Breakfast time in Dunkirk, and a human trafficker in a black top brazenly leads a large crowd of migrants along a street bustling with French shoppers buying their baguettes.
With all the confidence of an official tour guide, he leads his crowd to a local bus stop. There, the roughly 70 Iraqis and Iranians – some with small children on their shoulders – join him on board for the hour-long road trip to the beach where a black dinghy awaits to take them illegally to England.
This was the scene Wednesday morning at the French port, although many gendarmes were on patrol to stop this latest addition to the flow of illegal migrants crossing the Channel from France.
What we have witnessed shows that the migrant crisis on the northern coast of France is now spiraling out of control. The number of people reaching Britain has exceeded 31,000 this year, and historic Dunkirk – the scene of an iconic evacuation of more than 300,000 British and French soldiers during the war – is in the grip of traffickers who conduct their multi-million pound business with impunity and no fear of the authorities.
Migrants are driven from the large migrant camp outside Dunkirk to the nearby bus stop for the beach at Fort Des Dunes where the group waited to catch a boat to the UK
We watched the trafficker and his paying customers for four hours that day, first spotting the group walking briskly along a road leading from the migrant tent camp a few miles from Dunkirk.
We saw them reach the bus stop of a shopping mall on the outskirts of town. They waited there for a few minutes before boarding the C2 bus at 9.40am and traveling the four miles to Fort des Dunes in the nearby seaside town of Leffrinckoucke.
The bus was so full of migrants, all seats and standing taken, that French people wishing to board at Dunkirk and at stops along the way had to wait for the next bus.
When I spoke to the bus driver, a young Frenchman with a hipster beard, to ask him if he thought his passengers were really migrants, he replied clearly: “Clandestines going to England”. Rolling his eyes wearily, he warned me not to get on, but to wait for the next bus on the same route 15 minutes later, with fewer passengers.
An hour later, after following his C2 bus out of Dunkirk, we watched the gang of smugglers get off at a stop on a narrow street in Fort des Dunes called Rue du 2 juin 1940, named to commemorate the army’s own military deaths. France at Leffrinckoucke during the Dunkirk War. evacuation.
The migrants got out of the vehicle, still led by the trafficker who carefully guided them onto the road through a zebra crossing. They headed for a tiny footbridge spanning an intercity railway line, which descends into a housing estate in Leffrinckoucke. Always in front of the trafficker, the migrants passed merrily in front of terraced houses with Gallic names like the one celebrating the novelist Emile Zola.
Migrants by boat leave France for the nearby Fort Des Dunes beach.
A quarter of an hour later they had reached the wooden gate to a nature park full of trees, a favorite of local dog walkers and hikers, called Dune Dewulf.
A myriad of tracks lead through the park to the mile-long town beach from where, on a clear day, you can see the White Cliffs of Dover.
It was as the group passed through the gate that we last saw the trafficker in his black top.
The migrants, however, left the park three hours later, running across the sand towards the inflatable dinghy they knew would be there because gangs of smugglers had pinned the location on their mobile phones.
They inflated the boat and by 1.40pm at least 50 of the migrants could be spotted on board in red life jackets as they headed for England amid French sailing boats and windsurfers. Maritime tracking stations, monitored that day by the Mail, show that no French navy rescue vessel stopped them en route.
This group is believed to have reached the south coast of England on one of 15 boats which brought 667 migrants to the UK on Wednesday from the beaches of northern France.
If the journey we followed was unique, it would be worrying enough. But later that day the Mail saw another group of 40 migrant clients, also led by their smuggler guide, traveling by bus from Dunkirk to Fort des Dunes.
This group got off the bus at the last stop, a terminus next to the beach, before passing tourists eating ice cream in woods with high dunes overlooking the sea before they too disappeared.
The region is a smuggler’s paradise. It is dotted with brick fortifications, built in the 19th century to protect France from invasion, but still bearing the scars of the 1940 evacuation battle. These fortifications are now used to hide migrants. Above the beach, they are also perfect lookout posts where traffickers can spot police patrolling the seaside in four-wheel-drive vehicles in an attempt to stop launches.
Sue Reid: “The region is a paradise for traffickers. It is dotted with brick fortifications, built in the 19th century to protect France from invasion, but still bearing the battle scars of the 1940 evacuation.
Last year, the mayor of Leffrinckoucke, Olivier Ryckebusch, said his town was overwhelmed by the number of migrants waiting to cross into the UK. “We feel helpless,” he said, before asking President Macron for emergency funds to clean up the mess illegal travelers have left in the woods and the beach.
“We see on the ground the debris of transport vehicles: packing boats, life jackets, and their old cans of gasoline (to make a fire). Families wait to board from here on the beach for England. Afterwards, we have to pick up the garbage and dispose of it in our city, one way or another.
But Leffrinckoucke is not alone. Thursday at seven o’clock in the morning, we learned that the traffickers had changed tactics, as they often do.
They had moved their launch operations overnight to Grand Fort Philippe, a beach on the other side of Dunkirk.
We were there early and saw line after line of migrants running from the sand dunes and nearby trees towards the beach where they were desperately trying to inflate the boats.
This time, the French police had arrived first. They moved quickly to puncture the dinghies, rendering them unseaworthy. The rubber hulks were left lying in the sand as their future occupants pathetically tried to drag what was left – the outboard motors and the metal supports at the base of the boats – into the dunes.
It was a triumph of sorts for law enforcement. But the traffickers, who have been on this coast for 20 years now, are not easily beaten: they have organized “a military operation on land and at sea down to the smallest detail”, a senior officer in the Dunkirk gendarmerie tells us. “They run the show.”
It’s a game of cat and mouse, of course. And, for now, only the mouse wins. For if each of the migrants on the 9.40am bus from Dunkirk paid the prevailing fare of at least £2,000 to the trafficker’s tour guide for his trip to Britain, he would be a very wealthy man today.