Tue. May 17th, 2022

When they came past us – bouncing, howling, shouting – it was hard to believe what we saw.

Here, in broad daylight, there were dozens of migrants handling a large rubber dinghy down a northern French beach to get to the seafront to cross the canal.

Forget the normal rules of subterfuge – it was as free and obvious as you could possibly get. And what’s more, eight French police officers watched from about a hundred meters away and made no effort to get involved.

Migrants - handling a large inflatable boat down a northern French beach to get to the seafront to cross the canal.  - copy from Adam Parsons and Sophie Garratt
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Some dinghies had about 40 people crammed on board, but there were none with fewer than 15

We had arrived here, on a beach near the village of Ambleteuse about half an hour earlier, just to see another, similar boat leave the coast.

It had become overloaded and underpowered, but just about to get started. About 40 people were on board, with a similar number left on the beach.

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Sky News is witnessing people trying to reach Britain

When we tried to talk to the bereaved, they told us they were Iraqi Kurds, but revealed little more than a love for Britain. Or definitely to get to the UK.

A man told us his story about entering the EU through Belarus and then passing through Poland and Germany to get to France.

He told us he had paid 2,000 to arrange his trip to the UK. When I asked if he meant euros or dollars, he smiled and said “no, pound … I think like the British now!”

They marched out into the dunes. Scowls told us not to follow them. That was when we went to talk to the French police who were watching.

Migrants - handling a large inflatable boat down a northern French beach to get to the seafront to cross the canal.  - copy from Adam Parsons and Sophie Garratt
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Luggage was thrown over the side of some boats to reduce weight

It was not a long walk – maybe 100 meters from the migrants’ dune, to the parked police car. Eight officers stood around it, chatting with each other.

So why had they not done anything to help, despite being so close?

“There were 80 of them and eight of us,” an officer told me.

They were outnumbered, that’s right. But again, a cynic may indicate that they had radios, cannons, tear gas, pistons, handcuffs, and tactical armor.

While we were talking, one of the officers from the top of the dune shouted, “Un autre bateau [another boat]…another.”

And that was when we were reunited with the 40 people who were left after the first boat had departed.

Here they came, their own boat balanced over their heads, not loading as much down the beach as zigzagging, stopping now and then for a break, and then marching on.

We went to film this curious caravan of people – and the police stayed where they were.

It took almost eight minutes before the boat was taken from the top of the beach to the moment it was pushed into the sea and the officers saw it all without moving.

The boat filled up, people jumped on board. Children are gently placed in front, with mothers and fathers trying to be calm.

Migrants - handling a large inflatable boat down a northern French beach to get to the seafront to cross the canal.  - copy from Adam Parsons and Sophie Garratt
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A vessel leaves the shores of France

The back of the boat was noisier and noisier. It took a while to get the engine started – a 40 hp outboard engine to power a boat with 40 passengers.

At one point, the police officers moved. While we were standing in the sea, filming the migrant boat and watching men arguing about the engine, we noticed that the officers were now standing in a line, about 100 meters away from us.

For some reason, they now wore protective helmets, and some swung shields. Still, they did not approach the boat and no one turned to the police.

The engine fired up and the boat drove away slowly. The engine stopped and was then restarted. This happened again and again. With the boat low in the water, some luggage was thrown over the side to reduce the weight.

Then some people jumped off and went back to the shore. It made the difference – the boat was slowly moving away in the direction of Dover.

Migrants - handling a large inflatable boat down a northern French beach to get to the seafront to cross the canal.  - copy from Adam Parsons and Sophie Garratt
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Children were placed in front of the ships by parents trying to stay calm

When we turned away from the water, new police officers had taken over the previous unit. They too watched.

Out at sea and we were in safety for a solid fishing boat. All we could do was watch the first dinghy as it slowly struck across the water in a wobbly direction.

It was traveling at a speed of about 5 knots, the boat was so crowded with people that water splashed over the edges. Our skipper said the engine would undoubtedly get overheated before it reached the British coast if it did not capsize first.

Over the Coast Guard helicopter circles, they checked whether the dinghy was intact and that all passengers were on board.

We made repeated calls to the French Coast Guard and warned them about the ship. It was not in need and the migrants seemed to be focused on the journey ahead.

Migrants - handling a large inflatable boat down a northern French beach to get to the seafront to cross the canal.  - copy from Adam Parsons and Sophie Garratt

But these waters were dangerous and risky to navigate. The canal is the busiest sailing route in the world – it is a dangerous place for any amateur navigator, let alone a person in charge of an overloaded, underpowered dinghy.

After a long wait, the French Coast Guard appeared on the horizon. We were told that several operations were taking place along the French coastline, where at least 20 boats had been discovered sailing into the canal.

As our fuel was running low, we headed back to shore and we quickly understood how difficult the day would be for both French and British naval patrols. Every few minutes we came across a new vessel full of migrants.

Dinghy of different sizes with varying numbers of people on board – some with about 40 stoppers on board, but none with less than 15.

Then something pops up in the distance. Slightly wrong and out of place among the ferries, cargo ships, fishing boats and, yes, dinghies.

It’s a canoe. In the middle of the English Channel, just a few kilometers from the border with British waters.

Different boat for main copy - 3 men in an inflatable boat Re: Migrants - handling a large rubber boat down a northern French beach to get to the beach promenade to cross the canal.  - copy from Adam Parsons and Sophie Garratt
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Three men try to reach Britain in a canoe

Three men are squeezed close together, with no room for life jackets, and they do not seem to know which way they are heading. We come near and ask where they are from. “Sudan,” they shout back.

As we get closer, they turn in circles, confused as to how they move in a straight line using their small paddles. Clearly, they have almost no idea how to steer their little boat, out here in a shipping company.

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This type of crossing requires no smugglers. Just a kind of blind courage, covered in desperation.

We check them. They smile and wave us off. They have figured out which way to go – if they keep the sun on their backs, then they should land in Dover.

Out here, surrounded by waves and danger, they rely on their will to keep them safe.

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