'This is the only way now’: desperate Iranians attempt Channel crossing

No one in the Calais region is sure what has prompted the rise in crossing attempts or whether it will last

Wahid has tried twice so far. Both times, the small inflatable boat that he and about a dozen others were riding in was intercepted by a French coastguard vessel maybe an hour, perhaps two, after it pushed off from the beach.

He is a bit vague on the details, for which he apologises. “It was cold, very cold. The sea was calm, flat, but it was frightening. A dark night and, of course, no lights. Dangerous. We all knew it was dangerous. We could die. Instead, we’re back here.”

“Here” is a desolate patch of litter-strewn waste ground on the northern outskirts of Calais, half an hour from the ferry terminal: 50 or so lightweight nylon tents donated by local charities, 200 or so men warming half-frozen hands at small, scattered campfires.

Most, like Wahid, 22, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering, and his friend Jaber, 44, who will not give his profession but whose precise courtesy and considered English are those of a highly educated man, are Iranian. All want to reach England.

A group of Sudanese migrants near Ouistreham ferry terminal warming their hands over a fire.
A group of Sudanese migrants near Ouistreham ferry terminal warming their hands over a fire. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty Images

“So we’ll keep trying, with the boats,” says Jaber, who got to Calais four months ago and has not seen his wife and children – who are in Manchester – for two years. “In any case, the other ways are all blocked now. There are people who have been here two years and tried more than 100 times to get on a lorry. This is the only way now.”

Taking to small boats to cross the Channel to the UK is nothing new for migrants in northern France, but until this year the numbers were small. French authorities estimated in early November that in the first 10 months of 2018, up to 250 people attempted the crossing.

Since the middle of last month, however, the route’s popularity has surged. More than 220 people are thought to have attempted the journey in the past six weeks, including 40, in five boats, on Christmas Day alone and a further 40 since, prompting the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and his French counterpart to pledge to step up joint efforts to tackle what Javid has declared a “major incident”.

It is hardly that, certainly when compared to the numbers arriving every day in Greece or travelling northwards to Germany at the peak of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015. But it is a sudden and significant increase, and no one in the Calais region is entirely sure what has prompted it or whether it will last.

“It’s coincided with the arrival of a large number of Iranians,” says Maya Konforti, of l’Auberge des Migrants, which has been working with refugees in and around Calais since 2008. Of the 500 migrants the charity identified sleeping rough in the town in December, she says, nearly 40% were Iranian.

French workers repair L’Epervier, a boat that was stolen and damaged by migrants who tried to cross the Channel, in Wissant, northern France.
Workers repair L’Epervier, a boat that was stolen and damaged by migrants who tried to cross the Channel, in Wissant, northern France. Photograph: François Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images

Konforti suggests that Iranian migrants, many of whom arrive overland, may be more prepared to attempt the dangerous voyage by small boat because, unlike refugees and migrants from African countries, they have not already been “traumatised” by having crossed the Mediterranean.

Samim, a 25-year-old taxi driver from Kabul, Afghanistan, with a cousin in Edgware and another working at a butcher’s in Brentford, says in the makeshift Calais encampment that Afghans would “never, ever get in boats. No way. It’s only the Iranians will do that.”

But mainly, Konforti says, people are getting desperate – and once a few succeed by a new route, others will naturally follow. “It’s like water, it’ll find a way,” she says. “Look at the Channel tunnel and ferry terminals, all the fences and razor wire, the high-tech imaging and security gear … they’re almost impossible.”

Conditions on the coast for most migrants were now “truly catastrophic”, Konforti says, far worse than in the once-infamous Jungle camp, which was bulldozed in late 2016 after its 6,400 inhabitants were bussed to centres around France.

“There are no facilities, no shops, no nothing,” she says. “The police dismantle whatever people manage to put up, every other day. It’s psychological harassment, unbelievable stressful. They can’t ever settle, they struggle to keep what little they have … So yes, you can say they are desperate.”

Others believe the calm weather of the past few weeks has played a part – as well as the expanding ambitions of people-smuggling gangs. “It’s been an unusually good spell for winter – very light winds, no swell,” says Marc Bonnafous, of the maritime search and rescue centre at Cap Gris-Nez.

“That seems to have encouraged the criminals. These crossings are not being made by individuals using whatever they can find, they are organised by criminal networks. That’s new. It’s shockingly dangerous: this is the busiest sea lane in the world, more than 400 ships a day. The water is at 13C. Survival time, if you fall in, is an hour.”

One of the Boulogne fishing boats broken into on Christmas Day.
One of the Boulogne fishing boats broken into on Christmas Day. Photograph: Jon Henley/The Guardian

Half an hour’s drive down the coast in Boulogne, locals are already counting the cost. Four fishing boats moored on the Quai Gambetta were damaged on Christmas Day, officials said, prompting the assistant prefet, Jean-Philippe Venin, to announce a reinforced police presence around the port.

“They forced the window on my boat in an effort to break in,” says Anthony Cuvillier, unloading crates of flatfish from the Surcouf. “We could repair it. But others, they ripped open the control panels to try and jump-start them … They couldn’t go to sea. People have lost two, three days’ fishing, just before New Year’s Eve.”

Alain Brulin, a relief crewman on the Geoffrey Laurent, says the engine on one Boulogne boat was “completely wrecked” after intruders failed to open its valves. “Someone will get killed,” he says. “And these boats can’t leave the port without appearing on the authority’s radar screen anyway. It’s crazy.”

Pleasure boats, too, have been targeted. “We’ve been told to exercise the utmost vigilance, secure and disable our craft, move them into the inner port where possible, report anything or anyone suspicious-looking,” says Marcel Clément, president of the Boulogne motorboat owners’ association, in the clubhouse overlooking the marina.

A port official who asked not to be named says security is being increased “all over. But these are clearly desperate people, and their other routes are clearly closing. I often wondered why no one thought of trying to cross on small boats, particularly from Boulogne. Well, now they have.”

At the migrants’ makeshift campsite in Calais, Wahid says he will be trying again in two nights’ time. He will not say when exactly, nor even where. “The man picks us up in his van, takes us somewhere, we don’t know where, we get in a boat. I don’t even know if he bought it or stole it.”

He reckons he has spent €3,000 on his two unsuccessful crossings, on top of the €9,000-€10,000 it cost him to get to Calais.

He knows his next trip might be fatal. “But I will keep trying as long as I can,” he says. “I have to, of course. It is my future.”


Jon Henley in Calais and Boulogne

The GuardianTramp

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