If they succeed, the next time they touch land will be in England.
More than 30,000 migrants have attempted to cross the Channel by sea this year, around three times more than 2020, as authorities have clamped down on other routes, including crossings by train and cargo trucks. Successful crossings have encouraged a growing number of migrants to attempt the journey via the Dover Strait.
But with temperatures now near the freezing point on many nights, Rahmoni and others in migrant encampments along the Channel sense they could be stuck all winter unless they attempt to cross soon.
Rahmoni has spent the last days trying to imagine it — and trying to forget about the two men who slept in his tent before he moved in. On Wednesday morning, the pair had embarked on the perilous journey from France to England. Their phones have been dead since.
Later that day, a fisherman spotted lifeless bodies and a capsized inflatable boat in the Dover Strait. Over the next hours, rescuers pulled 27 dead or dying people out of the water — 17 men, seven women and three minors.
It was the worst migrant tragedy in the English Channel in years. Only one victim, a 24-year old Kurdish woman from Iraq who wanted to join her husband-to-be in Britain, has so far been identified.
Rahmoni said he is certain the men who slept in his tent were on the boat, too. Yet he said he has no doubts that he will attempt the same — the last leg of a journey for which his uncle has already paid around $3,400 to smugglers.
“I’m afraid,” he said, speaking at a migrant camp near Dunkirk on Saturday. “What can I do?”
The last time he spoke to his family was about 20 days ago. Without a phone, he may not get another chance to talk them before he attempts to cross.
In the wake of Wednesday’s tragedy, France and Britain have sparred over who is to blame and how more deaths can be prevented. The British want joint police patrols on French soil and the immediate return of migrants who make it across the Channel.
On Sunday, European interior ministers plan to meet in Calais to discuss options. But notably absent will be British Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose invitation was pulled by the French after Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron that rehashed many of the proposals the French had already rejected.
The French say they are fighting Britain’s battles, and they say other countries need to take responsibility for having allowed smuggling networks fester for too long.
“When you have two police officers in a car and 30, 40 or 50 migrants who are leaving, the balance of power isn’t in the police’s favor,” agreed François Guennoc, president of L‘Auberge des Migrants aid group in Calais. “They have no other choice than to let the boat go.”
View from Dover
Across the Channel in the English port of Dover, the skies Saturday were the same battleship gray, the sea state queasy with chop. Locals on the dockside said it was a quiet day. Few would attempt the crossing from France, because of strong winds and sea height.
At Tug Haven in the Dover port, where the migrants rescued by Britain’s Border Force or Royal Lifeboats are first taken, the pontoons were quiet — though there was evidence of the deflated rafts gathered in past operations.
The lights of Calais — 25 miles across the Channel — are visible at night.
But looks are deceiving. Currents are always there, and wind and waves can kick up in minutes, in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
Kim Bryan, a member of the activist group Channel Rescue, said the threat by the British home secretary to deploy U.K. Border Force patrol boats to “push back” migrant rafts would be challenged in the courts as a violation of maritime law and human rights protections.
Bryan’s group and news organizations have posted video of the Border Force in the Channel practicing to deploy jet skis to encircle a raft and stop its voyage.
Activists point out that the number of asylum applications are down in Britain — even as the number of people detained in the Channel crossing has tripled.
They say fewer migrants try to illegally board trucks that arrive via ferry or tunnel — the traditional route for illegal crossings — but now take to the sea.
Maddie Harris, a member of the group Humans for Rights Network, said the migrants have often described “an absolutely terrifying journey” across the Channel.
A few miles away from Dover on the English coast, Juliette Walford also looked out to sea, alert to illegal crossings.
She told Sky News, “I think we feel slightly invaded, I think we feel quite scared because there is no regulations.
“I would like to see a proper secure process; if these people are running from war, then we need to help them, but there are a lot of migrants that are not running from war.”
On the French side, French police officers on Saturday patrolled the Escardines Beach near a World War II-era military installation. After 30 minutes, the French police patrol had already moved on.
A 67-year-old local resident, Marie Mikolajczak, has seen large groups of migrants in swimming vests pass by her little village.
“What really breaks my heart is to see the women and children,” she said, describing one moment when she spotted a child wearing two different kinds of shoes on each foot.
French and British aid groups claim the French government has worsened migrants’ living conditions in and around Calais. Every few days, officers confiscate migrants’ belongings, including sleeping bags and tents. There are no toilets, and no showers.
That strategy has so far failed to deter migrants. In some cases, the police tactics have made migrants only more determined to cross to England.
For many, England is the last chance
Rahmoni, the 21-year old Iranian student, said Britain was always his final destination. He traveled overland to France. In Iran, Rahmoni said he faced persecution as a member of the Kurdish minority.
He arrived at the camp near Dunkirk in mid-November. While most migrants here are young men and many have a Kurdish background, there are some families, too.
Near Rahmoni’s tent, a family from Iraq was walking down a muddy road on Saturday, uncertain about where to go next.
The couple had come to France with their sons, 7 and 12 years old. They are uncertain if or when they would be able to try the Channel crossing. The father soon asked questions about other places in Europe the family could go to.
Guennoc, of L‘Auberge des Migrants, said many migrants are in Calais because their asylum applications in Europe have been rejected, or because they may risk being deported back to the country where they first entered the European Union if they do apply for asylum in France.
“People aren’t in Calais because they are dreaming of the El Dorado,” said Guennoc, referring to remarks by France’s interior minister who spoke of the “El Dorado of England.”
“They’re here because it’s in a way their last chance,” Guennoc said.
One day after they had mourned the deaths of at least 27 people in the English Channel, locals, activists and migrants assembled in central Calais to mourn another victim on Friday night.
About 100 people stood silently in a circle, as the wind extinguished the memorial candles and tore at a banner that listed more than 300 migrants who are believed to have died trying to cross the English Channel over the past two decades. Some people cried. Others stared at the banner with blank eyes and exhaustion.
Masmos, a 30-year-old Sudanese migrant who gave only one name, said he had come to the commemoration because he would like others to be there for him, too, if he dies trying to reach England.
Booth reported from Dover, England.