A screenshot of Alex in Julien Goudichaud's film for the BBC | Source: Screenshot BBC
A screenshot of Alex in Julien Goudichaud's film for the BBC | Source: Screenshot BBC

After spending most of his adult life on the migrant trail, Alex, originally from Iran, tried to cross the English Channel from France twice. He talked to a French filmmaker and the film was posted just as the latest row broke out between Britain and France about how to stop people like him from attempting the crossing at all.

Tensions between Britain and France over the issue of migration have reportedly risen once more. That's according to reports on the BBC and in the British newspapers The Times and the Daily Mail. The media outlets cite General Frantz Tavart, the offical in charge of leading the French police patrols, who has been threatening to call off the nightly patrols if the British withhold the millions of pounds in funding they had promised to the French to try and prevent migrants from crossing the Channel.

Speaking on the BBC, General Tavart said that the 130 reservists who were currently carrying out the regular patrols could be withdrawn if Britain starts to pull the plug on the promised funds. The General is reacting to the British Home Secretary's reported threats recently to withhold the funds if the French didn't step up their efforts to prevent crossings. According to the BBC, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has threatened to block as much as 50 million pounds of funding this year if the French don't step up their efforts.

Threats fly on both sides of the Channel

General Tavart told the BBC that the proof of how much the French patrols were doing could be seen by a change of route from the smugglers and migrants themselves. More and more boats are attempting to leave from the Belgian coasts, or further south in Normandy, rather than from around the port of Calais, which is near the shortest crossing point to the UK and the region he patrols, Tavart said.


The French general accused the British of being "ungrateful" for what they had done so far. "We couldn't do more," he said. Britain's Clandestine Channel Threat Commander Dan O'Mahoney, on the other hand, disagreed. In the same report, he said that the French could do more. "The French have stopped well over 12,000 crossings this year," said O'Mahoney, "but there's more to do, the French know there is more to do and so do we."

Whilst the BBC was filming the French patrols "almost 200 people were prevented from crossing the Channel," explained Williamson. "But on that same night, three times as many did make it to the UK."

O'Mahoney said that the two countries needed "to get to the stage where you know that if you attempt to cross the Channel, you will more likely than not be stopped [from doing so.]"

Early in September, the Press Association estimated that more than 16,000 migrants had already crossed from the French coast to the UK since the beginning of 2021. The Daily Mail says that figure has now reached more than 17,000.

Also read: 'I try to jump on boats for free at the last minute': Migrants willing to do anything to reach England

Two migrants from Sudan watch over the beach near La Slack, south of Calais, on September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil/InfoMigrants
Two migrants from Sudan watch over the beach near La Slack, south of Calais, on September 8, 2021 | Photo: Mehdi Chebil/InfoMigrants

Alex's story

Many of those 17,000 will remain just a number to most of us. But last week the BBC posted a film about the story of one of those who tried several times to cross the Channel through 2020 and what it is like being on one of those boats.

Alex from Iran starts the film off with a broad smile. If you didn't know, you might think he was just in Calais on holiday, strolling confidently along the beaches, chatting in fluent English to the filmmaker.

But, after at least two failed attempts to cross the Channel, Alex’s confidence starts to take a battering. In his early forties, Alex tells French filmmaker Julien Goudichaud "Everybody is looking to go to England."

On the migrant trail

"Everybody is saying UK, UK, UK," Alex continues, staring out across the short stretch of water, a passing ferry looming just off the beach. His fears of water soon become apparent though, as he goes off to a hypermarket to buy the best life jacket he can find before making the crossing.

Alex, explains the film, has been traveling the migrant trail "for most of his adult life." He has been "working where he can to save money to make this crossing." He says he has paid a smuggler €2500 to get on a boat. "Tomorrow England," he says as he floats in swimming shorts not far from the shore in France.

Alex pays €40 for the orange lifejacket. "We reached to the sea, to the beach, to the shore around 12 midnight," explains Alex in the film, a little bit later. "We took the boat by ourselves to the sea," explains Alex. Police confirm that many smugglers hide boats in the dunes for attempted crossings. "Then we jumped in the boat, me and about 13 or 14 other people."

Also read: France to UK: Why do migrants risk the Channel crossing?

'They are going to send us to our death'

"And the waves were coming to us, the first waves were so heavy," says Alex spinning his arms around wildly to imitate the action of the waves, "it meant it turned our boat around and around like this."

"At that moment, I thought oh God, they are going to send us to our death with this boat," says Alex, his eyes widening as though remembering the fear he felt. Alex explains that he and three or four other people asked to go back to the beach. He says the smuggler shouted at him, "No, this boat is fine, believe me." But Alex insisted. "I said, this boat is very small, there are many people, I am not going."

On his next attempt, Alex tells Goudichaud that he has found another smuggler and the boat is bigger, stronger and more technical. The BBC narrator says that Alex has now given all his savings to the smuggler and he feels his only option is to cross.

Boats used by people thought to be migrants are stored at a warehouse facility in Dover, Kent, after being intercepted in the Channel by Border Force as attempts to make the crossing continue. April 20, 2021 | Photo: Gareth Fuller/picture alliance
Boats used by people thought to be migrants are stored at a warehouse facility in Dover, Kent, after being intercepted in the Channel by Border Force as attempts to make the crossing continue. April 20, 2021 | Photo: Gareth Fuller/picture alliance

Trying for asylum in France

But after a few weeks of silence, Goudichaud finds that Alex has "retreated to the French countryside." Sitting in a field, in shorts and sandals, Alex remembers the night of his second attempt. "Very very scary," he says, shaking his head, eyes downcast. "Almost we drowned, almost we drowned," he intones.

"The first people to escape, to run away was the dealer himself, those in charge of the boat," remembers Alex. "They left us with nothing."

This second attempt made Alex decide finally to apply for asylum in France. On July 14, 2021, Alex and Julien Goudichaud meet again and Alex says he is waiting for the French authorities to decide. He hopes that he can stay and start to build a new life in France.

"It is crazy," Alex reflects, "you run away from one dictator [in Iran] and you end up giving money to another dictator, the smugglers, the criminals you know. I regret giving my money to these people."

As the fireworks burst across the sky for France's national day, Alex says he hopes to set up his new life in Calais. "I have memories here," he says, placing his hand at his heart. "Stressful memories yes, but they are part of life, that is life," he smiles. "C’est la vie."

Also read: Channel crossings: Migrants in Calais not deterred by plans to 'militarize the border'

 

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