Despite the dangers of crossing the English Channel, many migrants are still desperate to get to the UK

A refugee lights a bonfire to keep warm at dawn on November 26 in Dunkirk, France.Kiran Ridley / Getty Images

Aland Sarwar smiles broadly as he jumps up from the fire he is sitting next to with a couple of friends. “Finally I get to speak American,” he says with a laugh.

Mr. Sarwar, 20, stands gently in the squishy mud that surrounds the fire and his nearby tent. It is one of dozens of flimsy shelters scattered along a dirt path on the outskirts of Dunkirk in northern France. Nearby, hundreds of other men – from distant places such as Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Somalia – walk around in front of bonfires they have lit along an abandoned railway running off a busy highway. There is no clean water here, no toilets, and the only food comes a few times a week from charity workers, who also bring portable showers, the strange razor, and a generator to turn on cell phones.

Called “Loon Beach”, this is one of the largest migrant camps between Calais and Dunkirk, and it is almost exclusively populated with young men eager to try everything to get to the UK. It is from here that a group of people on Wednesday went beyond the English Channel in an overloaded dinghy. At least 27 drowned, including three children and a pregnant woman. The only two survivors remain in the hospital in Calais.

At least 2,500 migrants live in similar camps along the coast, though no one is sure of the exact number. What is clear is that the number of people crossing the Channel has increased. More than 26,600 have risked the dangerous journey so far this year, according to the UK Home Office. That is an increase from 8,410 in 2020 and 1,850 in 2019.

For an outsider, it is difficult to understand why anyone would risk their lives on such a dangerous quest. What is it about going to Britain that has made so many people risk their lives? But spend a day talking to migrants on Loon Beach and listening to those who work with them, and it’s easy to see why the reason for crossing is not straightforward.

Many simply have few other options.

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Under the EU Dublin Regulation, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive – which is usually Greece, Italy, Spain or, in recent months, Poland. If they are found in another EU Member State, they are sent back to the first country. As a result, migrants living around Calais cannot apply for asylum in France if they wanted to, because they will be deported immediately. However, due to Brexit, the UK is not bound by the Dublin Regulation and migrants will not be automatically returned if they can get there.

There is also the issue of language. Many of the migrants speak English, not French, and some have extended family in the UK. Others have the impression that it is easier to find work in the UK – legally or illegally – than in France. That’s an argument raised by French officials this week when they criticized Britain’s lax labor laws, which they said lured migrants to cross the canal. British officials reject the criticism and blame France for not doing more to stop the transitions.

Migrants “do not feel welcome here either,” said Anna Richel, a coordinator of Utopia56, a French non-profit organization that provides emergency assistance to migrants in Calais and Dunkirk. Ms Richel said police regularly destroy migrant camps and tear up tents. Loon Beach first appeared a few weeks ago after police dug down a much larger camp near a mall. “The police moved them to hide them,” Richel said of the migrants. “They are not considered human.”

She and other aid workers say tougher enforcement has only pushed migrants to take additional risks and to rely more on smugglers. “The more police there are, the more people will seek help from people who are professionals to avoid the police,” said Pierre Roques, head of l’Auberge des migrants in Calais, which supplies food, clothing and other supplies to migrants. Sir. Roques said the only solution is for Britain and France to develop a safe-passage system where asylum applications can be properly reviewed.

Mr. Sarwar, a Kurd from Iraq, is among those who will not stop trying to cross. “It’s hard to get to the UK but I have to try,” he said. He speaks decent English and no French, and he is sure that the Kurdish community in Britain is larger than in France.

He arrived in Dunkirk about a month ago via Belarus, Poland and Germany. And he has already made two unsuccessful attempts to cross the Channel.

Last week, he joined 22 other migrants on a six-meter-long dinghy. They reached about five kilometers out to sea before the engine went out. They called the UK’s 999 emergency number but were told they were in France. Then French officials said they were in Britain. The group spent three hours hovering and feverishly calling for help. They finally contacted an aid organization that was pressuring the French Coast Guard to launch a rescue operation.

During another cross-test before it jumped Mr. Sarwar in the back of a truck with six other migrants. They came through two security checkpoints before police dogs sniffed them. “We ran away and the police chased us,” he said. “It was like Tom and Jerry. “

Transportation is not the only danger. Mr. Sarwar had to negotiate with human traffickers for both failed attempts. Their fee – to be paid when he reached the UK – was £ 2,500 (approximately $ 4,250), which he borrowed from family and friends. He has been able to hold on to the money so far, but the smugglers have become more ruthless towards payments, he said. This week, a migrant in the camp was shot in the leg by a smuggler in a dispute over fees.

Finding a safe alternative to the crossing has proved almost impossible. British and French officials have done little more than engage in diplomatic mudslinging since the drownings. Both sides blame each other for the problem, and even a meeting of senior ministers to discuss a strategy has fallen apart.

Some migrants, like Muhammad Kosreat, are in doubt about going to sea. Mr. Kosreat, who is from Iraq, lost a friend in the drowning on Wednesday and has been destroyed by the tragedy. Just 17 years old, he has 11 times tried to take a boat across the canal. Every time something went wrong, ranging from a faulty engine to bad weather and zealous police. “I do not think I will try by boat again – it’s too dangerous,” he said in stopping English.

But he is still as eager as ever to come to Britain, he said – he just wants to find another way. “Britain for me is life.”

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