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Europe’s refugee crisis

France warns of surge in migrants trying to reach Britain by boat

  • Dozens of crossing attempts have been made this year, with authorities fearing Brexit is spurring on a rush before a perceived UK immigration crackdown
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 11:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 11:52am

French authorities warned on Thursday of a spike in migrants trying the dangerous crossing of the English Channel by boat to reach Britain, which could reflect fears the border will be shut after Brexit.

Maritime police rescued 18 people in two separate operations overnight, taking to 30 the number of crossing attempts so far this year.

“But 17 of those are since October,” said Captain Ingrid Parrot, a spokeswoman for the French maritime police based in Cherbourg. “We’re dealing with a situation that’s getting worse.”

Parrot said France was reinforcing its patrols in the Channel.

Britain’s Home Office said on Thursday that 14 people had been rescued overnight, taking the total to 78 in the last two weeks.

“We have stepped up deployments of our coastal patrol vessels along the southeast coast in light of recent events,” the department said.

Migrants have long massed along France’s northern coast hoping to stow away on trucks heading for Britain, where many have family or believe they stand a better chance of getting asylum or finding a job.

But starting in 2016, officials began seeing attempts by migrants to use dinghies and inflatable rafts to cross the 33km (20-mile) Strait of Dover, one of the world’s busiest shipping channels.

Twenty-three crossing attempts were reported that year, falling to just 13 in 2017, Parrot said.

But the prospect of Britain’s exit from the EU next March, which could lead to tighter controls on immigration, may be pushing more migrants to try to cross by sea instead of hiding in vehicles in Calais.

“We think they want to leave at all costs now because Brexit hasn’t yet happened,” Parrot said.

Mild weather in October may also be a factor in the recent increase, while security has also been progressively stepped up around the ports, making stowing away on trucks more difficult.

At around 2:00am on Thursday a tug spotted an inflatable raft carrying six men and a woman and escorted them towards England, where it was intercepted by Britain’s Border Force some 5km off the coast.

About an hour later, a ferry alerted authorities to another dinghy in distress after its motor broke down that had 11 people on board.

French authorities were initially unable to find them. They were later spotted by a navy helicopter and picked up by a French patrol boat.

“Four of them were suffering from hypothermia and transferred to the Calais hospital,” the authorities said in a statement, while the others were handed over to border police.

Last week a group of 17 Iranian migrants stole a fishing boat from a French port and managed to reach Dover, a feat Parrot described as “unprecedented” since smaller vessels are usually used.

Britain’s Home Office said all 78 people rescued since November 9 – including 24 intercepted in three incidents on one day last week – also claimed to be Iranian.

The crossings are especially risky given the heavy shipping traffic in the Channel, high winds and cold water.

“Nobody should put their life at risk attempting to smuggle themselves into the UK across the Channel,” the British foreign ministry said, adding that such attempts remain “relatively rare”.

Parrot said no migrant drownings have been reported since 2016.

“Our biggest fear is a collision with a bigger boat,” she said.