Migrant and refugee crossings of English Channel increasing, despite risks

A young man and his wife sit on a blanket near a traffic circle, not far from the main road on the outskirts of Calais in northern France. Nearby, their two children look on questioningly. Speaking in German, the man tells DW that they are originally from Eritrea, and that their application for asylum had been rejected by the German authorities.

There are about a hundred people here — mainly young men from Sudan and Iran, but also a woman from Kuwait with five children. Some are eating food distributed by an aid organization; others are charging their phones.

Police come by often to clear the makeshift camps

A makeshift camp has been set up not far away in the bushes, with rudimentary bedding, a carpet and some sleeping bags. Mohaned, 19, from Sudan, points out the sheet of cardboard he uses as a mattress. He says that police removed their tents last night, a tactic confirmed by NGOs, the media and even a local policeman. The French authorities want to prevent another “jungle” from forming, after the notorious migrant camp was dismantled in 2016.

So close, yet so far away

Though asylum centers are dotted around France, many of the refugees and migrants in Calais think the risky channel crossing is their best chance of getting to the United Kingdom, just 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away across the choppy water.

Mohaned says he has tried to get across five times, but the French border police have always stopped him. “I have relatives in the UK,” he says. “They tell me it is better than in France. Because in France, they don’t respect Black people.”

Calais is the closest point on the EU mainland to the UK — a geographic advantage exploited by the Eurotunnel

Many of the others have similar stories: Their asylum applications were rejected by EU states, or they simply hope to build a better future in the UK, and they haven’t tried to apply for asylum elsewhere.

To get there, thousands are now choosing to make the dangerous journey across the English Channel. Most of them pay smugglers extortionate sums to try and make the illegal trip in rubber dinghies under the cover of night, or in the early hours of the morning.

Tighter controls by sea, on land

The Prefecture Maritime, responsible for surveilling the channel and the North Sea, has registered over 550 attempted or successful crossings this year involving more than 12,000 people. In July, the British Home Office said over 400 migrants had arrived in a single day. By contrast, some 8,500 people made it to the UK by crossing the channel in 2020, according to UK figures. The French authorities recorded 9,500 people — many more than in 2019.

The fact that more people are choosing the sea route doesn’t necessarily mean that more migrants are arriving in the UK, but simply that it’s becoming harder to get across by other means. While half of all migrants arrived by boat in 2020, in 2019 it was only 11%. The Eurotunnel train route is more closely monitored than before, and trucks travelling between the UK and France are subject to much tighter controls.

Ludovic Caulier patrols the coast by boat

France has also ramped up its controls at sea, as well as those in the ports and on the roads. The gendarmerie, France’s military police, patrols the coast every day and — when the weather is good — the sea as well. Today, Ludovic Caulier, deputy chief in Calais, is leading a team of two boats which have set off for Boulogne-sur-Mer, some 40 kilometers to the west by road. He explains that it’s easier to get an overview of what’s happening on the beaches from the boat.

“We want to make sure that they don’t go to the sea,” he tells DW. “The North Sea is very dangerous.” As the boat speeds across the water, Caulier looks out at the coast with his binoculars. Suddenly, he signals to his colleagues and the captain slows down; they have spotted some people on the beach. He radios with his team back on the shore, and they eventually realize that it’s just a photo shoot, not an illegal attempt to cross the channel. The rest of the shift goes by slowly, but they find out later their colleagues did prevent a group of migrants from making the trip earlier that morning.

In Boulogne-Sur-Mer, a little later, regional official Dominique Consille turns up to observe the teams doing what she calls “an essential, life-saving mission.”

“We are dealing with well-organized smuggling networks that put families into danger and demand a lot of money for the crossing,” she says, adding that it is imperative that these be dismantled.

‘We can’t post one police officer every square meter’

The British government recently agreed to pay France almost €63 million (about $73 million) in 2021 and 2022 to boost its patrols of the English Channel and clamp down on human smugglers, a development that has been severely criticized by NGOs.

Pierre Roques, a coordinator for the NGO Utopia 56, is convinced the measures will not resolve the disastrous situation in and around Calais. “Our borders are not doors,” he said. “The coast is very long. We can’t post one police officer every square meter.”

Roques said French authorities were just doing “security PR” and that this would not deter people from trying to get across the channel. “They will just be forced to take even more risks,” he said, adding that there had to be safe and legal routes for people to make the trip.

People who arrive illegally in the UK now risk detention

But the UK is in the process of tightening its laws even more. The government recently introduced a bill which could see people who illegally enter the country face prison time.

Roques, however, refuses to give up. Right now, he is sorting out clothes that have been donated to the association, while nearby a young woman is sorting out food. When night falls, they will go off to distribute the supplies. They will also stop at the traffic circle where Mohaned from Sudan and the Eritrean family are waiting to join the hundreds of people hoping to make it to the UK someday soon, despite all the obstacles.

This article has been adapted from German