At makeshift camps between Dunkirk and Calais on France”s northern coast migrants are digging in, waiting for their chance to make a dash across the English Channel, despite the deaths of at least 27 people last week when their boat sank trying to make the journey.
About 150 young Kurdish men and a smattering of families are camping on a disused railroad line near Dunkirk in hopes of escaping the damp ground below.
Alongside a collection of green and blue tents, migrants pull hoods over their heads, hunch shoulders inside winter jackets, and huddle next to small fires to stay warm as temperatures hover around 4 degrees Celsius.
The smell of burning plastic hangs in the air as they use anything they can find as fuel.
Police have stepped up patrols in recent days and the weather has worsened, making this a bad time to attempt a crossing.
But most migrants say the tragedy will not prevent them from climbing into a flimsy inflatable boat packed with up to 50 people in hopes of reaching Britain.
A 22-year-old migrant from Iran, who identified himself only as Kawa, has spent the last six days in Denmark with his father, where he said he never felt free because they constantly had to report to police and other authorities.
Now, they want to reach England, and eventually Canada.
“I am not afraid of anything. I am not afraid of water, not afraid of dying. I’m sorry to say, but we are already dead. Nobody accepts us anywhere. We are useless. Look at these people,” Kawa said.
Last week’s disaster underscores the combination of dreams and despair that drives people to camp in drizzling rain for the chance to risk their lives at sea.
Since the deadly shipwreck last Wednesday, the UK has blamed France for not doing enough to stop the crossings.
But police patrols have become more active around the coast since the recent deaths, admitted 20-year-old Kurdish activist Amanj, who testified anonymously.
His father was recently jailed and his family does not know what happened to him. Amanj fears he could be next.
“Now the police are everywhere. They don’t let us board easily anymore. There are a lot of security checks on the beach now. Most migrants are waiting for the situation to return to normal, and then they will try to go to England,” he said.
However, migrants will have to pay smugglers about €3,000 for a place on an inflatable boat first.
Up to 50 people can be crammed onto this type of boat.
So far this year, more than 23,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel, up from 8,500 last year, according to British government figures.
Despite this increase, the number of people applying for asylum in Britain is still relatively low compared with other European countries.
‘Dangerous or not, I’m going to England’
About 25 kilometres to the west, at a camp outside Calais, migrants from Sudan kick a ball around a patch of bare ground and hang laundry on a fence in hopes it will dry in the weak sunshine.
Patrick dreams of reaching Liverpool and studying political science. He says he has tried to smuggle himself onto a vehicle heading for Britain every day for the past six months.
Now he is ready to try the boats if he can find the money.
“I want to go to England more than anything in the world. Dangerous or not, I’m going. I believe in that dream,” he says.
In Calais, aid groups have taken over a warehouse where they collect supplies like sleeping bags, food, and firewood that they distribute to migrants at designated spots around the city.
Back in the camps, men take off their shoes and nudge their feet as close to the campfires as possible trying to dry them off and stay warm.
Amid the despair, there is also determination.