A blanket of surveillance covers Calais, but more migrants are dying at sea than ever before

France and the UK are in bitter conflict about how to stop perilous Channel crossings — and it appears that technology is not the answer

The gendarmes stood on the dunes, just outside Calais in northern France, silhouetted against the darkening October sky. They were there to show Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin an array of high-tech equipment, including infra-red cameras and night vision binoculars, used to spot migrants hoping to make the perilous journey across the English Channel and into the United Kingdom. Laid out on the sand were a deflated dinghy, several lifejackets and canisters of fuel. 

“What we do when we prevent migrants from crossing is that we save their lives,” Darmanin told a group of reporters.

The following month, on November 28, Darmanin returned to Calais. Instead of his usual retinue of staff, he was accompanied by officials from around the European Union. They had gathered for a crisis summit after a fragile dinghy capsized five days before, drowning 27 people in the cold, grey waters that separate Britain and France. 

Before the meeting, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a letter to President Emmanuel Macron, calling for closer cooperation between French authorities and the U.K. Border Force and millions of euros’ worth of investment in surveillance technology. Among his suggestions were ground sensors, radar, and aerial surveillance by manned aircraft and drones. Towards the end of the letter, Johnson also proposed the return of migrants to France. In response to the letter, which Johnson posted on Twitter, Darmanin summarily disinvited U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel from the talks.

In September, Patel had suggested that, if France could not bring the flow of migrants to British shores under control, she would renege on an earlier promise of £54m ($72m) to help fund the policing of crossings from Calais and the surrounding area. On Sunday, Darmanin said he had received a fraction of the money. Meanwhile, record numbers of people have managed to make their way across the Channel and into the United Kingdom — more than 25,000 so far, this year. 

The drive to improve surveillance is an enormous and transformative undertaking. In recent years, residents of Calais say their city has become almost unrecognizable. The roads leading to the port, where ferries loaded with trucks depart for Dover, are now surrounded by new, high-strength fences. Along the beachfront, every 50 feet or so, new Chinese-made Hikvision CCTV cameras watch over passersby. 

And, yet, the crossings keep happening.

Police and Gendarmes evict migrants from a makeshift encampment in Calais. Photo: Isobel Cockerell
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin arrives at Marck beach in Calais on 9 October to praise border forces for their work. Photo: Isobel Cockerell
Gendarmes on the dunes at Marck beach, on the day of Darmanin’s October visit to Calais. Photo: Isobel Cockerell
Previous
Next

After Darmanin’s first visit, I climbed among the sandy hillocks at Dunes de la Slack, not far from Boulogne. It was a clear morning and, across the water, Dover’s famous white cliffs were sharp against the dawn sky. A black police truck, with what appeared to be a camera mounted on top of it, was crawling along the beach. 

Policing the 50-mile stretch of coastline between Boulogne-Sur-Mer and Dunkirk is a colossal task. The beaches are huge and the dunes full of natural hiding spots. Among them, I saw footprints weaving back and forth, where people had run down to the beach to board small boats to England.

 When migrants hoping to make the journey to the U.K. arrive in Calais, they contact local migrant smuggling networks, usually via WhatsApp, and pay upwards of €3,000 ($3,380) to cross the Channel. A smuggler tells them he will text or call when it’s time. When that message comes, migrants set to leave from Slack board a train from Calais down towards Boulogne, where they then walk for almost an hour to the beach and uncover a dinghy buried in the sand. The boat is inflated and scrambled to the water, where around 30 people clamber aboard. It then makes its hazardous way across the busiest shipping lane in the world. 


The 27 deaths on 24 November constitute the single biggest loss of life in the English Channel since the International Organization on Migration began keeping records in 2014. Since then, 166 migrants have been reported dead or missing as a result of trying to reach England from France. The danger of such crossings is one of the reasons why the U.K. and French governments are funneling resources into monitoring these waters.

