Migrant dinghies dodge France’s safety net to reach English shores



AMBLETEUSE, France, August 5 (Reuters) – At dawn on a beach in northern France, a dozen migrants waited for a police patrol to pass, then boarded a rubber dinghy quietly.

After a few minutes of struggling to start the engine, the group headed for the shores of England, gesturing to a man who had waded waist-deep in the water to push them off.

France and Britain agreed last month to deploy more police officers and invest in detection technology to prevent migrants from risking their lives crossing the English Channel, one of the busiest sea routes in the world. , on overloaded inflatable boats. Read more

But as the French police confiscate more dinghies and prevent more crossings, they can only reduce the flow of departures.

The migrants are too numerous, the shore too long and the smugglers too good to escape safety.

“We adapt all the time and migrants adapt to us,” said Mathilde Potel, the deputy prefecture of police in Calais, a migratory hotspot. The border “is always porous. As long as there is a passage, there will be migrants who will come to pass through England”.

France stepped up controls last year, setting up special police units with boats and drones to monitor the coasts from the dinghies.

But with Britain so close – the shore is about 30 km (20 miles) at the nearest point and its territorial waters even closer – many are still trying and many are passing through.

More than 130 km of beaches, sand dunes and cliffs constitute an immense territory to be controlled.

When security is tightened in one location, smugglers – who charge an average of around 2,000 euros ($ 2,400) per person – move to another, police said.

“They adapt and change very quickly,” said the captain of the gendarmerie Laurent Martin de Morestel. “We have 24/7 surveillance, but sometimes there are multiple attempts to start every three or four kilometers. We’ll stop one, two, three, four – but if we’re busy elsewhere, the fifth or sixth will come and go. “

The large rubber dinghies that carry dozens of migrants can be carried in the back of a pickup truck or large family car, then inflated in minutes and transported to the water’s edge.

There, the migrants, who often hide in the dunes, emerge and board, sometimes too quickly for the police to spot them.

The flag of France is seen as officers of the French gendarmerie patrol with a dinghy along the French coast near Calais, France on August 2, 2021. REUTERS / Pascal Rossignol

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France has stopped twice as many crossing attempts in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year, officials said.

From January to July, police stopped 481 crossings, while 412 small boats they know successfully reached British shores.

“Our goal is to stop them before they leave,” Gendarmerie captain Ludovic Caulier said on a police patrol boat. “Once they’re at sea, it’s basically too late.”

Officials all point out how dangerous the English Channel is.

England may seem close – on a clear day you can sail its shores from France – but the crossing is perilous, said Dominique Consille, the region’s sub-prefect.

The currents are strong and the boat traffic is intense. Overloaded dinghies often barely stay afloat and are at the mercy of the waves. Some people are drowning.

One morning this week, police picked up bright orange life jackets strewn on the beach, along with the remains of a dinghy that exploded shortly after leaving shore.

The 30 to 35 people who were on board managed to get back to the beach, said witness René Duquesnoy, who called the police after seeing the boat sink.

Chief Brigadier Patrice Vilielm, an Air Force pilot, said his team saw a small rubber dinghy about to collide with a large freighter. They told the ship to change course before disaster struck.

Despite the risks, more continue to flow.

Back on the beach in northern France, the rubber dinghy headed for the horizon. They had run out of space, so they had to leave several men on the shore.

“The boat, too small,” one of them told Reuters. He would try again another day.

($ 1 = 0.8442 euros)

Reporting by Pascal Rossignol Writing and additional reporting by Ingrid Melander Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Heavens

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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