It took little more than a week for Hamid to find a people-smuggler in Calais.
The networks run a slick and organised operation in the migrant camps here. Hamid got the fast-track service: within a couple of days, he found himself hiding near the beach with 75 other people, waiting to cross the Channel in a small inflatable boat.
The strip of sea that separates Britain and France is tantalisingly narrow. The Dover cliffs glow like a glowing streak of pearl above water when the dawn sun shines on them.
More than 18,000 people have crossed clandestinely to UK shores in small boats so far this year. This is more than twice the number of people who crossed the Channel last year, despite significant investment from both sides.
So why is it so difficult for two of the world’s richest and most powerful nations to stop migrants crossing 20 miles (32km) of sea?
Part of the answer is geography.
France’s northern coastline is covered with dunes, foliage and hundreds of bunkers left over from World War Two – all handy places for migrants to hide.
And, as patrols by police and gendarmes have intensified around Calais and Dunkirk, the smugglers have moved to riskier crossings further along the coast – as far north as the Belgian border, or as far south as the River Somme.
UK NEWS: ‘Game of chess’
Gen Frantz Tavart, the gendarmes’ regional commander here, says it’s proof that the patrols are working. He said that it was creating a vicious circle.
“If we divert the smugglers from the most practical route, we push them to extend their operations,” he said, “and that dilutes our resources across the territory. It’s like playing chess where the smugglers make the first move.
Gen Tavart has 40 active gendarmes dedicated to this mission at any one time.
The UK government pays for another 90 reservists. It has promised to double that number this year – part of a PS54m ($75m) funding package to boost security along the coast.
High-security fencing and surveillance cameras, paid for by the British, have been very successful in protecting the ports and Eurotunnel terminal in the past few years. Surveillance is difficult in forested dunes and it’s impossible to build a wall around France.
One migrant, who has sometimes worked for the smuggling networks, told me that in the days before a crossing, the gangs put several security guys in position along the coast.
“They write down the timing of the police patrols,” he explained. He explained that they write down all the details of police patrols.
UK NEWS: Bigger boats and bigger groups
Hamid told me he was taken some distance along the coast for his crossing – I won’t say where, and Hamid is not his real name. People who speak to the media are often threatened by smugglers. The price of his crossing was almost $3,500 (PS2,500). That’s on top of the $10,000 he paid to leave Afghanistan and travel across Europe to France.
He told me he was hidden near the departure point, with 75 other passengers from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bigger boats, with bigger groups of passengers, are another way smugglers are adapting, and Gen Tavart says it’s causing fresh problems for police.
“One of the problems we have is confronting groups of 70, 80, 90 migrants who become very aggressive,” he told me. “Two or three gendarmes against 20 migrants is manageable; but if you have three gendarmes facing 90 people, it’s much trickier.”
He admits it’s sometimes “too dangerous” to intervene.
Hamid’s story ends well for the police. He claims that as he and other migrants dragged their boat out to sea, large numbers police officers arrived on the shore and stopped them. He also said that officers stopped the crossing and told the migrants to return to their camps to try again tomorrow.
UK NEWS: Increased pressure from UK
After many failed attempts, some migrants choose to settle in France. It’s in the best interests of smugglers to continue pushing their clients to leave. People living in poverty are easy prey for those with dreams. Britain is portrayed as a country of ease and abundance, with family welcome, housing available, and easy access to jobs.
France now says it’s stopping more than half of all crossing attempts, but some local journalists report seeing French National Police stand and watch as migrants leave. The UK has been pushing France to do more and has redoubled its efforts to tackle the problem.
The National Crime Agency has reported 65 convictions related to small boat crossings since last year, and a new joint co-ordination centre near Calais has meant better sharing of British and French intelligence.
Migrants reaching UK by boat
Numbers arriving from French coast by small boat
1,835 arrivals in 2019
8,469arrivals in 2020
18,720arrivals so far in 2021
Source: UK Home Office
Some say expanding that co-operation to include joint police patrols on land and sea is the only way to break the smugglers’ business model in northern France. Dan O’Mahoney (UK’s clandestine channel threat command) says that it’s something the UK offers the French many times.
“It’s not something they feel they need or would find helpful, but the offer is always there,” he told me. “We would love to do joint patrols at Sea, but the French hold a strong view on sovereignty so it is not something they are interested in exploring at the moment. “
Sovereignty is a loaded concept after Brexit.
Visiting security forces in Calais last weekend, the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, gave me a message for the UK: “I want to say to our British friends, who chose Brexit to take back control of their political life, that it was not, I imagine, about putting British forces on French soil, as each respects the sovereignty of the other.”
There’s a lot of politics at play in cross-Channel relations more generally at the moment, and not a lot of love.
But without joint patrols, and with French police only authorised to intercept boats in distress, migrants must cross into UK waters before British officers can intervene.
The UK government is now looking at how, and under what circumstances, it might legally turn those boats back towards France. Many believe that there is a risk of a humanitarian and media disaster. However, the UK government is now looking at how and under what circumstances it might legally turn those boats back towards France.
It’s all part of what makes maritime borders difficult to police.
Smugglers know that, just as much as governments do.
Lucy Williamson’s in-depth story is featured on Our World on the BBC News Channel in the UK at 21: 30 BST on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 October, and is also available via the BBC iPlayer.
UK NEWS: More on this story
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