There are two places that can tell you pretty much everything about why people come from all over the world to northern France and why they pay criminals thousands of pounds just to get a seat on a flimsy canoe.
One is a migrant camp near the town of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk. The other is in the middle of the Channel.
Let’s start with the English Channel itself. Went there today, hours after dozens of people were put in danger, and some died, when their boat started to crumble while in the water.
It was cold out on the water and although the wind wasn’t too strong the waves were choppy enough to disrupt our boat.
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Our boat, of course, was seaworthy, large, and equipped with powerful engines, life jackets, and radar. Migrants crossing Britain do so in inflatable boats which are normally fitted with desperately underpowered engines.
They’re always overcrowded and you’re lucky if you get a proper life jacket – the smugglers sometimes supply adults with children’s life jackets, as they’re cheaper.
But today was clear, and it offered a tantalizing picture. From our boat, somewhere near the middle of the English Channel, we could clearly see the French coast behind us and the British coast in front of us. The white cliffs really seem to draw you towards them.
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The gap between the two countries seems so small. It is therefore not surprising that so many people, fleeing persecution, war, famine or other dangers, have decided to cross the English Channel to seek asylum in Britain. If you’ve escaped the horrors back home and managed to trek across Europe to Calais, a boat trip might seem straightforward.
You’ll have to ignore the dangers of huge ships, freezing weather, rolling waves, and the ever-present risk of your boat collapsing, of course.
But after asking many people about these risks, I’m used to the grudging acceptance that’s normally the answer; the idea that fate will decide, that this is only the last challenge of a long and dangerous journey. “Inshallah” is a popular response.
And that brings us to our second location – a migrant camp near a cement factory in Grande-Synthe. A sordid place where everyone is in transit and no one wants to stay; where migrants who are new to the coast can find a smuggler willing to sell them a ticket to Britain.
“I died on this boat”
We met a group of men from the Punjab region of India. And their story was remarkably timely.
The evening before, they had also left a French beach to try to reach Great Britain. But their boat broke down five kilometers offshore. The men said they tried to call the French emergency number, but got no help.
Eventually they managed to persuade their boat to come back close to shore, then swam to shore. It was, one of them told me, “so, so cold.”
His clothes were still wet – but he had fresh items provided by a charity. How, I asked, did you feel on that boat, in the cold? “Frightened,” he said. “I died on that boat.”
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But he feels he has to try again due to “family issues” at home. It’s a familiar story in these camps – of people fleeing their origins.
For them, entering Britain “legally” is virtually impossible. So the people in these camps opt for the only option that seems credible, reasonable and accessible: a boat crossing organized by a smuggler. The risks are simply part of the effort.
So when you weigh the desperation of the people you find in this camp against the preponderance of smugglers and the risks of crossing the Channel, perhaps the wonder is not that people died, but that the death toll was not worse.
And as the number continues to increase, our nervousness should also increase. It is, I fear, a safe prediction to say – more people will die in the dark, cold waters of the English Channel.