France warns of surge in migrant attempts to reach Britain by boat

French authorities have warned of a spike in migrants attempting the dangerous crossing of the English Channel by boat to reach Britain, which could reflect fears the border will be shut after Brexit.

France warns of surge in migrant attempts to reach Britain by boat
Last week a group of 17 Iranian migrants stole a fishing boat from a French port and managed to reach the harbour at Dover. Photo: AFP
Maritime police rescued 18 people in two separate rescue operations overnight, bringing to 30 the number of attempted crossings so far this year.
“But 17 of those are since October,” said Captain Ingrid Parrot, a spokeswoman for the French maritime police based in Cherbourg.
“We're dealing with a situation that's getting worse,” she said, adding that France was reinforcing its patrols in the Channel.
Britain's interior ministry said Thursday that 14 people had been rescued overnight, bringing the total number to 78 in the last two weeks.
“We have stepped up deployments of our coastal patrol vessels along the South-East coast in light of recent events,” the ministry said.
Migrants have long massed along France's northern coast hoping to stow away on trucks heading for Britain, where many have family or believe they stand a better chance of getting asylum or finding a job.
But starting in 2016, officials began seeing attempts by migrants to use dinghies and inflatable rafts to cross the 33-kilometre (20-mile) Strait of Dover, one of the world's busiest shipping channels.
A total of 23 attempted crossings were reported that year, falling to just 13 in 2017, Parrot said. 
But the prospect of Britain's exit from the EU next March, which could lead to tighter controls on immigration, may be pushing more migrants to make an attempt by sea instead of trying to stow away on vehicles in Calais.
“We think they want to leave at all costs now because Brexit hasn't yet happened,” Parrot said.
Unseasonably mild weather in October may also be a factor in the recent increase, while security has also been progressively stepped up around the ports, making stowing away on trucks increasingly difficult.

Fears of collision

At around 2:00 am (0100 GMT) Thursday a tugboat spotted an inflatable raft carrying six men and a woman and escorted them toward England, where it was intercepted by Britain's Border Force some five kilometres off the coast.

About an hour later, a ferry alerted authorities to another dinghy in distress after its motor broke down, with 11 people on board.
French authorities were unable to establish communications and locate their precise location initially. They were later spotted by a navy helicopter and 
picked up by a French patrol boat.
“Four of them were suffering from hypothermia and transferred to the Calais hospital,” the authorities said in a statement, while the others were handed 
over to border police.
Last week a group of 17 Iranian migrants stole a fishing boat from a French port and managed to reach the harbour at Dover, a feat Parrot described as “unprecedented” since much smaller vessels are usually used.
Britain's interior ministry said all 78 people rescued since November 9 — including 24 people intercepted in three incidents on one day last week — 
also claimed to be Iranian.
The attempted crossings are especially risky given the heavy boat traffic in the Channel, sustained high winds and extremely cold water.
“Nobody should put their life at risk attempting to smuggle themselves into the UK across the Channel,” the British foreign ministry said, adding that 
such attempts remain “relatively rare.”
But so far no migrant drownings have been reported since 2016, Parrot said.
“Our biggest fear is a collision with a bigger boat,” she said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.