Tide turns for Channel smugglers but the migrant crossings go on

Migrants walking on a beach in Calais
Image caption,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.

Short presentational grey line

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.

Security forces on a French beach
Image caption,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.

Deflated boat on a Calais beach
Image caption,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, http://horeoraduwe.com 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”.

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