Imam jailed in France for providing inflatable boats to help migrants get to Britain

He organised several crossings of the English Channel with the help of a Senegalese accomplice

DOVER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Uk Border Force boats patrol Dover Harbour as British immigration minister Caroline Nokes visits Uk Border force staff at Dover Marina on December 29, 2018 in Dover, England. The growing number of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel has been declared a "major incident" by UK home secretary Sajid Javid. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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An imam who gave inflatable boats to migrants to cross from France to England has been jailed.

The 39-year-old preacher, who has not been named, provided seven boats to help migrants cross the English Channel.

He organised the trips with a 29-year-old Senegalese man who was a worshipper at the mosque where he preached at in Rouen.

It comes just days after a record number of migrants were caught trying to reach British shores at the weekend when the emergency services had to rescue 74 migrants from eight dinghies.

A French court jailed the man, who is of Iranian origin and was granted political asylum in France, for two years on Monday.

His accomplice was jailed for nine months and was banned from visiting the northern French regions of Nord and Pas-de-Calais for three years.

Police launched an investigation into the pair in March after life jackets, wet pullovers and a rubber dinghy were discovered on a beach in northern France.

Officers then found two boats, three outboard engines and life jackets in the imam's house.

The two men, who were not previously known to the authorities, confessed to buying seven boats between December and April.

The preacher told the court that he went to a shop in Deulemont, on the border with Belgium, to buy boats for a person he identified only as Kamal.

Both defendants said they only found out later that the boats were being used by migrants for illegal Channel crossings.

"When I learnt that, I thought of the children on board and I told myself there could have been deaths," the Senegalese man told the court. The imam for his part said he was "ashamed".

Prosecutors said their explanations "did not reflect reality" and that the imam was regularly in the areas where the boats were found.

For years, thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia have attempted to reach Britain from the French port of Calais, the vast majority by trying to stow away on trucks crossing the Channel.

But there has been a recent rise in the number of migrants attempting to cross in boats, despite the risk of strong currents, cold waters and collisions in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

The latest figure for the number of migrants trying to cross the Channel since November is at least 672.

With more than 70 migrants attempting the journey just days ago, a local politician has called for action.

MP for Dover and Deal, Charlie Elphicke, said: "This is about much more than simply border security. It is about the exploitation of vulnerable people by criminal trafficking gangs - gangs that Britain and France must work together to catch and bring to justice.

"These journeys are also incredibly dangerous. Overcrowded boats with men, women & children aboard. The risk of a tragedy in the middle of the English Channel resulting in loss of life is very real. This is why the Home Office & France must act now to bring this crisis to an end."

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "Border Force is currently dealing with ongoing small boat incidents off the Kent coast."

In March, a French court jailed two Iraqis and an Iranian man for organising illegal migrant boat journeys across the Channel.

Britain's Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes called a spike in incidents in December "deeply concerning", after dozens of people were rescued after sailing from France in an inflatable boat.

French interior ministry figures show 276 people successfully reached British shores last year.