Migrant boats crossing Channel in groups to 'overwhelm authorities'

Immigration Services Union chief says traffickers are overloading vessels, leading to deaths

Migrants in an overloaded boat leave Grand-Fort-Philippe, near Calais, to cross the English Channel to the UK. Reuters
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People smugglers running Channel crossings are sending groups of small boats to sea at the same time to make it more difficult for authorities to stop them all, an expert has said.

Lucy Moreton, head of the Immigration Services Union, told The National this change in strategy could, at least in part, be because French police have become more successful in intercepting single boats.

Ms Moreton that this shift to several boats being put to sea simultaneously has led to vessels being overloaded with larger numbers of migrants – making the crossing even more dangerous.

The strategy is, "you can’t catch all of us if we bunch together", she said.

The UK has agreed to pay France £478 million over the next three years in a bid to halt the crossings.

On Friday, Conservative MPs complained about the deal, saying Britain was not getting enough in return for the payments. The number of migrants authorities in France have stopped is reportedly fewer than last year. However, experts say that could be related to poor weather this summer, which has limited opportunities to cross.

According to a report in The Telegraph, official figures show that only 45.2 per cent, totalling 13,759migrants, have been stopped by French beach patrols since January. The number was down from 17,032, 45.8 per cent, compared to the same period last year.

ISU members, who are on the frontline of the UK's battle to stem the wave of migrants, started seeing an increase in the size of boat and the number of people onboard each of them last summer.

"The practice of everyone trying to go at once started this year," Ms Moreton said.

She said the strategy directly led to the deaths of six Afghan migrants last week, after their small boat capsized in the English Channel.

Four people have been charged with involuntary manslaughter over the incident.

Her comments came after it was revealed 444 people arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel in eight boats on Wednesday.

This takes the provisional total so far for 2023 to 17,234, according to Home Office data.

Border Force has reportedly been preparing for what it calls “red” days, when warm weather and calm seas are favourable for crossings – conditions which are expected to continue on the south coast into the weekend.

Ms Moreton said her members overwhelmingly feel that a better strategy would be to invest the many millions the UK is paying for schemes in France and Rwanda to improving resources here in the UK to speed up asylum application decisions.

"If we resource the systems in the UK properly, and not just the asylum decision making process - that typically takes between six months and a year.

"The majority of the delays are actually in the court system. The courts are overloaded," she said.

If the systems are resourced to enable the UK to take decisions within ideally six to eight weeks, but certainly less than six months, it "would become less of a draw for people who don’t have other reasons to come to the UK," she said.

"We feel, that if you are going to be here for years, you are going to be housed, fed, your children will be educated, your medical needs will be cared for [is a significant driver] And that will be the case for years," Ms Moreton told The National.

"That has to be a driver. There are lots of other drivers. I’m not suggesting that’s the only one. But that’s got to be quite a big pull."

There are many reasons people do travel to the UK, including family ties, or because they already speak English.

"There are lots of reasons behind it. There is not one simple easy answer to this.

"If there was, people would have done it before. And if you are going to spend all that money. And it’s millions upon millions into France, into Rwanda outsourcing the problem. Perhaps one alternative might be to spend that money in the UK.

"It’s the only thing we have control over."

Official figures recently revealed that more than 100,000 migrants have crossed the Channel on small boats from France to south-east England since Britain began publicly recording arrivals in 2018.

The route across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes has repeatedly proved perilous, with numerous boats capsizes and scores of migrants drowning in the waters over the past decade.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping the boats one of his top five priorities ahead of next year’s general election.

He was recently warned that he must look beyond Britain's borders to find a solution to the small boats crisis.

Experts told The National that collaboration with Europe and further afield, including trying to cut off migrants at source by helping to improve conditions in their homelands, was the only way he would reduce illegal migration.

Updated: August 18, 2023, 11:10 AM