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Under French coastguard’s eye, migrants cross into English waters

The UK is grappling with an influx of cross-Channel arrivals
The UK is grappling with an influx of cross-Channel arrivals - Copyright AFP Jack TAYLOR
The UK is grappling with an influx of cross-Channel arrivals - Copyright AFP Jack TAYLOR

Shortly after the sun rose Wednesday over the Channel, a small black dinghy weighed down by eight migrants crossed into UK waters, the latest illegal arrivals via this contentious route.

A French coastguard ship, “Jacques Oudart Fourmentin”, approached the maritime boundary with Britain before turning around and heading back.

Minutes later, just over three kilometres (two miles) into British waters, a UK lifeboat arrived, took the migrants aboard and set course for the southeast English port of Dover.

For many in Britain, the scene unfolding in the soft dawn light is a source of frustration and anger: France appearing to escort migrants into UK waters, and a charity then picking them up.

“The French boat will have been following it for hours,” said Matt Coker, the skipper of “Portia”, a 11-metre (36-foot) boat chartered by AFP to see first-hand the near-daily routine in the Channel. 

“They’re picking it up a mile from the beach,” he said of the French shadowing operation. 

“It’s had three-and-a-half hours to turn it around. I see it all the time — the escorting — and it annoys me.”

To illustrate his point, Coker opened an app on his mobile phone showing the Fourmentin’s hours-long path from near the French coastline to the maritime boundary where it left the small boat.

– ‘Stop the boats’ –

At a summit in Paris last month, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed a multi-million-pound pact designed to stop the illegal cross-Channel migration.

London will help pay for the deployment of hundreds of extra French law enforcement officers along its northern coast and for a detention centre there to cope with the number of migrants.

But on Wednesday, numerous UK border force and Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) vessels headed into one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes following reports of multiple small boats bound for Britain. For now, at least, little appears to have changed.

The UK has been grappling with a surge in cross-Channel arrivals for around five years. In 2022, the numbers topped 45,000, increasing the country’s asylum backlog.

Pledging to “stop the boats” this year, Sunak has unveiled draft legislation that would make such arrivals illegal and ineligible for asylum. Critics argue that will make Britain an international outlaw on refugee rights.

His government is also pressing ahead with controversial plans — currently stalled by legal challenges — to send thousands of asylum-seekers to Rwanda for processing and eventual resettlement there.

The latest cross-Channel journeys coincided with calm weather, but they follow weeks of stormy conditions that appear to have helped curb the number of arrivals so far this year.

The first three months of 2023 saw 3,793 migrants make the journey, 17 percent fewer than over the same period in 2022.

– ‘It’s a business’ –

However, British border officials appeared prepared for Wednesday’s increase, with a coastguard drone and aircraft visible in the skies above the grey waters.

Migrants could already be seen on Dover’s dockside at dawn, after a Border Force vessel ventured out in the early hours.

The small boat witnessed by AFP arriving into British waters had eight men on board, all wearing coats, hats and bright orange life-jackets. 

They initially waved at AFP photographers before motoring towards the RNLI lifeboat.

The lifeboat had radioed Coker minutes earlier to check on the welfare of the nearby migrants as the rescue vessel made its way at high speed from Dover.

Once it departed with the migrants aboard, another ship arrived to collect the discarded dinghy. It could be heard on open-wave radio frequencies confirming that it was the 98th such small boat it had retrieved so far this year.

Coker, 43, is from a family of sailors who has been navigating the Channel for more than two decades. The migrants arriving over the past five or six years had changed, he said.

There used to be more families, sometimes with children, attempting the perilous crossing.

But as the route has become increasingly popular with economic migrants from Albania — they made up around a third of arrivals last year — the arrivals now are predominantly young men, he said.

As organised crime groups on both sides of the Channel have expanded their operations, the boats have become more uniform — typically long, black dinghies.

But they are still ill-suited for making the treacherous crossing, which has claimed more than 50 lives since 2018.

“It’s just a business now,” concluded Coker.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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