“Ya Baba!” cries the little girl, tears streaming down her eyes. She’s around four years old, calling for her father in Arabic. Her father is near me, and we’re both waist-deep in the sea. The girl stands on the sand, her arms wrapped around her mother’s legs. In front is the wide, black sea stretching into a dark sky.
It’s 3 a.m., Sept. 1, 2020. We are on the Blériot Beach in Calais, France, on the far side of the English Channel, the world’s busiest shipping lane.
I can feel the power of the sea as it pushes us around. The father sees me, another brown man in the water, and thinks I’m with them. Further ahead is a gray, inflatable boat held by Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian men; inside, a lone man is bent at the hips desperately trying to get the engine running. Unlike the rest, he isn’t wearing a life jacket because he isn’t making this journey from Calais to Dover; he’s working for the people-smuggling gang I’ve infiltrated. I’m an undercover journalist wearing a secret camera. The engine starts to roar.
The girl’s father wades back to the shore and picks her up. She doesn’t want to go. He places her in the boat, and her mother climbs in. The smuggler jumps out and stands near me. Twelve people in a boat made for eight. I’d heard the gangs force refugees onto the boats with weapons because there is profit in numbers, but tonight people lean over to hug him, and he wishes them a safe passage.
Then, at their most vulnerable — refugees who had paid thousands of pounds to be on the boat, who had made their way to the coast, inflated the boat with a foot pump, and carried it to the water, who had now been seen by local fishermen, with the French police likely on the way — they still shouted encouragingly to me: “Yalla Akhi. Let’s go, my Brother, get in, we’re going to England now.”
“La, la,” I shouted back in Arabic — “No, no.”
The smuggler said it didn’t matter if I hadn’t paid — just get in. A desperate person with no money would have jumped at the opportunity.
They left through high waves that broke hard against the boat. They’d have to avoid ferries the size of apartment blocks carrying up to 2,000 passengers and huge tankers that dwarfed those ferries. The smuggler ran away across the sand.
The operation took skill, planning, and daring, and I was here to learn all I could about their business.
For months, I had pretended to be an economic migrant from Pakistan stuck in France. In fact, I was working for a British broadcaster keen to understand how gangs managed to move refugees and migrants across the sea from Calais to Dover. The route was killing people. Mitra Mehrad, a 31-year-old Ph.D. student from Iran, is believed to have been the first victim. On Aug. 9, 2019, she left on a boat that got into trouble off the coast of England. Survivors say she leapt into the water to rescue a five-month-old baby. Her body was found nine days later off the Dutch coast. Her father visited the Dutch embassy in Tehran, and a DNA sample from him was flown to the Netherlands and matched to one taken from her. The smugglers responsible were charged with manslaughter in December of the same year.
We started our investigation a few months later in February 2020. It started on Telegram — a messaging app that provides end-to-end encryption — where we met smugglers still using the route.
Iranians like Mehrad made up a large proportion of the refugees at the camp in Calais. Many of them spoke English well and felt they could find work easily. As the U.K. government is an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, they also believed they would be received sympathetically. Their compatriots who have gone before them have reinforced this impression. Iranians were the top nationality claiming asylum in the U.K. in the year ending June 2020. Of the 4,627 applications filed that year, 2,319 were awarded, 16% more than in 2019. Two-thirds of these applications were granted at the first stage of the process.
There are still hundreds of people who have fled war and oppressive regimes living in the woods outside Calais, waiting to be processed for asylum in France or trying to get to the U.K. The places they live are dismantled periodically by the French authorities to demonstrate to the U.K. that they are doing something. The only option these refugees have is to start another camp.
It was in one of these camps that I spent months learning about the gangs. The majority were Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Sudanese, and Afghans; Pakistanis were rare. Because of this, some were suspicious of me. One day, two gang members challenged me, demanding to see my Pakistani passport. I told them I’d lost it in Croatia. I said I was looking for other Pakistanis to cross with, but they told me there were none.
I had met just two Pakistanis in Calais, both economic migrants. If history had been different, these could have been my parents, who came when the U.K. needed workers for the cotton mills. That’s why I have a British passport and the privileges that come with it. I’ve been able to take for granted such things as reliable electricity, a single difference that has improved our lives immeasurably. The migrants from the Commonwealth then brought their families over and quickly made it from the mills to corner shops; their children were then able to go to school. Some became doctors, accountants, lawyers; others drove taxis and made kebabs.
Some politicians told the poor whites living in towns left behind by successive British governments that it was these brown people who were stealing their jobs. Resentment grew over the decades, and the drawbridges went up.
I stayed in the woods until I was no longer seen as an outsider. To anyone who asked, I said I’d traveled overland from Pakistan to France. I knew this was plausible, since for a documentary I had followed a Sudanese man across the high-altitude mountain passes from Italy to France to evade the police. It was a brutal crossing; people lost lives and limbs.
There are few respites on the migrant’s journey. I’d met refugees who described how the Croatian police took their clothes and documents, burning them in oil barrels. Others were beaten as they ended up destitute and begging in city centers.
