It is cold and rainy in Northern France. The idea of getting into an overcrowded dinghy to make the crossing to the UK is terrifying. Yet that is exactly what 34 migrants did in the night from Wednesday to Thursday. At least 27 people on board were killed when the dinghy was possibly struck by a cargo ship.
It is not yet known who the dead are. They were seventeen men, seven women, one of whom was pregnant, and three young people, including one child. Presumably most of them were Kurds from Iraq. There is a good chance that they have spent the last few days near the river port of Dunkerque.
After French police dismantled the Grande-Synthe camp near Dunkirk last week, which housed some 1,500 people, the migrants on their way to the UK have arrived here. It is a desolate place on the border between Dunkerque and Loon-Plage, hidden between a highway, a railway and a canal.
“I don’t know if I knew them. We haven’t seen any pictures or been given names yet,” said Mohammed Arish, a 21-year-old Kurd from Kirkuk, Iraq, poking at a stinking fire in a futile attempt to drive out the cold. “People are disappearing here all the time. Then you know: they are in the UK or they are dead.”
Migrants and asylum seekers have been crossing the Channel in small boats for years. But the numbers are increasing. This year, according to the British authorities, 25,700 people have already reached the other side; compared to 8,469 last year. This month breaks all records: on November 12 alone, 1,185 people made the crossing. As of Wednesday, the death toll for this year stood at three, with four more missing. Last year, six people were killed.
The reason is not immediately clear. The fact that winter is approaching certainly plays a role. Just like the closure of the Grande-Synthe camp, and the almost daily police action in Calais, where the aim is to avoid at all costs the re-establishment of a ‘jungle’, as the makeshift refugee camp that stood there was called.
“The French police have created such a repressive climate that people have no choice but to seek their happiness elsewhere,” said Laurine Chabal of Human Rights Observers, an NGO in Calais.
Via Minsk to Dunkirk
The sharp increase in crossings may also be partly a result of Belarus’ policy of burdening the European Union with more migrants. Because Mohammed Arish arrived in Dunkirk from Minsk seven days ago. He, his parents and sister of seventeen, each paid 3,000 euros for a ticket from Erbil to Minsk and a visa for Belarus. They sold their house and car to pay for the trip.
Arish paid another 7,000 euros to be smuggled to Germany via Poland, partly on foot and partly by car. The rest of the family is in a camp in Belarus. “The journey was far too difficult for my parents and sister. But for a young man that is not a problem.”
Now he is waiting for the first opportunity to cross to the UK by boat, where a brother already lives. That costs another 3,000 euros – money that is with a trusted person and that is only transferred to the smugglers when Arish has arrived in the UK in one piece. He is not afraid, even after what happened this week. “God knows what is best,” he says resignedly.
It doesn’t look like Wednesday’s shipwreck, the highest death toll ever in the Channel, will have any deterrent effect. A few hours later, French police and fire brigade received 70 people who had been shivering outside Calais station after their failed crossing. “It’s terrible what happened but I’m going to keep trying,” a 30-year-old Sudanese told the AFP news agency.
In the night from Wednesday to Thursday, the police again had to provide assistance to a group of 20 migrants in Sangatte after their boat had made water. On Thursday, a body was found on a beach in Calais, which had been in the water for too long to be from Wednesday’s shipwreck.
Wednesday’s tragedy has put the migrant crisis at the top of the political agenda. In the UK in particular, the theme stirs people’s minds, and France is often at the forefront of this. “The patrols that our friends are carrying out on the beaches with £54 million (€64 million) of support from the UK, it is not enough,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
France says the UK has never transferred its promised millions for border security, and sees the “French-bashing” in London as intended for domestic political gain. Paris also says it has already arrested 1,500 smugglers this year. Five more people have been arrested in connection with the shipwreck on Wednesday.
Both countries place a strong emphasis on the smugglers rather than the causes of the migration. According to French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the smugglers “should be fought as we fight the terrorists”. This makes Laurine Chabal of Human Rights Observers prance. “Those smugglers wouldn’t exist at all if the borders weren’t locked, and if there was a lawful migration path in the UK,” she says.
The French image was dented when the Reuters news agency released images on Thursday that were taken during the night from Wednesday to Thursday on the beach of Wimereux, a tourist town from which many migrant boats depart. The footage showed a French police car observing the departure of the migrants without intervening. It is not known whether it concerns the boat that was shipwrecked on Wednesday.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 26, 2021