‘We thank your government for our full pockets’ – Calais smugglers speak

As the UK pours millions into security measures, migrants say the gangs who control the Channel just get more powerful

“Sorry, my battery’s low because I drained it watching YouTube tutorials on how to assemble dinghies,” Abuzar says. He is speaking on a video call from the abandoned shed in Calais he calls home. “I want to join my brother for asylum in the UK, but I have to work for smugglers because I don’t have enough money to pay for the crossing.

“They hide boat parts on the beaches for me to assemble at night, but I’m so scared– – if I mess it up, children could drown on the boat.”

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has spent £33.6m on border controls in Calais and announced plans to crack down on smugglers – even though charities and lawyers say those arrested are often vulnerable migrants themselves.

On the northern coast of France, asylum seekers tell the Guardian that tighter border controls have helped smugglers become ever more powerful.

“I think the security controls are only helping smugglers, not anyone else,” says Bijan, a Kurdish asylum seeker who paid smugglers £3,500 at the end of last year for one of 24 spaces on a 12-person dinghy. Migrants stood to save space as others baled water from the dinghy’s slatted floor.

He describes an exploitative system operating in Calais and Dunkirk, with smugglers using desperate migrants for dangerous jobs in return for the promise of cheaper passage.

“It’s a kind of slavery. Poor refugees work as house servants for smugglers; women sell their bodies; others are made to be lookouts or drivers, and can then be arrested and thrown in jail. But they do it because it is their best chance at a safe life. That is all refugees want: peace. We are tired.”

Gendarmes patrol the beach of Oye-Plage, near Calais, with a police helicopter overhead as they look for migrants trying to cross the Channel.
Gendarmes patrol the beach of Oye-Plage, near Calais, with a police helicopter overhead as they look for migrants trying to cross the Channel. More than 5,000 migrants crossed the Channel last year, up from just 13 in 2017. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty

Charities working with migrants report observing the same pattern. “What we’ve seen in Calais and Dunkirk is a shift from people crossing alone to an infrastructure that completely revolves around smuggling,” says Charlie Whitbread, founder of Mobile Refugee Support. “This has never stopped people coming to Calais – they have been through far worse and will stop at nothing to be safe again. Frankly, it’s unbelievable the government still seems to think these measures deter them when the reality is so obvious to anyone on the ground.”

Even those profiting from the illicit trade agree that the situation has become more extreme. The Guardian spoke to two men who have worked on the Channel crossing, carrying people across for increasingly large sums as security made it harder to cross.

“The violence is getting worse and worse because the mafias just get more powerful,” says Zoran, a Kurdish smuggler who operated in Dunkirk lorry carparks until last year. “It became too much for me.”

Yet he adds, with some pride, that growing security has emboldened mafias by tightening their monopolies over routes. “Smugglers know everything about security on the border, that is their job. So when security gets worse, smugglers just get cleverer and more powerful … Some were even working with the police. You could get away with anything if you worked with the police.”

Boats used by migrants at a UK Border Force facility in Dover, after being intercepted in the Channel.
Boats used by migrants at a UK Border Force facility in Dover, after being intercepted in the Channel. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Maya Konforti, secretary of L’Auberge des Migrants, says there is truth behind his boast. “For years and years now it’s the same story on repeat: one way is blocked and another appears. Smugglers just keep outsmarting security.”

Zoran says his job became ever more lucrative as security between the UK and Calais increased. “The bosses charged just a few hundred euros in 2014, but when I left it was four [or] five grand for the same lorry crossing.”

“Prices went up with each new bout of security spending,” says another man, Saad, who worked with Sudanese and Kurdish mafias in Calais at the peak of the refugee crisis four years ago. Over the years he was there, the UK funded £98.9m worth of barbed-wire fencing, riot police deployment and infrared detection in the area, which he claims only made smuggling more profitable, and enabled mafias to come to dominance in the first place.

“A growing obstacle course on the border made crossing alone impossible for migrants. This attracted mafia groups who studied the controls and found ways around them, knowing what desperate people would pay for these ways.

“We thank your government for our full pockets,” he says.

For years refugee charities have called for the government to process asylum claims on the UK’s external border and to focus on expanding safe routes rather than border controls. But legal routes have instead been closed. In January, Brexit cut off reunification routes for refugee families separated across Europe and the government has abandoned target quotas for resettlement schemes of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Migrants in a small boat off Sangatte, France, as they try to cross the Channel.
Migrants in a small boat off Sangatte, France, as they try to cross the Channel. Photograph: Sameer al-Doumy/AFP/Getty

In 2019, when there was a 16-year peak in arrivals before lockdown reduced European migration flows, Aran crossed the Channel as an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy fleeing Isis in Iraq, joining his uncle in the UK after a year of travelling alone.

He describes how a smuggler in Dunkirk once took out a knife and threatened to cut off another boy’s finger, before beating him up badly while Aran watched. “I was terrified and helpless. But I couldn’t stay in France, the situation there is terrible. Every morning, police kick you awake, slash your tent with a knife and tell you to move. Where should I go? You won’t even let me sleep in a tent!

“The horrid truth,” says the teenager quietly, “is that smugglers are our only allies.”

“Smuggling can be terrible, harsh, cruel,” Saad admits, “but it’s a privilege to be smuggled. That is what the government can’t see.”

Mathilda Mallinson

The GuardianTramp

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