For several days, hundreds of migrants have tried to cross the Channel every night from the towns of Wimereux, Boulogne-sur-mer, or even Hardelot, in the north of France. Cities further south of Calais, less monitored and synonymous with a new sea route to reach the English coast. Many migrants, without money, without network, try there to take advantage of these night departures by climbing into the canoes at the last moment.
Khaled is perched on top of a dune. The sun has barely risen, it is 6.30 am. This 21-year-old Ethiopian scans the beach below. The sea is calm. The place is still deserted. “I watch, I watch for departures”. Khaled slept a little further away, he said, pointing to a vague place with his hand. He arrived in Wimereux, a small affluent seaside resort in the north of France, about ten days ago. Calais is only 30 km further north.
“What is needed is to run fast,” he explains, barefoot, sneakers stowed in his backpack. “Me, I have no money, no ferryman, no boat”, he confides without ever looking away from the beach and the dunes. Every morning, for 10 days, he has been waiting for “his chance”. “My technique is to stay here. I watch the passages [des autres migrants] and when I see them running on the beach, I run too, and I try to jump in one of the canoes at the last moment, for free. “
The place where Khaled is posted is ideal. It overlooks the entire Wimereux beach and offers a wide view of the Slack dunes area, named after this unspoiled, wild estuary where the sandy hills are covered with tall grass, shrubs and brambles. Nestled between the municipalities of Wimereux and Ambleteuse, in Pas-de-Calais, the area offers many hiding places. It is in these natural recesses that Khaled hides at night, waiting for the best moment to set off on the beach.
Contrary to the usual pattern of waiting for instructions from a smuggler to go to sea, many penniless migrants are now trying desperate methods to reach the English coast at all costs. “You don’t always get rejected,” continues Khaled. “When we are alone, people agree to take someone with them for free. It is when several of us arrive on the same boat that they refuse to take us on board.”
“Too many police”
A few days ago, Khaled almost managed to climb into a canoe. “I was so close to the goal,” he says. “So close to the water … But the police intervened.” The canoe has been pierced. “Since then, at night, I go back and forth on the beach, and I wait for another chance”. After a long moment of silently observing the surroundings, he sets off again towards the road. “It is 7.15 am, it is too daylight, there will be no more departure today.”
A few hours earlier, another group of migrants, Sudanese this time, also tried their luck from the dunes of the Slack. They say they were ripped off by their smugglers. Despite the 5,000 euros paid, their boat was never delivered. Since then, they have been wandering on the beach, and on the departmental road embedded between the dunes, waiting to find a plan B.
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That evening, around 1 a.m., they gave up attempting a passage. “We will try another time,” said Ali, one of them, calmly, accustomed to failed attempts. This Sudanese in his twenties, speaking perfect English, no longer tries to leave from the beaches of Calais. “Too many police,” he said simply.
For months, Paris and London have been deploying significant technical (fences, drones, thermal cameras, etc.) and human resources (increased number of patrols) in Calais, Grande-Synthe, Sangatte to curb the arrival of migrants on the English coast. Faced with the impossibility of passing, the exiles, like Khaled and Ali, are therefore looking for new routes.
“They descend further south of the Opal Coast”, explains Marguerite Combe, coordinator of Utopia 56 in Calais. “There have always been departures from Wimereux, Boulogne-sur-mer, but never so many. The migrants extend the time of the crossing by leaving there”.
“Poor quality boats, gasoline cans cut off in the water”
Same observation from the mayor of Wimereux, Jean-Luc Dubaele. In recent days, he said he was “overwhelmed” by the phenomenon. Nearly 300 migrants are believed to be hiding in the dunes at the moment: Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese… Unheard of. In the night from Sunday to Monday, dozens of them set off at the same time on the beach before being stopped by the police. The weather conditions were ideal: sea of oil, no swell, favorable winds. “They are leaving here because it is less guarded,” says the city councilor.
The pattern observed is always the same, according to the mayor who regularly patrols with the police: “The smugglers meet the migrants here. They send them GPS points in the dunes. […] They drop off the packages [les canots en kit, ndlr] and migrants pick them up. Then they wait. Then, they come out of the dunes by surprise, and they run together “carrying a zodiac and a motor at arm’s length – which often weighs around 500 kilos.
For the mayor, the observation is dramatic: humanly first of all, “they leave in excess on poor quality boats”, he explains. “Canoes not strong enough, with gasoline cans cut off”. There is a great risk of suffering damage or engine failure at sea. On Wednesday September 8, a boat was recovered at the last minute off Hardelot, about ten km south of Wimereux. The floor was taking water. The sinking was imminent.
“They are not going to stop so close to the goal”
“I do not want a new ‘jungle’ in my town,” still laments the mayor, fearing a degradation of the place.
To cope, Jean-Luc Dubaele directly contacted the Ministry of the Interior to ask for help and police reinforcement. However, in Wimereux, the police doubt that their presence, even massive, will dissuade migrants from passing. “They have come all this way to get to Europe, they are not going to stop so close to the goal,” said a policeman on patrol at dawn on Slack beach. “They only have 100 meters to go to reach the sea. They are still trying to pass.”
Because, once the sea has been reached, migrants know that they will have nothing to fear from beach patrols. “When they hit the water, it’s up to the maritime authorities to take over,” said another police officer. “The migrants know that. We won’t go looking for them in the water. That’s why they run so fast towards the sea on every attempt.”
On the beach, the role of the police on the beach comes down to the interception of boats. “Us, what we do is try to seize the boat and burst it to make it unusable.” The question of arrest is not on the agenda. “We are not here to challenge migrants,” say several of them.
Almost always, after an interception, the exiles set out again free in the dunes. They refuse care and shelter. But surviving here is particularly difficult. In the area, no NGOs are present, so no food distribution is ensured. Many migrants, like Khaled, leave each morning for Calais to “rest” before descending, in the early evening, to Wimereux and Boulogne-sur-Mer. “I live in Calais,” Khaled explained that morning from the top of his dune. “I’m leaving because there is nothing here. When I have eaten enough and have rested, I will come back”.