Maël Galisson – The path to the ‘small boats’ crisis is littered with past death

A deep insight into the lives of those trying to cross the English Channel, and why they choose to risk their lives doing so.

Maël Galisson is an independent journalist focusing on migration and border violence for French and international media.

Cross-posted from Open Democracy

Picture by Squat Le Monde

It’s a summer night on a beach just east of Calais, and Abdulfatah Hamdallah, a 22-year-old from Sudan, and his friend are about to cross the English Channel. They enter the water, climb aboard, and push off.

Their inflatable raft is one metre long and 80 centimetres wide. They use garden shovels as oars.

It was the sort of thing they “perhaps found in a beach hut, and in which the two of them could barely kneel,” Mélissa, an activist in Calais, later said.

They don’t get far. An errant stroke with one of the shovels pierces the boat shortly after departure, capsizing it. The friend manages to swim to shore, but emergency services, alerted by a fisherman, are unable to locate Hamdallah.

At around 7am his body is found washed up on the beach. The date is 19 August 2020.

Hamdallah is one of 391 migrants who died on the border between the UK, France and Belgium between 1 January 1999 and 1 January 2024, and whose lives and deaths are recounted in this series.

Hope or desperation?

The Strait of Dover is about 30 kilometres across at its narrowest points. It’s one of the busiest maritime straits in the world, with some 400 merchant ships passing through it daily. Winds, strong currents and shifting sandbars beneath the water add to the complications of navigating it.

Hamdallah and his comrade attempted to cross this major maritime route on what was effectively an pool toy.

“Crossing the strait is dangerous, of course, but so is surviving in Calais while being harassed by the police every day”, Mélissa said (see Part 5).

Mélissa said stories of successful crossings coupled with a precarious and prospect-less life in France propel such risky attempts. Hamdallah’s application for asylum in France had been rejected, and “he and his friend made this crossing as an escape, a way out,” she said. “Many media outlets saw this attempt as a desperate act. But it was the hope of reaching England that served as the driving force.”

And, she added, “If Abdulfatah [Hamdallah] and his comrade had been able to take a ferry to Dover, they would never have got on that inflatable boat.”

When the risk of drowning is the best option

Twenty-five years of fortification around Calais have made any attempt to cross the English Channel hard, risky, and expensive.

The Port of Calais is bunkered and its ring road walled (Part 2). The Eurotunnel site is highly protected and its trains lethal (Part 3). Smugglers control access to coveted staging areas and charge high prices for access (Part 4). Police target migrants when they group together, and too often play a factor in migrant deaths (Part 5). And trailers are nearly impossible to escape when things go wrong (Part 6).

All of this goes a long way to explaining why migrants have, in recent years, turned to ‘small boats’.

From 2018 onwards, crossing the English Channel by small boat gradually became the preferred mode of passage. According to the Home Office, the number of recorded Channel crossings rose from 299 in 2018 to a high of 45,755 in 2022. This number dropped in 2023 to 29,437. Over roughly the same period, the number of migrants stopped in lorries at the port and Eurotunnel sites fell significantly. According to data provided by the Pas-de-Calais prefecture, 50,395 people were stopped in 2016, a number which dropped to 6,078 in 2022.

In response, a joint action plan by the French and British governments was signed in January 2019. Among its measures was a pledge from the UK to release €7 million for “equipment and measures to tackle illegal migration by small boats, such as CCTV, night goggles and number plate recognition capability.”

In September 2019, after a busy summer, an addendum to the plan deployed more resources to the coast. It envisioned: “A total of 45 officers per day, on duty in teams of five will provide 24/7 cover, effectively doubling assets on the ground.” Law enforcement officers patrolled the beaches by foot, bike, horseback, drone and off-road vehicle.

Around this time the Ministry of the Interior also launched an advertising campaign titled aidez-nous à sauver des vies (help us save lives), urging local people to “be alert to unusual night time gatherings on the beach” and to “report any unseaworthy behaviour”.

The governments reported hundreds of attempts prevented, but migrants still continued to die at sea.