In 2019, an EU research group began a project to explore new frontiers in maritime surveillance, testing out new ways to use manned and unmanned craft, both underwater and in the air, with the aim of “beefing up the European Union’s external borders.” The project wrapped up on October 31, 2021. Alongside the U.K. Border Force, Britain’s Royal Air Force has been deploying military surveillance aircraft and a civilian contractor has supplied Portuguese-made Tekever drones to patrol the Channel. High-speed, unmanned boats have also been trialled and, according to documents leaked last year, plans for “marine fences” — floating walls that block small vessels — have also been considered

On the French side, it’s more about boots on the ground, with gendarmes and police searching for migrants, using infra-red binoculars and increased patrols. But, at the port of Calais, they also have access to heat scanners, carbon dioxide, motion and heartbeat detectors, which, backed up by sniffer dogs, seek out migrants trying to cross the Channel by stowing away on trucks. 

In both France and the U.K., the operations are presented as a multi-million-euro rescue operation. But the life-saving argument was significantly diminished earlier in 2021, when Priti Patel ordered British officials to rewrite maritime law, so that the U.K. Border Force could carry out “pushbacks” in the Channel, forcing migrant boats headed towards British shores to turn around and go back where they came from. In September, it was revealed that Border Force staff were being trained to drive small vessels back into French waters using jet-skis, a move condemned by the French government. 

In response to questions about the recent deaths in the Channel, the U.K. Home Office would not confirm whether it was continuing to propose pushbacks as a valid method of immigration control.

Top: the cliffs of Dover. Bottom two: the port of Calais. Photos: Isobel Cockerell

Despite all the money spent on technology and manpower on both sides of the Channel, people are still willing to risk their lives to board a fragile boat and attempt to reach the U.K.

According to estimates by humanitarian groups, there are currently around 2,000 migrants staying in and around Calais. Before they have even attempted to cross the Channel, the increasing securitization of the area makes it difficult for them to exist and forces them into the city’s shadows. 

Outside the imposing walls of a ruined 16th-century fort in October, near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in Coquelles, I met Jackson and Gago, two teenagers from South Sudan. 

They were at a phone-charging station organized by a local NGO, even though they didn’t have working phones themselves. Jackson, who requested that his name be changed, had sold his to pay for his journey to Calais. Gago’s was broken. The two boys met in Libya, lost each other on the journey to Europe, and then were reunited in Calais. They told me that they planned to stay together for the rest of their journey. 

Since arriving in Calais, Gago said that he had only had basic interactions with police. He did, however, explain that there was an unremitting soundtrack to his life. “The police find you, and they tell you, ‘Allez allez.’ I think it means, ‘Go, go.’”

Neither Jackson nor Gago were aware of all the measures in place to stop them crossing the Channel. They just knew that the journey is arduous. Gago’s arm was in a sling. A smuggler slashed it with a knife, he said, when he tried to get onto a boat for a journey across the Channel that he hadn’t paid for. 

Jackson described how he could see the lights of England from Calais. 

“We don’t have anything and there’s no way to go,” he said, “The only way is on the river and the river is too big. We can’t swim.” 

I asked if he meant the sea. 

“Yes, the sea.”

Three Afghans look out over the makeshift encampment outside Calais’ main hospital, the scene of daily evictions by local police. Photo: Isobel Cockerell
Local resident Brigitte Lipp in her garage, surrounded by migrants’ charging phones. Photo: Isobel Cockerell
On a clear day, the white cliffs of Dover are visible from the beaches of Northern France. Photo: Isobel Cockerell
Previous
Next

For many people migrating across Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Calais is the end of the road. Crossing the Mediterranean, through the Balkans, Greece or Italy and into France, it’s where they end up. In many cases, the journey has taken months, or even years. But, what they find is far from a safe haven.

In October 2016, the last shelter in the “Jungle” — a migrant encampment that had sprung up the previous year and grown to a peak population of 10,000 people — was destroyed. But people continue to come to Calais. Now, they bed down whenever and wherever they can, hiding from the authorities under bridges and tracts of scrubland. Every 24 hours, they are moved on by police. 

