Khaled watches for departures on the dunes of the Slack, in Wimereux, Pas-de-Calais, on September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants
Khaled watches for departures on the dunes of the Slack, in Wimereux, Pas-de-Calais, on September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants

In recent days, hundreds of people have tried to cross the English Channel from northern France. Taking advantage of nightly departures from relatively quiet towns south of Calais, migrants have been jumping into boats at the last minute.

Khaled is perched on top of a sand dune. It's 6:30 a.m. and the sun is just starting to rise. The 21-year-old Ethiopian is scanning the beach below. The sea is calm, the place is still deserted. "I am always watching, watching for departures". Khaled had been sleeping nearby, in a place he indicates vaguely with a wave of his hand. He arrived in Wimereux, a small, well-to-do seaside resort in northern France, about 10 days ago. Calais is only 30 kilometers to the north.

"What you need is to be able to run fast," he explains, barefoot, sneakers tucked into his backpack. "I have no money, no smuggler, no boat," he confides without ever looking away from the beach and the dunes. Every morning, for the past 10 days, he has been waiting for "his chance". "My technique is to stay here. I watch for the crossing [of other migrants] and when I see them running on the beach, I run too, and I try to jump into one of the boats at the last moment, for free."

Read more: France rejects UK plan to turn back migrant boats

Khaled's location is ideal. It overlooks the entire beach of Wimereux and offers a wide view of the dunes of the Slack, named after this wild estuary where the sandy hills are covered with tall grass, shrubs and brambles. Tucked between the communes of Wimereux and Ambleteuse, the area offers many hiding places. It is in these natural recesses that Khaled hides at night, waiting for the best moment to run to the beach.

Khaled and another Sudanese migrant look at the beach of the Slack, at dawn, September 8, 2021. Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants
Khaled and another Sudanese migrant look at the beach of the Slack, at dawn, September 8, 2021. Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants


Unlike the usual pattern of waiting for instructions from a smuggler to take to the sea, many destitute migrants are now trying desperate methods to reach the English coast at any risk. "You don't always get rejected," Khaled continues. "When you are alone, people are willing to take someone with them for free. It's when there are several of us arriving 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 dinghy. "I was so close," he says. "So close to the water... But then the police intervened. Since then, at night, I've been going back and forth on the beach, waiting for another chance." After a long moment of silent observation of the surroundings, he leaves in the direction of the road. "It's too light now, there will be no more departures today."

Migrants run to hide in the dunes of the Slack, September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants
Migrants run to hide in the dunes of the Slack, September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants


A few hours earlier, another group of migrants, Sudanese this time, also tried their luck from the dunes of the Slack. They tell us that they were conned by their smugglers. Despite the €5,000 they paid, their boat was never delivered. Since then, they have been wandering on the beach and on the road between the dunes, waiting to find a "Plan B".

In the very early hours, at around 1:00 a.m., they gave up trying to find a crossing. "We'll try another time," explains Ali, a Sudanese in his twenties. With perfect English, he speaks calmly, clearly used to failed attempts at crossing. Ali no longer tries to leave from the beaches of Calais. "Too many police," he says simply.

Read more: Channel crossings: Migrants in Calais not deterred by plans to 'militarize the border'

For months, Paris and London have been deploying significant technical resources, including fences, drones and thermal cameras, and increased patrols in Calais and Grande-Synthe to curb the arrival of migrants on the English coast. Faced with the impossibility of crossing, exiles like Khaled and Ali are looking for new routes.

The mayor of Wimereux, Jean-Luc Dubaele, shows an abandoned boat in the dunes of the Slack, September 7, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants
The mayor of Wimereux, Jean-Luc Dubaele, shows an abandoned boat in the dunes of the Slack, September 7, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants


"They are going down further south now," explains Marguerite Combe, coordinator of the Utopia 56 association in Calais. "There have always been departures from Wimereux, Boulogne-sur-mer, but never this many. Migrants lengthen the crossing time by leaving from there."

'Poor quality boats that cut out in the water'

In recent days, the mayor of Wimereux, Jean-Luc Dubaele, has said he is "overwhelmed" by the number of migrants trying to cross. Roughly 300 migrants are currently hiding in the dunes: Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese. This is the first time such large numbers have ever gathered here. From Sunday night to Monday morning, dozens of people ran onto the beach at the same time before being stopped by the police. The weather conditions were ideal, with a calm sea, no swell and favorable winds. "They leave from here because it is less supervised," the mayor admits.

The pattern is always the same, according to the mayor, who regularly patrols with the police: "The smugglers meet the migrants here. They send them GPS coordinates to meet in the dunes. They drop off the parcels [Editor's note: the kits to put together the boats] and the migrants pick them up. Then they wait. Then they come out of the dunes with no warning and then a group of them run" carrying a zodiac and a motor – which often weighs around 500 kilos – at arm's length.

For the mayor, this evolving situation is dramatic. "They leave in large numbers on boats of poor quality," he explains. "Boats that are not strong enough, with engines that cut off in the water." The risks of a breakdown, an engine failure at sea, are high. On Wednesday, September 8, a boat was recovered off Hardelot, about ten kilometers south of Wimereux. It was taking on water and about to sink.

'They won't stop so close to their goal'

The mayor is worried that this place will suffer. "I don't want a new 'jungle' in my town," he says.

The dunes of the Slack, at dawn, September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants
The dunes of the Slack, at dawn, September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil for InfoMigrants


Dubaele has contacted the interior ministry directly to ask for help and police reinforcements. However, in Wimereux, the police doubt that their presence, even if they are there in large numbers, will dissuade the migrants from crossing. "They've come all this way to get to Europe, they're not going to stop so close to their goal," confides a police officer patrolling the Slack beach at dawn. "They only have 100 meters to go to reach the sea. They are still trying to get through."

Once they reach the sea, the migrants know they will have nothing to fear from the beach patrols. "When they hit the water, it's up to the maritime authorities to take over," explains another policeman. "The migrants know that. We won't go looking for them in the water. That's why they run so fast to the sea at every attempt."

On the beach, the role of law enforcement is limited to intercepting the boats. "What we do is try to seize the boat and puncture it to make it unusable." The question of arrest is not on the agenda. "We are not here to arrest migrants," say several of them.

Almost always, after an interception, the migrants are allowed to leave and go back to the dunes. They refuse to be taken in and given shelter. But surviving here is particularly difficult. There are no NGOs present in the area, so there is no food distribution.

Many people, like Khaled, go back to Calais every morning to "rest" before returning to Wimereux and Boulogne-sur-Mer in the early evening. "I live in Calais", says Khaled from the top of his dune. "I'm going back because there's nothing here. When I have eaten enough and rested, I will come back."

 

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