Mitra Mehrad, a 31-year-old Iranian woman, succumbed off the coast of Ramsgate, 30 kilometres north of Dover, during a crossing with 19 other people on 9 August 2019. Two weeks later, a body was found floating in open water near the Thorntonbank wind farm off the Belgian coast. He was wearing a flipper, a bag, and had tied plastic bottles to his back to keep him afloat.

His name was Massoud Niknam. The 47-year-old Iranian had spent more than five years wandering in Europe, and had applied for asylum several times, before attempting this crossing.

A ‘small boats crisis’ in the UK

Starting in 2020 the British government began stepping up its own measures to prevent small boats from making it across the Channel.

“It was a new announcement every week,” said Zoe Gardner, an independent immigration policy expert and campaigner in the UK. “There was first talk of using wave machines and floating barriers to repel boats, then the government raised the possibility of the Border Force using jet skis to intercept the boats.”

The UK government deployed arial assets to monitor the Channel, and began to explore the possibility of sending asylum seekers to territories outside Europe. The Rwanda plan, still tied up in the courts, is the result of those enquiries.

These new measures did not stop the deaths either.

On 18 October 2020, the body of Behzad Bagheri-Parvin, a 32-year-old from Iran, washed up on Sangatte beach near Calais. Nine days later, seven died when a fishing boat carrying 22 people sunk.

Among the victims were a couple from Iranian Kurdistan, Rasul Iran Nezhad and Shiva Mohammad Panahi, and their three children, Anita, Armin and Artin. The body of 15-month-old Artin was found several months later on the southwest coast of Norway.

Before the year was out, the British government pledged an additional €31.4 million to “to support France’s significant efforts against small boats in the above areas.” Seven months later, they would pledge double that again.

A new opportunity for smugglers

This massive crackdown significantly raised the bar that migrants needed to clear in order to cross successfully. Increased risks raise costs and make it more likely – rather than less – that smugglers are going to get involved.

“Until early 2020, the migrants mainly used Zodiac inflatables,” said Gilles, a fisherman from Boulogne-sur-Mer. Zodiacs are a type of small rubber dinghy. “But, little by little, it became more professional with the arrival of smugglers. They brought in boats from China, averaging eight metres in length and with unseaworthy engines, on which up to 50 people were loaded.”

Mélissa agreed that “the surveillance of beaches by law enforcement agencies has meant more organised passage.”

To avoid patrols, departures also began to take place further afield, up to 70 kilometres southwest and 50 kilometres northeast of Calais. The passage is wider on both sides, increasing the length of the journey and thus the risks of crossing.

On 12 August 2021, Michael Hermon, a 27-year-old Eritrean, died when a boat capsized off the coast of Dunkirk with 36 people on board. He had reportedly jumped into the water to lighten the load of the boat as it began to sink.

The next month, a 22-year-old from Iraq drowned off the coast of Loon-Plage, 30 kilometres northeast of Calais, and the body of a Sudanese man was found on the beach at Wissant, 20 km to the southwest of Calais on the same day.

Interviewed by Le Monde, rescuers from the French National Sea Rescue Society (Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer) in Dunkirk said they feared they had reached “breaking point”.

Toward the end of November 2021, 34 people attempted to reach England in an inflatable boat that they boarded near Loon-Plage. They found themselves in trouble three hours after their departure, but despite repeated calls from passengers between around 2am and 4am, the regional monitoring and rescue centre at Griz-Nez did not launch any rescue operations. The centre even allegedly told a tanker not to intervenebecause a ship was on its way. But that ship never came.

At least 27 people were killed. A complaint has been lodged by the Utopia 56 association against the French and British maritime authorities, and five French military personnel were charged with failing to assist people in danger.

“France will not let the Channel become a cemetery,” declared Emmanuel Macron, the French president, on 24 November 2021.

It already is, as are the coasts alongside it. Bodies, when recovered, are repatriated to their countries of origin or buried on both sides of the Channel. Hamdallah, whose dream was cut short by a garden shovel, is buried in the northern cemetery at Calais.

Mélissa and Gilles are pseudonyms.

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