CALAIS – “We came through Greece together. Now she is dead.”
Wendi, a 32-year-old Eritrean, says a woman he knew died this week, trying to cross from France to the UK by boat. The woman, a 28-year-old protestant also from Eritrea, was fleeing religious persecution in her home country. Both travelled across Europe together before she drowned in the English Channel, less than 30km from the destination she had journeyed thousands of miles to reach, he said.
Wendi’s voice cracked when he said that he hadn’t yet informed his friend’s family that their daughter is dead. “She only has a mother who is still in Greece. How can I tell her?”
Wendi’s claim could not be verified, as the identities of the majority of the 27 people who died this week in the biggest single loss of life in the English Channel on record remains unknown. Still, the mood among migrants wanting to cross to England is grim.
“I am very, very afraid,” Wendi told me. Nonetheless, he still intends to eventually make the crossing. He will pay Algerian people-smugglers £2,200 he saved working in Greece to make the crossing, which he has attempted ten times so far, he said.
The migrants who lost their lives were reported to have set off from a beach near the town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, about 30km south of Calais, in order to avoid reinforced police checks around Calais. On an overcast and rainy day, locals expressed exasperation and incomprehension at the catastrophe.
Sandrine, who runs a fish stall with her husband, selling the produce her son catches at sea, said local fishermen are seeing boats of migrants virtually every day, even as the weather gets colder.
“When conditions at sea are good, they refuse help because they know that French boats will bring them back to France,” Sandrine said. “But if called on by the coastguard to help, fishing boats are required to abandon their catch and go and assist dinghies in distress. It’s affecting them mentally as well as our livelihoods.”
Fishermen can also be ordered by the coastguard to assist in picking up bodies of migrants who die at sea. “It’s not their job,” Sandrine insisted. “Having to pick up dead bodies is traumatic.”
Indeed, Karl Maquinghen, the fisherman who first alerted authorities to this week’s disaster, told AFP that seeing so many bodies was “like a horror movie”.
Emilie, another local, said a group of migrants, including women and very young children, had set up a temporary camp close to her home. She brought them food, she said, because she couldn’t bear to see families with little shelter in the cold and wet weather of northern France. “Police are overwhelmed” and don’t know how to deal with the influx of people trying to get to England, she said.
Both Sandrine and Emilie said the deaths seemed an inevitable consequence of the French and British governments failing to get a grip on the crisis. More policing, as has been suggested by the British government, would be unlikely to prevent many crossings: the 100km of the Pas de Calais and Nord coastline is too long to be guarded at every point. “Wherever the police go, the smugglers simply bring the migrants elsewhere,” Sandrine said.
The flow looks unlikely to stop. Few migrants in Calais have been put off attempting to travel to the UK by the catastrophe. Some say they will simply return in spring.
Jan, a 22-year-old Afghan from Baghlan province, said he travelled to Germany in 2015 but was refused asylum. Not wanting to be sent back to Afghanistan, he came to Calais seeking to join his sister, who lives in Dartford, Kent. When we met, he was waiting to catch a train to Paris, where he said he would spend a few months before returning to northern France to try the crossing again.
“This is my life,” Jan said, pointing to a sleeping bag and tent in a plastic bag. “I know things will be better when I get to England.”