Shipwreck of migrants: the English Channel, a “new open-air marine cemetery”?

Members of migrant aid associations gathered next to a sign indicating the number of dead and the names of those missing from the Channel, Place Richelieu in Calais, this Thursday, November 25, 2021. © FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP

Text by: Marie Casadebaig Follow

4 min

A drama at sea off Calais, in the North of France, with these 27 people who died in the sinking of their boat while trying, with others, to cross the Channel.

This sea, which takes France away from the British coast by about thirty kilometers at this location, has become in a few years a crossing point for many migrants, despite the risks.


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The region had never known such a tragedy.

But if the tragedy is unprecedented, it was feared for a long time.

In the event of a fall in the water, the sea temperature limits survival to a quarter of an hour.

And the traffic of container ships and tankers is very dense.

It is a maritime highway where the risk of collision is high.

► To reread: Murderous sinking of a migrant boat in the English Channel

Despite all these dangers, since the start of the year, 31,500 migrants have attempted to reach British shores.

According to London, 22,000 were successful.

The maritime prefect of the Channel puts forward another significant figure: the number of crossing attempts has doubled in the last three months, while the weather is far from favorable.  

A constant increase in crossings since 2018

If this migratory route has become so popular since 2018, despite the dangers, it is because the others have closed in.

The city of Calais has barricaded itself with barbed wire and fences.

Access to the port and the entrance to the Channel Tunnel have been secured with state-of-the-art equipment.

Vehicle and container searches are now carried out with CO2 detectors to detect the presence of humans. 

There are many exiles who continue to try, but again at their own risk.

A youngster died of a crash at the end of September when he slipped between the cab of a heavy truck and its load. 

We don't want the English Channel to become an open-air marine cemetery like the Mediterranean has become (...)

Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region, presidential candidate

Lucile Gimberg

Too few resources to prevent departures at sea

Protecting the coasts, and therefore the departure points for boats, is obviously more complex.

It is more than a hundred kilometers of coast that must be monitored.

The gendarmerie patrols represent a drop of water in this mission.

At night, they survey the dunes with infrared glasses to spot the candidates at the start.

These exiles have often paid smugglers, who provide them with GPS data.

At the meeting point, the candidates discover, near a beach, kit material, which they must assemble themselves to take to the sea. The boats are undersized, badly inflated.

They become swimming pools, once the water gets in them. 

This Thursday, November 25, Paris and London have shown a desire to intensify their joint efforts to fight against smuggling gangs.

According to Gérald Darmanin, the French Minister of the Interior, nearly 1,500 smugglers have already been arrested since January 1.

The five persons responsible for the sinking of this Wednesday, were also arrested. 

Exiles in a dead end

The candidates for departure mainly come from the Horn of Africa: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, but also Sudan. A part comes from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and finally the Middle East (Iraq, Iran ...). All of them have the initial objective of joining England, to be closer to members of their family, or to acquaintances, or to live in a country whose language they speak and which could more easily offer them a job.

While waiting to organize their departure, they live in makeshift camps in Calais and Grande-Synthe, near the coast.

For the associations that try to help them, it is these extreme living conditions - almost daily interventions by the police, confiscation of equipment such as tents - that push these people to take enormous risks.

Because they obviously seek at all costs to get out of this situation. 

It's our only way to get there anyway, you see?

So we will try, always, even if there are disasters.

We have no choice, we have to try to leave.

We don't know what God will do

Abdel, 24, comes from RCA, of Chadian origin, he arrived in Calais five months ago

Juliette Gheerbrant

For the government, on the contrary, it is the existence of illegal camps that facilitates the work of smugglers.

Accommodation solutions exist, but far from the coast, which exiles refuse to leave, and these accommodation offers are often linked to administrative procedures for asylum requests in France. 

However, many of these migrants have already been refused asylum or have been registered in the country through which they entered Europe.

They therefore feel that they have no other choice but to move forward and no longer have much to lose.

► Also read: The shipwreck off Calais, a new stone in the Franco-British garden


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