Some 200 migrants cast shadows in the evening sunshine across the dunes of Gravelines beach in northern France, anticipating a police chase as they attempt to cross the waters before them to England.
At least 7,610 people have been detected in small boats off Britain’s coast so far this year, according to UK government figures, amid a political push to stop the flow.
For three weeks a “strong northeast wind” has halted Channel crossings, along with the activity of smugglers who negotiate the voyage, according to a French police source, who asked not be named. The fragile boats, overloaded with migrants, can’t withstand the strong swells and currents.
But now, the wind has died down and the weather is ideal.
In nearby camps, the flux of new arrivals has grown and the smugglers are determined to move quickly, the police source said.
Dozens of officers are staked out between the dark alleys, the camp and the beach, in a game of cat-and-mouse along the coastline that offers many hiding places.
The journey across the Channel waters can be deadly.
Since the shipwreck that saw 27 die in November 2021, surveillance of crossings has been reinforced. But the number of those desperate enough to make the journey continues to climb, with a record 46,000 landings in England in 2022 and 8,000 rescued in French waters.
‘They know we’re here’
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the purchase of more barges to house asylum-seekers, as backlogs in processing their applications has put the government under pressure on where to accommodate them in the interim.
The country also signed a new multi-million-euro partnership with France to prevent small boats crossings in the first place.
The red sun glows over the glassy waters, and only the seagulls and the hum of a nearby nuclear power plant disturb the silence.
The CRS, a special mobile French police force, patrol the forested coastline where smugglers tend to hide their equipment. “They know we’re here, it won’t go through tonight,” said one officer.
Fifteen silhouettes suddenly emerge from the dunes, dressed in black and walking calmly — accomplices of the smugglers who perform a well-rehearsed dance of scouting and retreating to evade law enforcement.
Once the officers appear to have left, dozens more silhouettes appear on the beach, appearing more nervous.
Around 80 migrants, mainly young men, run toward the power station to hide. They’re followed by two more groups, some men carrying life jackets, others parts of the very boats they intend to sail, with some children stumbling alongside.
A group of women, couples, children and elderly position themselves in the centre.
‘We’ll try again’
An hour later, without a sound, they begin their descent to the water carrying on their shoulders two “small boats”, partially inflated. Families run into the sea, children in their arms.
Two police vans sweep across the beach, interrupting the effort.
Mothers stop, seemingly lost, with some continuing their futile mission to the water while others turn around for the dunes in confusion.
Police don’t arrest them, but rather turn them inland.
One woman throws her lifejacket to the ground in rage. Others, who say they come from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam, look defeated.
They’re ready to do anything to get to England, despite the perilous voyage and its high price tag of 2,500 to 3,000 euros, they said. The money is entrusted to a third party and paid out once the migrants reach Britain.
“I already tried four times,” said one young Afghan. “We’ll try again.”