when you see families, young children, or elderly people on boats like that,” said Major Laurent Lemoine from France’s anti-trafficking unit.

Within hours of the latest migrant death in the Channel, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office had issued a statement condemning the “dangerous” crossings and emphasising the need to “stop the boats and clamp down on the organised criminal gangs that are fuelling it”.

We’ve seen a reduction in the number of arriving individuals this year by over one third… we are continuing to see the fruits of our labour

But Charlie Eastaugh, director of international operations for the Small Boats Operational Command at the Home Office, observed that a clampdown was already achieving “really significant” results.

“We’ve seen a reduction in the number of arriving individuals this year in this way by over one third, and we’ve also seen the number of boats reduced by 45% this year, to date.”

Mr Eastaugh said the figures showed that many migrants were being stopped long before they even reached the coast of France, thanks to a large extent to “a massive increase in the number of law enforcement personnel” targeting the smuggling gangs in the region.

“Overall we are continuing to see the fruits of our labour and our investment as these additional resources come on board,” he added.

French officials pointed out that more than 300 suspected smugglers had been arrested over the past year. In Calais, officials noted an overall fall in migrant crossings, from 46,000 in 2022, to just over 29,000 this year.

“We’ve increased the number of people on the ground. Fortunately, we have this (UK) financial aid because it allows us to obtain equipment that supports our military and police,” said Mathilde Potel, the French police commissioner co-ordinating all security forces on the coast of northern France.

“The co-ordination of all these factors today explains the drop in the number of migrants who have made the crossing,” added Ms Potel, who recently toured the coastline with a visiting delegation of British embedded observers from the Small Boats Operational Command.

And yet, among French officials, humanitarian workers, and the migrants themselves, there is a deeply rooted scepticism about the notion that more and better policing alone can put an end to the illegal crossings. Many also believe a preoccupation with the criminality of the smugglers misses a larger point about the forces driving the migrations.

Mathilde Potel says the UK aid has helped French police slow the numbers of people trying to cross

Some locals insist rougher seas can account for the drop in numbers this year. Others point to a deal between the UK and Albania that has put an end to most illegal migration by young Albanian men.

In a makeshift migrant camp, a cluster of flimsy tents and bonfires linked by pale, muddy pathways outside Dunkirk, dozens of young men gathered at noon last week to receive hot food brought in by women from a local humanitarian group.

The women, ladling out stew and potatoes with frozen hands, scoffed at the idea that the police could stop the crossings.

“People will adapt, the smugglers will adapt. A long-term policy is to open safe and legal pathways (for migrants) to the UK,” said Juliette Delaplace from the humanitarian group, Secours Catholique.

Standing in the food queue, half a dozen migrants from Afghanistan, Sudan, and other war-ravaged countries stamped their feet to keep warm and told us that it was the prospect of work in the UK, often after years failing to get documentation or find jobs in mainland Europe, that had lured them to attempt the crossing.

“I waited years in Belgium. They don’t give me documents,” said Wahid, 21, from Afghanistan.

Several men asked me about the status of the UK government’s plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. All expressed concern about the policy but while it continues to face legal challenges, none of the migrants saw it as a reason to abandon their own current plans.

“Tonight, I will try to cross. If they send people to Rwanda next year, maybe nobody goes to England,” said Majid, 36, also from Afghanistan. Moments later, a group of several dozen migrants suddenly began moving fast towards the bushes, herded on by two men who appeared to be in charge.

“Goodbye. God be with you,” someone shouted at the group.

“Stop. No filming,” said a man to us, blocking our path, as the migrants vanished down a muddy track towards the coast.

Hundreds of people camped out in northern France are still desperate to make the journey to the UK

Visiting Calais last week, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the UK’s poorly regulated jobs market continued to lure illegal migrants to its shores, and that the UK government “has work to do” to make it harder for unregistered, “irregular people” to find work there.

He also asked for more UK funding and urged the UK government to open up “legal routes for immigration to [the UK], in particular for asylum seekers who want to re-join their families”.

Meanwhile, a few hours after she and her family had rushed down the sand dunes near Boulogne, 17-year-old Faisa, from Kirkuk in Iraq, was standing, sobbing quietly, at a bus stop a few hundred metres from the beach. It was around six in the morning, and still dark.

Faisa’s younger sister was sitting, shivering, on the nearby bench, wrapped in a foil blanket that she’d been given by a local charity. Two police vans were parked nearby.

“I tried. But the boat was broken before I got to the water. The other family got into the water but…”

Faisa spoke in good English but seemed too tired to find the right words. Gesturing with her hand to indicate that the waves had got too big, she said: “The water is up. So, they had to come back.”

Several people at the bus stop were still soaking wet. I asked Faisa what she thought would happen to her now.

“I have no idea. I have no place to go. I have no other chance. My life is bad, bad, bad. I came from Kirkuk. We are here for 10 days, and [before that] two years and three months in Germany. But Germany deports us. We have to run here,” she said.

Her father showed me a picture on his phone of an article in a German newspaper, indicating he’d worked for an NGO there, but had failed to secure permission to stay.

I asked Faisa if she would try again to cross the Channel to England.

“Not now. Maybe in the summer.”

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