On a gloomy morning, I sat in a car, parked on a road a few streets away from the headquarters of the Gendarmerie Nationale in Calais. I was accompanying volunteers from Human Rights Observers, a group formed in 2017 to monitor police and gendarmes operations and document violations of migrant rights. In practice, that means filming daily evictions. 

After a few minutes, one, two, three, four vans pulled out of the parking lot. We followed them to six successive sites in Calais. Uniformed officers combed the areas, confiscating any forms of shelter and forcing migrants to get up and leave. 

In Calais, everyone is watching each other. While filming the police and gendarmes, HRO team members are regularly subject to ID checks. “Sometimes they laugh at us. One officer said, ‘Instead of filming us, just send us nudes,’” recalled a project coordinator named Emma. “Sometimes we are a bit paranoid. We think that everything is against us.”

Shortly after, I went to speak with Franck Toulliou, chief commissioner of police in Calais. “The aim is to prevent a new camp like the Jungle,” he said. “But we remain humane with people, whether they’re Afghan, African or French.”

Ibrahim, a 20-year-old man, originally from the Gambia, is constantly aware of the cameras installed around Calais. Every time he sees a police van, he wants to take cover. He has even had residents filming him with their phones. 

 “This is not the life I want to live. I want to move freely, because I’m young and I’m not a criminal. I don’t want to hide myself like a convict,” he said. “Cameras are everywhere in Calais. Even this place, that we are in now, there is a camera.” 

We were sitting in a garage, attached to the home of Brigitte Lipp — known to many migrants as “Mama Charge.”

An entire wall of the building was taken up by a makeshift phone-charging setup. Power strip after power strip, giving life to devices belonging to the many migrants in her neighborhood. Twice a day, every day, 66-year-old Lipp, a lifelong Calais resident with cropped blonde hair, a sing-song voice and a sharp sense of humor, opens up to provide her much-needed, free service. 

Though cell phones are vital for migrants in Calais, it’s common practice for them to be thrown into the sea once the boats reach British waters, for fear of the devices being taken by the Home Office and the information they contain used to deny asylum claims. 

Often, the most privacy-conscious people in Calais are the smugglers. In order to protect their own identities, they often warn migrants to delete their phone histories before they reach the U.K.

In 2018, the U.K. Border force paid £133,000 to Cellebrite — an Israeli surveillance company that builds mobile phone extraction technology — to scrape phones for evidence of migrant journeys. Similar payments of £335,000 were made to Swedish extraction company Micro Systemation, according to an analysis by Privacy International. Cellebrite markets its technology as able to “audit a person’s journey to identify suspicious activity prior to arrival.” 

Running down one side of Lipp’s road is a 20-foot-high fence. It’s there to keep people out of what used to be a migrant campsite. “There used to be trees all along the street,” Lipp said. “But they cut them down.” 

This is true all over Calais. The local government has deforested large areas, to make it more difficult for migrants to hide and easier for police to spot them.

In addition to the fence, a large CCTV camera has been installed a few doors down from Lipp’s house. “I’m sure it’s for me,” she said, as the camera swiveled round to follow a passing car. 

At a heavily securitized truck stop just outside Calais, razor wire, 360-degree cameras and spotlights circle the vehicles. Police vans are stationed there, and at other locations like it, 24 hours a day. A guard buzzed me in to meet Stuart and Tina Malcolm, who were eating a full English breakfast with their young son, while they waited for a ferry back to Dover. The British couple run a business specializing in cross-border removals. 

“I’ve been coming here for about 20 years. The fencing is the major change. Before, you could see the beaches, you could see everything. I know it’s necessary, but it does feel a bit Berlin Wall,” said Stuart.

 “The personality of Calais has been completely wiped out,” Tina added, remembering childhood day trips, when she and her family would eat mussels and fries. “It used to feel really welcoming, but now it feels cold and uninviting.” 

In 2015, Stuart found three young men from Mali hiding in his truck, after he arrived in the U.K. Preventing stowaways is a constant worry. British hauliers face fines of up to £2,000 for each migrant found in their vehicles. He described how, just one week earlier, he had spotted people trying to open the rear of his truck at a roundabout near the port. He showed me the scrabbled fingermarks, still visible in the dust on the door. 

