the town of Wimereux facing tragedies

the town of Wimereux facing tragedies

At least five people died, including a 4-year-old child, during attempts to cross the Channel, in Wimereux, on the night of Monday April 22 to Tuesday April 23. Last week, Le Pèlerin went to the seaside resort which is getting used to these departures, with sometimes dramatic consequences.

They don't even make a slight stop next to the orange life jacket washed up on the beach. Captivated by the postcard landscape drawn by the cobalt blue sea, the couple of Dutch tourists pass this trace of immigration without paying it the slightest attention. When questioned, the woman responds, taken aback: “I thought the migrants were in Calais?” Faced with intensifying police pressure and surveillance systems at the port and the Channel Tunnel, more and more candidates for exile are moving away from the port city to begin the risky crossing of the strait aboard 'a simple inflatable boat.

With 36,000 identified illegal immigrants having attempted to leave in 2023, routes to the United Kingdom are swarming all over the coastline of the Opal Coast. About thirty kilometers from Calais, the wild beach of the Slack dunes, bordered by the seaside resorts of Ambleteuse and Wimereux (Pas-de-Calais), constitutes a new starting point towards England. The gendarmes regularly patrol the dunes, where migrants can hide for hours before embarking towards the presumed El Dorado, 40 km as the crow flies.

Cameras installed along the coast also try to identify smuggler networks. At night, residents of the coast hear the drone of the helicopter of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

Repeated shipwrecks

The first departures date back three years. The mayor of Ambleteuse still remembers it. It was shortly after the start of his mandate, in the middle of the summer season. “For a month, the police called me every night to report shipwrecks,” says Stéphane Pinto (Nouveau Centre). On site, he discovers each time “the sadness and misery of the world”: Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians… soaked to the skin and taken back to Calais by the police.

The only consolation for this local elected official was being able to offer biscuits and blankets to the survivors, or a short warm respite, inside the village hall. Stéphane Pinto gets lost in his thoughts when he evokes the look of this little girl begging him to let her go. “I don’t want you to drown,” he replied. Since then, these alerts have punctuated his daily life. “I even hope for stormy weather,” slips this former sailor without emphasis.

In the region, we now look at the weather through this prism. “You won't see any this week, it's not 'migrant time'”, says Frédéric, his voice muffled by the rough waves, barely visible despite the flashlight screwed onto his cap. Midnight is approaching and it is pitch black. For this surfcasting enthusiast (fishing in the waves), the best time to set the hook in this cold water; but it is difficult to imagine an overloaded inflatable boat taking to the sea. However, it often meets people. “Once,” he says, “a mother became frightened when she saw the stormy sea. The smuggler snatched her baby, threatening to throw him into the water if she did not climb in! The traffickers make her take risks. these poor people!”

Crossings at any time

This fifty-year-old is no longer the only one who can bear witness to such scenes. Crossings are increasingly taking place during the day, under the eyes of residents. “From the window of my house, I have already seen migrants running towards the sea carrying a boat,” says Colombe, 9 years old. On weekends, she sees them walking single file on the road when she goes to the bakery with her parents. On the way back, the family distributes baguettes.

The two worlds intersect in a semblance of banality. “They pass by without disturbing,” notes a waitress from Wimereux behind her counter. In clear blue skies, with no wind, you can count several hundred roaming this wealthy town of 7,000 inhabitants with colorful Anglo-Norman style houses. The police, installed in the beach car park, only intervene when they embark on an illegal crossing.

In Ambleteuse, these same candidates for departure buy provisions at the corner shop where the couple of traders bring them in in small groups. Some voices are worried about this presence. Like a baker from Wimereux who prefers to keep his name quiet. He installed chains at the entrance to his business. “When I work at the bakery, at night, they ask me for croissants. I'm alone in my shop, you never know what could happen,” he explains.

Further on, at a mussel breeder, the subject fuels conversations between the employees, wearing rubber boots up to the top of their thighs. “For the past year, they have been great,” comments one of them, supporting his point with a gesture of his thumb. “Before, they were more aggressive.” Everyone nods in agreement. “But why do we have to keep them if they don’t want to stay with us?” asks another. Other villagers are concerned about the waste left in the Slack dunes, a protected natural site where one should, in principle, not venture.

Sometimes lifeless bodies

If candidates for exile are now part of the landscape for most residents, some discover with amazement the extent of the comings and goings. During an aperitif, Marie-Édith's guests, coming from Lille (North), saw around fifty people climbing into an inflatable boat, not far from the bathers. “Yes, it’s a migrant boat,” she responds simply to her friends. “But for us, life goes on. We continued to drink our drinks and eat peanuts…” says the resident, suddenly disturbed as she recounts this scene which has become commonplace.

A few months ago, while jogging on the beach, Ambroise came across a hearse coming to pick up a body. On January 14, five migrants died off the coast of Wimereux. From now on, smugglers operate in summer and winter. The tragedy shook the local residents; some, in response, decided to organize themselves around a collective to bring food and comfort in the event of a shipwreck. “We cannot stay without doing anything,” confides Sylvie Marichal, one of the co-founders of L’Escale.

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