The English Channel looked as flat as a child’s boating lake in the days leading up to Easter. No surprise then that the Border Force reported a series of crafts intercepted off the coast of Sussex and Kent, with an aggregate number of over 250 would-be migrants identified as attempting the crossing over the course of eight days. All have been taken to Dover where they underwent medical checks and were then detained for immigration process. 

PICTURE: Dave Young

In the early hours of 4th April, 53 people – said to be Iranian, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Syrian and Yemeni nationals – were taken from four boats in the Channel and brought to immigration authorities in Dover. 

On 7th April, four more dinghies carrying a total of 63 migrants were similarly arrested on the water with the same outcome. A fifth boat carrying a further nine was arrested on the same day outside the port of Calais and returned to France.

On 8th April, the Home Office reported four separate incidents, including an inflatable intercepted by a Border Force vessel at 2am with 16 people on board, another early morning boat with 14 more, and a boat sighted off Winchelsea Beach in the early afternoon and later found at Rock-a-Nore. A total of 23 migrants, believed to have landed from this boat and presenting themselves as Iranian, were detained by Hastings police and handed over to the Border Force.

The next day two more boats were identified in separate incidents. From the first, 13 people were taken back to France by a Border Force vessel and a French warship. At about 6:30 that morning, another boat was intercepted off the Kent coast, and 13 men and three women – said to be Iranian, Iraqi and Libyan nationals – were taken to Dover.

On Easter Sunday, 12th April, another four boats carrying a total of 72 migrants were intercepted. 

Tony Eastaugh, the Home Office’s director for crime and enforcement, has so far given no public explanation for the surge in cross-Channel ventures, but claimed that extra police patrols were being deployed on French beaches “on a daily basis”, as well as specialist vehicles, drones and detection equipment. “We are working around the clock each day with the NCA (National Crime Agency) and French law enforcement agencies to arrest and dismantle organised crime gangs in France,” Mr Eastaugh said.

He has also maintained that the UK will seek to return anyone “with no right to be in the country”. However, this pronouncement seems likely to have limited practical application.

According to official figures, the number of would-be migrants landing or brought ashore from small craft crossing the Channel in the whole of last year was just under 1,900. The majority of such entrants have, historically, been found to have good claims for asylum under existing legislation. In any event, only about 125 were returned to France, Belgium or other European countries in 2019. 

One reason for Iranians in particular to take this route, according to charities which support asylum seekers, is that they tend to have greater financial resources than other nationals, and are therefore able to pay smuggling gangs the going rate for places on board. As most of them do subsequently succeed with asylum claims, a successful crossing – which means effectively getting beyond the sea area of French patrols and into the ambit of the UK Border Force – will open a clear, if tardy, route to establishing eventual legal status. (Those with less favourable prospects for asylum claims may prefer a stowaway option in lorries or container ships, giving them more chance of slipping in undetected, then maintaining themselves in the shadow economy).

As to the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been global concern at the fate of refugees in camps around the world – assumed to be vulnerable to mass infection, with their populations subject to overcrowding, under-nourishment and lack of medical cover. And, as it happens, Iran has itself been amongst the nations hardest hit. Whether those are factors in the recent cross-Channel surge is not apparent. But the UK Border Force is taking no chances. A Home Office spokesman commented: “In line with Public Health England guidance, Border Force and all operational staff have the relevant Personal Protective Equipment available to them. Migrants are not specifically tested for coronavirus, but are continuously monitored for symptoms.”

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