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A refugee lights a fire to keep warm at daybreak on Nov. 26, in Dunkirk, France.Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

Aland Sarwar smiles broadly as he jumps up from the fire he’s sitting beside with a few friends. “Finally, I get to speak American,” he says with a laugh.

Mr. Sarwar, 20, stands carefully in the squishy mud that surrounds the fire and his nearby tent. It’s one of dozens of flimsy shelters scattered along a dirt path on the outskirts of Dunkirk in northern France. Nearby, hundreds of other men – from far-off places like Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Somalia – mill about in front of fires they’ve lit along an abandoned railway that runs next to a busy highway. There’s no clean water here, no toilets, and the only food comes a couple of times a week from charity workers who also bring portable showers, the odd razor and a generator to power up cellphones.

Dubbed “Loon Beach,” this is one of the largest migrant camps between Calais and Dunkirk and it’s populated almost exclusively with young men eager to try anything to get to Britain. It’s from here that a group of people set out across the English Channel on Wednesday in an overloaded dinghy. At least 27 drowned, including three children and a pregnant woman. The only two survivors remain in hospital in Calais.

At least 2,500 migrants live in similar camps along the coastline, although no one is sure of the exact figure. What is clear is that the number of people crossing the Channel has soared. More than 26,600 have risked the dangerous journey so far this year, according to Britain’s Home Office. That’s up from 8,410 in 2020 and 1,850 in 2019.

To an outsider, it’s hard to understand why anyone would risk their lives on such a perilous quest. What is it about going to the U.K. that has led so many people to put their lives in danger? But spend a day talking to migrants at Loon Beach and listening to those who work with them, and it’s easy to see why the reason for crossing isn’t straightforward.

Many simply have few other options.

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Under the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive – which is usually Greece, Italy, Spain or, in recent months, Poland. If they are found in another EU member state, they’ll be sent back to that first country. As a result, migrants living around Calais can’t apply for asylum in France if they wanted to because they will be immediately deported. But because of Brexit, Britain isn’t bound by the Dublin Regulation, and migrants won’t be automatically returned if they can get there.

There’s also the issue of language. Many of the migrants speak English, not French, and some have extended family in Britain. Others have the impression that it’s easier to find work in Britain – legally or illegally – than in France. That’s an argument French officials raised this week when they criticized Britain’s lax labour laws, which they said lures migrants to cross the Channel. British officials reject the criticism and blame France for not doing more to stop the crossings.

Migrants “also don’t feel welcome here,” said Anna Richel, a co-ordinator with Utopia56, a French non-profit organization that provides emergency help to migrants in Calais and Dunkirk. Ms. Richel said police regularly destroy migrant camps and tear up the tents. Loon Beach only emerged a few weeks ago after police bulldozed a much larger camp near a shopping mall. “The police moved them to hide them,” Ms. Richel said of the migrants. “They aren’t considered as humans.”

She and other aid workers say tougher enforcement has only pushed migrants to take further risks, and to rely more on smugglers. “The more police there is, the more people are going to seek the service of people who are professional at avoiding the police,” said Pierre Roques, manager of l’Auberge des migrants in Calais, which provides food, clothing and other supplies to migrants. Mr. Roques said the only solution is for Britain and France to work out a safe-passage system, where asylum claims can be properly reviewed.

Mr. Sarwar, a Kurd from Iraq, is among those who won’t stop trying to cross. “It is hard to get to the U.K., but I have to try,” he said. He speaks decent English and no French, and he’s sure that the Kurdish community in the U.K. is larger than in France.

He arrived in Dunkirk about a month ago by way of Belarus, Poland and Germany. And he’s already made two failed attempts at crossing the Channel.

Last week, he joined 22 other migrants on a six-metre dinghy. They got about five kilometres out to sea before the engine conked out. They called Britain’s 999 emergency number but were told they were in France. Then French officials said they were in Britain. The group spent three hours floating and frantically calling for help. They finally contacted an aid organization that pushed the French coast guard to launch a rescue operation.

During another crossing attempt before that, Mr. Sarwar jumped into the back of a truck with six other migrants. They got through two security checkpoints before police dogs sniffed them out. “We ran away and the police chased us,” he said. “It was like Tom and Jerry.”

Transportation isn’t the only danger. Mr. Sarwar had to negotiate with human smugglers for both failed attempts. Their fee – payable once he made it to Britain – was £2,500 (about $4,250), which he borrowed from family and friends. He’s been able to hang on to the money for now, but the smugglers have become more ruthless about payments, he said. This week, one migrant in the camp was shot in the leg by a smuggler in a dispute over fees.

Finding a safe alternative to the crossing has proven almost impossible. British and French officials have done little more than engage in diplomatic mud-slinging since the drownings. Both sides blame each other for the problem, and even a meeting by senior ministers to discuss a strategy has fallen apart.

Some migrants, like Muhammed Kosreat, are having second thoughts about taking to the sea. Mr. Kosreat, who is from Iraq, lost a friend in the drowning on Wednesday and has been devastated by the tragedy. Just 17 years old, he’s tried 11 times to take a boat across the channel. Each time something went wrong, from a faulty engine to bad weather and zealous police. “I don’t think I’ll try by boat again – it’s too dangerous,” he said in halting English.

But he’s still as eager as ever to get to Britain, he said – he’ll just find another way. “Britain for me is life.”

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