Plage des Dunes de la Slack is a vast beach south west of Calais, France, so we decided to split up. My producer, Freddie, and cameraman, Paul, headed down to the water’s edge. I had gone up into the dunes. Just after 8am my phone rang. It was Freddie: “There’s loads of people. Come. Now.”
ran up over the top of one of the dunes and looked out across the beach. Although I knew what to expect, it took a few seconds for my brain to process the scene.
Beautiful morning sky with pinkish hue, check. Sand and sea, a matt then gloss gunmetal grey, check. Then I saw it. Halfway across the beach what looked, for a moment, like a huge primeval creature with a black cylindrical body and dozens of legs, was scuttling down to the water’s edge.
It was a group of almost 40 men, women and children with a nine-metre long dinghy upside-down on their heads, like a shell.
They were launching out into the English Channel, a fraction of the more than 25,000 people that have done the same this year.
They jogged passed a French police patrol vehicle on the beach. The two officers inside didn’t even get out of the car. Were they really going to take on 30-plus men as they made a dash for Britain? Non.
As I approached the group, one of the men, an Iraqi Kurd, broke off from the rest. He patted me down, searching for weapons. Once he was confident I didn’t pose a threat, he allowed me to join the rest of my team. The dinghy was in the water.
People were panicking, dropping belongings into the sea; they were told to leave them. Someone was screaming. The children were lifted on and put in the centre of the boat. One woman wanted to talk to us before she boarded. She pointed to her toddler and in broken English said, “Baby, two nights in the jungle. No milk. No water. No life. Problem. Problem.”
Then she waded into the water, waist high, and joined her child. The outboard roared into life and a moment of pure clarity for those travelling. No time to muse on the geopolitical backdrop to this. No time to weigh up the ‘refugee’ versus ‘economic migrant’ question. There was a singularity of thought: Get on the boat, get to Britain, don’t drown.
After they left, we retraced their footsteps in the sand back over the dunes to the makeshift logistics hub of the launch. In a clearing, the detritus of the smuggling operation. First, the reams of packaging the inflatable boat had been delivered in.
These are not ‘flimsy dinghies’. They have reinforced bottoms and although made in China are delivered through companies in Turkey or Germany.
There were piles of clothes, pumps, sleeping bags, toiletries, a few toys, all deemed excess baggage and left behind. There were two sets of footprints leading away from the ‘hub’.
One belonged to one of the people travelling on the boat and headed up over the dunes away from the beach. The migrants would have stayed in the camps clustered around Dunkirk for a few nights before the crossing. They would have arrived at the camps by car from Belgium or Germany.
Hours before launch they would have taken public transport to a bus stop nearby and walked in over the dunes to the liaison point. The second set of footprints belonged to a smuggler. It went straight to a small parking space just off the main road.
They would have needed a van and several people to carry the boxed-up dinghy and the pumps to the meeting point. The more I learn about the people-smuggling networks, the more I conclude that they are virtually ‘unpoliceable’. The coordinators are mainly Kurds, Afghans and Syrians. The drivers are a mix of nationalities.
The logistics are planned and communicated via Telegram or WhatsApp. Although the networks are international, the relationships are forged locally. Extended families will use smugglers they know and trust.
These are relationships that go deep in the neighbourhoods of places like Ranya and Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. Smugglers who don’t deliver, or treat people badly, get a bad reputation and vice versa.
The good ones are reliable but also fleet of foot. They will change the plan quickly to avoid detection.
They are adaptable, communicative, international but at the same time rooted in local communities. They are, in other words, close to the perfect contemporary logistics operation. Crucially, there is endless demand for their services.
Are there evil, unscrupulous smugglers who treat people like livestock? Of course there are. But the smugglers I’ve spoken to have a sort of deluded Robin Hood complex. For example, last week we interviewed a smuggler based out of Erbil in northern Iraq.
“I don’t force anyone,” he says. “The people here are facing troubles of every kind, problems with salaries, problems with living. They want out.
“For example I have this man on the road at the moment. He trusts me and I will deliver for him, Inshallah.”
He reads out a series of messages, a near continuous stream of communication with one of his ‘clients’.
Back at Plage des Dunes de la Slack, the people we watched launch had disappeared over the horizon. An hour after their departure French police reinforcements showed up.
I asked my producer what was the French for, “Lads, you’re a bit late to the party, to be honest.”
The French response to Channel crossings has become a bone of contention between London and Paris. The British have agreed a £54m (€63m) package (paid in instalments) to help assist the French patrol the 200km of coastline from Dunkirk to the Normandy border.
Although the French say they’re doing what they can to rescue or disrupt a large proportion of crossings, there is considerable disquiet in the British Home Office about their efforts.
Behind the scenes, border enforcement on both sides of the Channel are doing the best they can, but at ministerial level, relationships have turned toxic. Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary, was recently ‘disinvited’ to a meeting of European interior ministers in Calais to discuss the problem.
Boris Johnson’s Brexiteer support base looks at the numbers crossing and thinks, “How’s this ‘taking back control’?” Emmanuel Macron of France has a tricky presidential election next year, with far-right runners and riders breathing down his neck.
Later that afternoon, Wednesday, November 24, we were back in our hotel room editing our TV report for that night’s Channel 4 News.
The report would open with the dramatic scenes of that morning’s launch. At around 2pm news started to come in that a dinghy had gone down in the Channel; five people were feared drowned. I messaged a contact for confirmation.
The answer came back: “It’s more. Much more.” By evening, the French had confirmed that at least 27 people had lost their lives. It was the worst known loss of life from small boats crossing the Channel in this way, ever. After the news sank in, my next thought was, is this the people in the boat we’d filmed? After consulting with French maritime experts, the conclusion was no, it was highly unlikely that it was the same dinghy.
We don’t know exactly what happened to the people we saw leave. They were probably either picked up out at sea and returned to France or they made it to Britain. The one thing we do know: they were the lucky ones.