I told people I had family in the U.K. who could pay for my crossing. Aside from our initial contact on Telegram, I spoke to many agents and smugglers, and the price between February and October 2020 was £3,500 (approximately $4,700) per person. For comparison, Iran’s GDP per capita according to the World Bank is $5,550; Afghanistan’s a mere $507! Most boats I saw, or heard of, had over 10 people in them, sometimes 12, or even 14. Over 8,400 people made it across in 2020. That’s £29.4 million (just short of $40 million). Those who couldn’t afford this used tires or canoes to try getting across.
The smugglers provide the means for starting the journey, but there is no guarantee that it will end safely.
Our contact told us the first thing we needed to do was deposit our money in a currency exchange shop in London. This would get my name on a list and the gang would take care of everything in France. Living in London, you’d walk past these shops without noticing. They’d have the word Sarafi (“money changer” in Farsi) and all the usual Western Union stickers. My team went to see one of the “money men.” While being secretly filmed, he explained that if we canceled the trip or I didn’t make it over, he would give back the money. He also reiterated it was very safe and that only one woman had died doing it. He was talking about Mehrad. Make sure they get you a good boat, he advised. We were not allowed by the broadcaster to pay him, but he gave us good intelligence.
Back in Calais, I was surrounded by people who had lost their homes, their health, their documents. According to European Union laws, if a country is overwhelmed by migration, others must help. Germany did that in 2015, taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees. But as a populist backlash disfigured European and American politics, these people were dehumanized. But far from the “invaders” of the xenophobic imagination, these people were shabby or elegant, proud or humble, scared or scary, uneducated or sophisticated — same as all of us.
Some made it to the U.K. only to be returned to France under the Dublin Regulation, a European law that determines which country should be responsible for a refugee. On leaving the EU, however, the U.K. has lost the ability to return people. This caused people to rush to its shores in 2020.
Where the rich states in Europe have failed refugees, charities have filled the gap. I saw young, disabled men given help to walk to food trucks. In the woods, I saw women push children in prams given to them by aid organizations. The charities also provide food daily, power to charge phones, tents, and a weekly shower truck for people to wash themselves and their children. The migrants always insisted that I eat with them, and I would pretend to have a bad stomach to avoid dipping into their meager supplies.
Most people wore donated clothes. But social media was still abuzz with commentators opining that they don’t look like people in need of help because their clothes look tidy or they carry smartphones. Indeed, some of the refugees have smartphones and nice clothes, and some even speak English well — none of which has prevented them from being bombed or oppressed out of their countries, like the Yemeni man I met who wanted to come to the U.K. after his country had been bombed by Saudi jets using British bombs.
I established contact with the smugglers on Telegram. But on the ground, it was difficult to locate them because they used burner phones and regularly changed their numbers. They were professionals with good field discipline. You would never hear in the woods if there was a crossing that night. Their drills were slick, and it took time to break into the groups. I carried a power bank with me, which meant that many would come to me to charge their phones. And as we lay waiting on the rocks by the trees, they divulged details that helped me piece together their operational details.
In the evenings, as the twigs cracked in the campfires, I’d hear a chorus of languages — Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, etc. The number of people making their way across the English Channel is small. The majority are escaping wars in Syria and Sudan and the regime in Iran. More than 5 million Syrians — nearly a quarter of the pre-war population — made it just across their border into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where the majority of them still live. Many are in camps, and some are refused the right to work. From that exodus of millions, some made it to mainland Europe, where many settled in Germany, and around 8,400 people in 2020 crossed the Channel from France into the U.K.
The gangs spend little time in the woods. But eventually I met one of their bosses. Pay your money and we’ll collect you from the camp and take you to the beach, his lieutenants told me. I couldn’t take my belongings. And no phones since they were paranoid about being tracked. The boats would be hidden nearby or driven there in vans. And there I’d be, an hour from the woods, 20 nautical miles from England.
Though many have died attempting the crossing, most succeed. The gangs use apps like Windy to make sure the waves aren’t above 1.5 feet and the wind is northwesterly, so it will aid the boat. Passengers are provided life jackets and sometimes flares. They are told to aim for the five red vertical lights on a radio mast at Dover, visible from Calais beaches.
After months of calling, following, pretending, watching, and adding to the puzzle, one night it all came together. I was there on the beach to witness a crossing.
This was all about people who have less to fear from a hostile sea than from the horror or desperation that they are fleeing.
The boat soon disappeared on its potentially fatal journey. I stood there thinking about the little girl out at sea. Her cry of “Baba!” had cut through all the noise and complexity and reduced it to a simple truth: This was all about people who have less to fear from a hostile sea than from the horror or desperation that they are fleeing.
The next day, I was relieved to see pictures of the family arriving in England and being taken to a building for processing. Maybe they’d make it and she’d get asylum. Maybe she’d get a safe place to stay, where she could turn on the lights, be free from worry or hunger, be healthy, go to school, make friends, get a job, make a life, have a family, grow old — and one day tell the story of the night that turned her fortunes. But most aren’t that lucky. Beyond the perils of the sea, the British government has channeled the growing xenophobic sentiment at home by using heavy-handed measures to stop the boats, including naval vessels, military drones, and speedboats.
It’s Sept. 1, on Calais beach, just over a year after Mehrad drowned. She had made it to within 15 miles of the coast where she thought she could build a new life. After I got back to the U.K., in October, a family of five drowned off the coast of France.