Migrant crisis: Crossings continue despite Channel tragedy – as high-tech observation plane joins search effort | World news

A small crowd gathered, dragging their feet to warm up and speaking quietly. All are men, some in traditional Afghan clothing, others in jeans and sweaters; all thoughtful.

At the heart of the crowd is Safi, and in his hand a passport. It belonged to his uncle Muhammad, one of the victims of the tragedy of the boats in the English Channel last month, in which at least 27 people died.

Muhammad’s body was recovered from the water and brought here to the mortuary in Lille. And that’s why people are coming together now.

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Muhammad was one of 27 dead – and finally his body returns home to Afghanistan

In a few minutes, her uncle’s body will be extracted from here, along with those of three other victims, and taken to a mosque in the French city.

There will be tears and memories, and then the body will begin its journey back to Afghanistan. But before all that, Safi waits and talks.

“The UK helped the Afghan people by evacuating them but at least they were alive,” he says. “But here in the water there were Afghans dying and they didn’t help them.

“I am so sad today. It is such a sad day. It is so important that the bodies be returned to Afghanistan because some of their families still do not know they are dead.

“There is only one family member there who knows and we are in contact with them. It is important that they come back and be buried there.”

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Calais campfire
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Migrant camps are miserable – but remain busy even in winter

But if the deaths of these people could have served as a warning, it was not heard.

Boats still leave the coasts of northern France, overloaded with desperate people, and the squalid camps around Calais are always full.

There used to be a lull in winter, when the number of people attempting to cross the Channel fell to almost zero. But now that has changed.

Thanks to more sophisticated policing, it has become increasingly difficult for a person to smuggle across the Channel hidden in a vehicle, so the waterway has become the dominant choice at any time of the year.

And that’s how the French police intercepted boats late at night and early in the morning.

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Channel survivor remembers other people’s drowning

When we visited camps around Calais we spoke to a succession of people who all said they were considering trying to cross the Channel and seemed largely indifferent to the danger.

“If I die, then I die,” a man said to me, smiling at the side of the road. “I want to go to England. Everyone says England is very good.”

Some of these boats are apprehended by the French police, who have certainly increased their presence around the beaches. But many still enter the water, where they are difficult to spot.

Now, however, there is another level of oversight.

Tech on observation plane
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Spotting planes equipped with high-tech cameras are used to navigate the sea

Immediately after the drownings in the Channel, Frontex, the European border agency, agreed to send a plane to monitor areas in France, Belgium and Germany.

The aircraft is supplied by the Danish Air Force and fitted with a series of cameras that can comfortably see long distances in the dark, as well as sophisticated radar systems.

We saw him fly over us while filming on a beach at night. The next morning, we were at Lille airport to meet the crew on landing. Among them was Tim, one of the pilots.

“It’s not boring at all,” he told me. “Today, five and a half hours went by very quickly. It was the most interesting flight we’ve had so far – a lot has happened.

“From the moment we got to the plane this morning we were told that there were already boats in the water and as soon as we got out there we started to choose boats that we could relay to the maritime rescue coordination center.

The crew of the spotting plane
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Danish crew relay information to local teams in the field
The crew of the spotting plane
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Crew says their work is helping

“We could give them details on the number of people, where they are, in which direction they were going, the state of the boats.

“Then we also had a lot of people on the shore, preparing to get on boats and we could coordinate with the local police to reach them before they could get into the water and destroy the boats.”

This is exactly the kind of coordinated response that is designed both to stem the flow of people crossing migrants, but also to allay the anger of British politicians, foremost among them Priti Patel, who regularly complain that too little has was made to stop migrants leaving the French coasts and starting the journey to the United Kingdom.

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Migrants remain on the “road of death”

Now, with a plane flying overhead and more police on patrol, Europe (and, let’s be honest, it’s mostly France) is hoping to change the form of the argument, as well as prevent another tragedy.

And yet, the reality is, it’s not really a political story.

Around Calais you can see the groups of temporary camps that have arisen. These are miserable and sordid places populated by frightened and desperate people, who are here for one reason only – a burning desire to reach British soil.

As cold as it gets, this reality will not change.