Hide and seek: French police comb Channel beaches in search of migrants

A helicopter swoops over the northern French coast, its spotlight racing across the deserted beach on a freezing January night, looking for migrants who might put out to sea trying to reach nearby England.

Hide and seek: French police comb Channel beaches in search of migrants
Photo: AFP
On the ground, a three-man gendarmerie patrol — part of the French police force — tramps through sand dunes, searching an 11-kilometre (seven-mile) stretch of beach near Oye-Plage, between the ports of Calais and Dunkirk.
Carrying electric torches and thermal-detecting binoculars to pick up any sign of life, the gendarmes inspect the dunes where people-smugglers sometimes hide rubber dinghies and other equipment prior to launching migrants on their way across the Channel.
The number of those attempting to sail the treacherous waters, braving strong tides in the world's busiest shipping route, rose to over 500 last year, up from a mere 13 in 2017.
The phenomenon has sparked concern in Britain, where the conservative government, eager to be seen as tough on immigration, has appealed to France to prevent the attempted crossings.
Photo: AFP
“The objective is to stop them putting out to sea,” said Marie-Laure Pezant, who commands the gendarmerie unit in nearby Saint-Omer, adding that many of those who manage to slip past the authorities “get into trouble and call on us for help”.
The migrants, many of them Iranian, are helped by people-smuggling gangs who organise the crossings, but who do not themselves board the boats.
They either attempt to steal boats, including fishing vessels moored in ports such as Boulogne-sur-Mer, or launch rubber dinghies from beaches at night.
Pezant's team inspect a metre (3-foot) deep hole in the sand, likely used by smugglers to stock equipment.
Photo: AFP
The patrol then heads inland, along a path where rubbish got caught in the brambles. One gendarme picks up a discarded notice on how to use a jerrican.
“Obviously it was dropped here during transportation. That shows it was new equipment,” says chief warrant officer Sebastien Hotin.
Further up a dune, in a wartime German-built bunker, the patrol recently found a sleeping bag, broken razor blades, and empty condom packets believed to be used by migrants to keep their valuables waterproof.
Photo: AFP
But it's rare they make any arrests.
“Given how big the area is we have to control, it's a lot easier for them to hide than for us to find them,” said Didier, another gendarme who declined to give his surname.
The people traffickers are believed to regularly switch points of embarcation between Wimereux, south of Oye-Plage and the Belgian border, 80 kilometres away.
France earlier this month announced it would step up police patrols around ports and beaches following consultations with Britain.
Photo: AFP
London for its part has ordered a navy ship to join coastguard boats in patrolling the Channel, especially the 33 kilometres of sea that separate France and Britain at its narrowest point.
Brexit connection?
Explanations for the sudden spurt in sea crossings vary.
Some experts believe that Britain's impending exit from the European Union in late March could be playing a role, prompting a rush by migrants to enter the country before immigration controls are tightened.
Photo: AFP
The weather in recent months has also been unusually calm, coastguard and security officials say. 
But Fabien Sudry, a top security official in the northern Pas-de-Calais region, has linked the increase to the arrival in the Calais area of large numbers of Iranians.
They have attracted, or led to the creation of, a new people-smuggling network which packs migrants into boats rather than trying to hide them on trucks.
Stowing away on lorries remains however the preferred route for migrants attempting to cross the Channel, especially for those with little money to pay smugglers.
On Monday night, a trucker in Calais drove his vehicle through a roadblock of burning pallets built by migrants hoping to hitch a ride to Britain.
The Bulgarian driver was slightly injured, officials said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.