“The desperation you could see in them, trying to get on the back of these trucks… it’s the scary aspect of them putting their lives at risk just to cross a body of water,” Tina said.

Both described the painstaking journey their vehicles make through the border zone.  Before they can board a ferry, trucks are scanned with X-rays, heartbeat monitors, carbon dioxide detectors and, finally, checked by dogs. Privacy campaigners have described such technology as a multi-million-euro industry that profits from the misery of migrants. But, for Stuart, it is reassuring. 

“I had an exhaust gas recirculation valve in the van. I was blowing exhaust fumes into the back. You wouldn’t want somebody in there,” he said. “The technology, when it works and is used properly, is safer, and quicker.”

Many privacy advocates believe that the border zones traversed by migrants provide ideal testing grounds for surveillance technology that will, eventually, affect the rest of us. Most migrants are undocumented and, therefore, unlikely to assert, or even be aware of their rights. Some sections of the local community, convinced that they are at the epicenter of a crisis, might also be more accepting than others elsewhere. 

“Migrants have a lot more pressing concerns than their own privacy. But I think those of us who can challenge the closing down of their rights, should,” said Chris Cole, director of the UK.-based organization Drone Watch. He argues that Calais and the south coast of England constitute a beta version of a future when “the amount of surveillance will just rocket” for everyone.

The skies over the English Channel, where Spitfires and Messerschmitts duelled during the Battle of Britain, are now the preserve of a different kind of military aircraft. In August 2020, Patel appointed a new “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander,” Dan O’Mahoney, tasked with “saving lives by making dangerous Channel crossings unviable.” As of January 2021 a new command center, based in Dover, has been using drones to keep a watchful eye over the sea and search for people arriving by boat. 

The Ministry of Defence has provided the U.K. Border Force with state-of-the-art hardware including three planes and the Thales Watchkeeper winged drone. In August 2020, the Ministry of Defence announced it had deployed a Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime plane to spot migrant vessels. Later that year former British Army officer James Cowan told a U.K. parliamentary committee that the deployment of large aircraft like the Poseidon, which has a quoted flying cost of £35,000 ($47,000) per hour, was like using “a very expensive hammer” to crack a walnut.

In contrast, Cowan went on to explain that drones provide better and much cheaper support. “The English Channel has proved to be an excellent opportunity to test the utility of two fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles,” he said. 

The Home Office has not published the number of drones in operation over the Channel, citing security concerns. 

“As part of our ongoing operational response, we continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats,” a Home Office spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

In France, the rollout of drones has been less smooth. In July, Darmanin said he had asked Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to help the country “deal with” the coastline of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. 

According to the former director general of U.K. Border Force, Tony Smith, France has not been keen on using air surveillance assistance from the British government. “There has been a reluctance to accept technology from us. They didn’t want any of our surveillance capability.” he told the Telegraph newspaper in July

The use of drones was actually banned by the French privacy watchdog in January, in a ruling that found their use to monitor compliance with coronavirus restrictions would be a violation of citizen rights during the pandemic. Darmanin, however, is still pushing for more aerial surveillance of migrants. On Sunday, following the crisis talks with European ministers, he announced that a manned Frontex surveillance plane would now patrol the channel “day and night.”

“We have to prevent lives being lost. We have to prevent chaos coming to our external borders,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said.

As winter sets in, there’s a common feeling among migrants in Calais that time is running out. The days are getting colder, the sea more treacherous, and staying in and around the city is becoming harder. Most of the people I spoke to said they were battling colds and infections as a result of sleeping outdoors, night after night. 

Last week, I got a text message from Jackson, one of the South Sudanese boys I met near the fort. He had made it to the U.K. in a small boat, and was, for the time being, safely installed in accommodation in a Kent seaside town. He had managed to get a new phone in Calais, which the Home Office took for inspection when he arrived. “They gave it back to us, finally,” he texted me. 

“What about Gago?” I asked. 

“He’s still in Calais,” came the reply.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda