As they walked past us – panting, cuddling, screaming – it was hard to believe what we were seeing.
Here, in broad daylight, were dozens of migrants, manhandling a large inflatable boat on a beach in northern France, to get to the seaside to cross the Channel.
Forget the normal rules on subterfuge – it was as cheeky and overt as it gets. And in addition, eight French policemen kept watch from a hundred yards away, and made no effort to get involved.
We had arrived here, on a beach near the village of Ambleteuse about half an hour earlier, just to see another similar boat leaving the shore.
It had been overloaded and underfed, but was about to start. About 40 people were on board, with a similar number left on the beach.
When we tried to talk to those who were left, they told us they were Iraqi Kurds, but didn’t reveal much other than affection for Britain. Or, certainly, to go to Great Britain.
A man told us his story of entering the European Union through Belarus, then passing through Poland and Germany to reach France.
He told us he had paid 2,000 to organize his passage to Britain. When I asked him if he was talking about euros or dollars, he smiled and said âno, poundsâ¦ I think like the British now! “
They walked in the dunes. Grimaces told us not to follow them. That’s when we went to talk to the French police who were watching.
It was not a long walk – maybe 100 meters from the Migrant Dune, to the parked police car. Eight officers stood around, chatting among themselves.
So why hadn’t they done anything to help, despite their closeness?
“There were eighty of them and eight of us,” one officer told me.
They were outnumbered, that’s right. But, then again, a cynic might suggest they had radios, guns, tear gas, batons, handcuffs, and tactical armor.
How many migrant passages have there been, how is Priti Patel trying to change British policy and what is France doing? Samuel Osborne Reports
Over 17,000 migrants have successfully reached the UK since the start of the year. This is double the figure for 2020.
More than 25,000 people have risked death crossing the English Channel in dinghies, kayaks and other small boats since the start of last year, according to data from the PA news agency.
Interior Minister Priti Patel introduced a new nationality and border bill in July, which she says will help reduce the number of crossings.
If passed, the bill will increase prison sentences for people entering the UK illegally.
It will also examine whether a person has arrived in the UK legally or illegally during the potential granting of asylum.
The Home Secretary is said to have asked Border Force to turn back some migrant ships from British waters to France.
France has repeatedly refused to intercept or take back migrant boats.
While we were talking, one of the officers shouted from the top of the dune: “Another boat [another boat]â¦another.”
And that’s when we found the remaining 40 people after the first boat had left.
Here they are, their own boat balanced above their heads, charging less on the beach than zigzagging, stopping every now and then for a break, then starting again.
We went to film this curious caravan of people – and the police stayed behind.
Statement by Dan O’Mahoney, Commander of the Underground Channel Threat
We are seeing an unacceptable increase in dangerous Channel crossings and we are doing all we can to support the French response so that it can do more to prevent people from making these unnecessary trips.
Our joint cooperation has led to nearly 300 arrests, 65 small boat crime-related convictions and more than 13,500 averted migrant attempts so far this year.
But we are determined to do more.
It took nearly eight minutes for the boat to be whisked off the top of the beach until it was pushed into the sea, and the officers watched everything, without moving.
The boat is full, people are jumping on board. Children carefully placed in the front, with mothers and fathers, trying to be calm.
The back of the boat was louder and louder. It took a while to get the engine running – a 40 hp outboard motor to power a boat with 40 passengers.
At one point, the police moved. As we stood in the sea, filming the migrant boat and watching the men arguing over the engine, we noticed that the officers were now standing in line, about 100 yards away from us.
For some reason, they now wore protective riot helmets and some wielded shields. However, they did not approach the boat and no one approached the police.
The engine started and the boat pulled away slowly. The engine stopped and was restarted. It happened again and again. With the boat low in the water, some luggage was tossed aside to reduce weight.
Then some people jumped up and returned to the shore. It made the difference – the boat was slowly moving away towards Dover.
When we turned away from the water, new police had arrived to take over from the previous unit. They too were watching.
At sea and we were in the safety of a sturdy fishing boat. All we could do was watch the first dinghy as it slowly passed through the water, with a wobbly direction.
It was going at a speed of about 5 knots, the boat so full of people that the water was lapping on the edges. Our skipper said the engine would definitely overheat before reaching the UK coast, if it didn’t capsize first.
Fly over the circles of Coast Guard helicopters, checking to see if the dinghy was intact and all passengers were on board.
We made repeated calls to the French coast guard, alerting them to the ship. He was not in distress and the migrants seemed focused on the journey ahead.
But these waters were dangerous and risky to navigate. The English Channel is the busiest waterway in the world – it’s a perilous place for any amateur sailor, let alone someone in charge of an overloaded and under-fueled canoe.
After a long wait, the French coast guard appeared on the horizon. We were told that there were several operations taking place along the French coast, with at least 20 boats having been spotted embarking in the English Channel.
Our fuel running out of fuel, we set off again for the coast, and we quickly realized how difficult the day was going to be for the French and British maritime patrols. Every few minutes we came across a new ship full of migrants.
Dinghies of different sizes carrying varying numbers of people on board – some with around 40 people crammed on board, but none with less than 15.
Then something appears in the distance. A little warped and out of place, among ferries, freighters, fishing boats and, yes, dinghies.
It’s a canoe. In the middle of the English Channel, a few kilometers from the border with British waters.
Three men are huddled together, with no space for the life jackets, and they don’t seem to know which direction they are heading. We approach and ask where they are from. âSudan,â they shout back.
As we get closer, they circle around, not knowing how to move in a straight line with their little paddles. Clearly they have almost no idea how to steer their tiny craft here in a shipping line.
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This kind of crossing does not require any ferryman. Just a sort of blind bravery, smeared with despair.
We check them. They smile and greet us. They’ve found the way forward – if they keep the sun behind, they should land in Dover.
Here, surrounded by waves and dangers, they rely on their determination to keep them safe.